Beware the Expert, cont.

From the Science of Willpower by Kelly McGonigal:

Nevertheless, research has consistently shown that most people are not fans of reality when it comes to estimating their own abilities. We tend to overestimate our skills. And, in a cruel twist, the less ability you actually have, the more you think you do.

This common cognitive bias, known as the Dunning-Kruger effect, was first formally reported in 1999 by psychologists at Cornell University. These researchers found that most people overestimate their abilities in many domains, including humor, grammar, and logic. The effect is most pronounced in people who have the least skill; for example, those with a test score in the12th percentile would, on average, estimate themselves to be in the 62nd percentile.

In contrast, people who actually are above average are less likely to rate themselves so highly. Because they know more, they doubt themselves more. They know what it means to be really great — unlike those whose skills are so poor, they can’t recognize competence in others or their own lack of ability. The Cornell psychologists Dunning and Kuger concluded, “Not only do these people reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the metacognitive ability to realize it.”

This seems to be adding some scientific research to a Beginner’s Mind.

The Price of Expertise

This is really more than I was expecting to say on the subject of Beginner’s Mind, but I came across an article from the Guardian – thanks to Andrew Sullivan – on the negative impact of doing good deeds.

In ethical terms, the best never think that they are the best, and those that believe themselves to be on the side of the angels are often the worst devils.

Just change the word “ethical” to “teaching”.

Beginner’s Mind

So I’m a bit behind on my writing. What can I say? It’s been a crazy few weeks

Darren Kuropatwa thinks it’s difficult to be a change agent if you are an expert.

Dan Meyer (sorta) disagrees:

Darren thinks his situation requires more novices when instead it requires better experts. Hungry experts. Experts who empathize with the novice, who constantly re-evaluate their own assumptions from the perspective of a novice, who get outside their own heads as much as possible and as often as possible.

Anytime you think of yourself as an expert – hungry, empathetic or otherwise – you have already put yourself at a disadvantage. The Zen master Shunryū Suzuki said:

In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s there are few.

Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind (p 1)

The most effective teachers are the ones who approach every unit, every day, every lesson like it was the first time. They do not ignore their wealth of accumulated knowledge and experience; nor do they let that knowledge or experience dictate their actions. Rather, they let their current situation – the one they are experiencing for the first time, the one in which they are the beginner – determine the best course of action.

I know from my own experience that my colleagues who have been the most effective and inspirational were the ones who were never fully satisfied with their work. They never seemed to use the same lesson plan twice because there was always something that could be improved. They never saw themselves as the expert and thus able to rest on their laurels; they saw themselves as beginners with many possibilities to improve.