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Expertise, Arrogance, and the Fun of Being Wrong (Podcast)

Season 1, Episode 7: Expertise, Arrogance, and the Fun of Being Wrong

Season 1, Episode 7 Transcript

This transcript has been edited for clarity

Hey, everybody, Blake here. As per usual, I apologize in advance for the sounds of a sleeping puppy in the background while I am recording my dog is very meaty. He lives under my feet essentially, and he is currently snoring, very loudly in the background because he's part bulldog and that's just what they do.

Regardless of snoozy pooches. I wanted to talk a little bit about expertise. I don't know if you know this or not, but I am an expert. Yup. An expert. In fact, it is on my paychecks. My title at work is product expert, and I have such a fraught relationship with the title expert. I oftentimes think about when I was, I was gosh, probably 13, 14, and doing a local outreach project in the summer, that my father and grandfather also worked on.

And we were building handicap ramps for folks who couldn't afford to have them installed. And the group that I was on was essentially enamored with my grandfather. My grandfather is an ornery old man, as old men are prone to being. He also has very limited sense of hearing.

It's kind of a running joke that as during those projects, as we would introduce people to him, we would say, if you ever ask him a question and he just smiles and nods at you, he's not being rude. The answer may not be yes. It means he didn't hear you.

But my grandfather, in spite of being hard of hearing is something of a mechanical genius, you know, well into his seventies, he was still going to work on a daily basis, as a self-employed repairman going to dairy farms to work on machinery or, restaurants to work on cooling systems and  that that's just the kind of guy that he is.

He's always wearing his blue work suit with a red screwdriver in his front shirt pocket, ready to fix whatever is broken or build whatever needs to be built. And at one point that week, while we were working at the work site, a couple other kids and I were sent to help my grandfather.

Which meant essentially just meant hold things and then let him do all the work. But at one point he turned to us and I can't remember exactly what the task was, but he essentially said, "do you kids want to do this or that?" And the person who I was with said, "well, I don't know mr. Fred, you're the expert."

And it was one of those few moments where he was hearing correctly, because he very quickly informed us that he was not an expert. And, we  asked him what he meant and my grandfather, who's not a big speaker, by the way, he tends to be pretty quiet, but he looked at us and said, "math class, do you ever have to solve for X?"

We said that we did. And he said, "and do you know what the word spurt means?" And we said," yeah, yeah, we had heard the words for it before." And he said, "so X is something you don't know. And a spurt is a leak with force behind it. If you put those together and you're working on a house, And you've got an expert, a leak with force that you can't find, or that you don't know that you have to find it's going to cause a lot of damage. It's going to cause a lot of problems if you've got a hidden leak with force behind it. So I'm not an expert I'm just experienced."

And at the time we just kind of chuckled and were like, "haha, ornery old man being ornery old man, let's go hold some two by fours and pretend to work while he gets in the crawl space under this trailer and rewires everything."

But as I've gotten older and especially as I have been promoted into a position where my title is expert, and I'm constantly surrounded by other people who are experts either earned or self-proclaimed, I'm beginning to see that my grandpa's mixed metaphor has a lot of truth to it because there are a lot of experts who can do a lot of damage.

 

And I'll, I'll give you a quick example of that. So a few weeks back, I was, contacted by one of my coworkers who asked if I would be willing to get on a call with their customer to help them understand some SEO principles that they were getting stuck on. Apparently the customer had been speaking with an external marketing agency and that agency's SEO person was giving them some advice that really was going to make their life very, very difficult for a while. And they wanted to know if that specific advice was worth it from our perspective, and as the go-to SEO person for our customer success org, they came to me to ask if I could help explain it a bit more to them, give them a different perspective, and help them arrive at an easier solution.

And, I agreed to get on that phone call and the phone call ended up being a group call between me, the account manager at my company, the customer's website developer, the customer's lead marketer-- he was either a marketer or lead salesperson-- and their SEO consultant, so the person who was giving them the advice that was going to make their life quite complicated for awhile.

And so it was, an interesting phone call to be a part of because going into it, my first thought was, "this person is an SEO expert. This is what they do full time. This is only a part of my job. This is going to be so intimidating, such a mess to try and provide a different perspective when she's got all of this knowledge and skills and experiences that I don't have."

She's the expert on this call, right? Well, as it would happen, we started to discuss the matter and I realized very quickly that the expert they were working with, (and I know this is just an audio recording--if you could see my hands, I did put air quotes around expert), but the expert they were working with didn't really have a great understanding of SEO.

It was kind of like if you went to Google and searched "checklist, SEO, best practices." Like that... that was her script. That was what she was working off of. And one of the things that I always, always always advise when I'm working with a client on SEO is: if you don't understand why you're doing something, it's probably not going to be worth it to put the money and the energy into making it happen.  I could go pretty in depth on why that is. The short answer is that SEO is not about a set checklist of am I meeting best practices. It's a really dynamic process of making sure that you have the right content for your audience in the right way so that search engines and users alike, especially users, can understand the purpose of your content and how it's going to benefit them and how it's going to solve their issues.

If you're just taking a checklist approach to SEO, there are so many tasks that you could spend hours and hours and hours and hours on and get no return on investment. It's just work that you've done because it's like good to have on your website, but not necessarily something that's going to help your audience, which is the entire point of SEO.

But I digress. The point that I'm getting at is that my company's customer who is working with this SEO expert was spending a lot of money on advice that was mediocre at best.  As I was reflecting upon that experience in that call with the customer, it made me think about my grandfather's mixed metaphor.

You know, an unknown spurt with force can cause some issues. That person was causing that business to spend a lot of money, and wasn't, at least that I observed, doing that much to give them a return on investment. Which is not great when you're a business, especially a business trying to turn a profit during a pandemic and an economic recession.

So I was thinking about this notion of expertise and, if, if that interaction, was an example of someone who maybe have the title expert, but wasn't meaningfully contributin, what was the opposite? You know, what was the flip side of that? What would it look like for an expert to be someone who is able to use their unique skillset to meaningfully contribute?

And one of the things that I realized is that a true experts strength lies in their recognition of their own limitations and shortcomings. Experts aren't people who know everything about a given topic. They're people who know how to figure things out in that area. They know how to think critically in that area.

They know how to be effective problem solvers in that area. And as I was reflecting upon this reframing of expertise, as not being someone who claims to know everything, but someone who knows how to solve problems, I realized that the way our culture has enshrined expertise and conceived of expertise is really, it's just arrogance.

It it's, it's not expertise to claim, you know everything and that no one else can possibly compare to your realm of knowledge. That's not expertise, that is arrogance. Nobody, nobody-- I don't care how smart someone is or thinks they are-- nobody is omniscient. Nobody knows everything.

And, you know, one of the ways that I think about this and that helped me arrive at this reflection is that in my current position where my title is expert, I frankly know very little. I'm a competent front end developer. I'm great with SEO strategy. But if you were to ask me how the software platform, uh, the company that I work for, how our software completes a, B, C, D E, I'm not going to really know. I can give you some general concepts about how software works in general. More broadly, I can explain iterative loops to you. I can explain conditional statements to you. But if you asked me what's under the hood, and how we process particular pieces of data, I'm probably not going to know the answer to that. I'm not a backend developer and I'm really only a front end developer in the sense that I know like HTML, CSS and JavaScript, and even my Java script is pretty bad.

Like, I can read it. I can solve problems with it. But if you told me to create a full page of dynamic actions from scratch using JavaScript, I'm not going to be able to do that. Right?  But I'm still the expert and I'm the expert because I'm curious. I am great at asking questions about what we don't know.

I'm good at communicating what we do know. And most of all, I'm really comfortable doing research and really comfortable asking questions. I'm not an expert because I know everything. I'm an expert because I know enough to create a strong platform for doing research for myself. And that's how I contribute as an expert during my day job.

And so I, because I was, thinking about some of these past experiences with self-proclaimed experts and this really interesting distinction between knowing everything, and knowing enough to be able to figure things out, one of the things that it also really made me think about was imposter syndrome. Coming into my position as a product expert, nothing  changed in terms of my knowledge or skill level from my previous role to this role. But when confronted with a difficult question, I was so much more comfortable approaching it as a product expert than I was before that.

With that title, it felt like I had a permission slip to really dive in and investigate and test. Whereas prior to that, it felt " Oh, I shouldn't be the one to handle this. I'm not the expert. I'm just an amateur". And I would sell myself short. I had all the same skills, all the same knowledge, but I wouldn't go for it. I limited my own curiosity intentionally because I was afraid of failing and appearing as an imposter.

There's this really great graphic that I saw on Twitter a day or so ago, and if I can find it, I'll put it in the show notes for this article, but it was a visualization of what imposter syndrome feels like versus what it actually is.  On the left side, where you have what imposter syndrome feels like. There's a yellow circle of your knowledge, and then completely encapsulating that yellow circle, there's a much bigger blue circle that says someone else's knowledge. That's what imposter syndrome feels like. It feels like you know a little bit, but everyone around you knows so much more that fully encapsulates and exceeds your knowledge.

Reality, which this graphic demonstrated on the right hand side is more like a multi-part Venn diagram where your circle of your knowledge is there in the center. And then all of these other circles of the same size are inner locked around it and overlapping with yours so that there is some overlap in that knowledge that you share. But the other person's knowledge doesn't completely encapsulate yours. They've got their own set of skills, their own knowledge. You have your own knowledge.

That's, in most cases, the reality, and yet most people who present themselves as experts or who claim to be experts, oftentimes think that they're the blue circle on the left-hand side of that graphic, you know, they're that all encompassing knowledge that just eclipses everybody else's and it's really easy to spot.

That kind of person who claims to be an expert, but is really just arrogant because they treat knowledge as a zero sum game. They are, they're the kind of people who in an ambiguous situation. Claim to have the only right answer. Also related to SEO. This actually came up several weeks ago when I was on Reddit, because I had been auditing some content on my website.

And as a, as just like a sort of creative exercise, I wanted to see if I could create a formula that analyzed and weighted various content performance metrics to create a single content performance score. if you're not super familiar with like SEO and web analytics, oftentimes when you're evaluating how well a piece of content is doing, you're looking at a few key performance indicators. So you have like your overall sessions-- so like how many people loaded up that page and viewed the content? You have your bounce rate-- how many people saw that page and then left immediately? You have your time on page-- so how long did they stay when they were on that page? You have your click through rate, you have conversion rates, you have so many other metrics that you can use to analyze a piece of contents performance.

And what I wanted to do is see if I could create a way to combine those that would take my marketing goals into consideration and create just like one singular number that I could look at as a benchmark and use that to order and prioritize what content I worked on next.

Now in marketing, each of those individual performance metrics are important and they tell you something distinct about the content you're looking at. They're not meant to be treated as a singular entity. They're meant to be looked at through the lens of what each individual metric is measuring. But like I said, this was just like a creative exercise, a thought exercise that I wanted to do.

And after I came up with an equation that I was actually pretty happy with and that gave me a really interesting new way to rank and think about my content. I wrote up a quick blurb about it and shared my experience in one of the SEO communities on Reddit, and at the very beginning of the post, I stated very clearly, "this is just a thought exercise. I recognized that one number cannot paint the full picture and that each metric is important."

And then I went through and I broke down my process, explain my equation and why I arrived at the different weighting methods that I arrived at. And the conversation on that post was really interesting.

there were a lot of people who were like, "Oh yeah, no, this is fascinating. I'm surprised I haven't seen something similar before." You know, there were other people who are like, "this makes sense, but I would probably modify it to include this or that, or to get more importance to this metric," you know, just people wanting to engage with it and thought it was interesting and had questions or feedback on it.

And then someone piped up with a comment of... I can't remember it verbatim, but it was along the lines of, "this is useless. These metrics are individual. They're not supposed to be aggregated. They each tell us something distinct. This does nothing." And when I read it, I just sat back in my chair and I was like, "Wow, this guy must be fun at parties."

And so I very politely replied to his comment and said," I'm aware. That's why I said, this is just a thought exercise. I wanted to see if there was a way to create an interesting aggregation of data. So I tinkered around and created this. I fully recognize that,  yeah, you're right. These metrics are distinct and tell us something unique about each piece of content," and that, that didn't satisfy this guy.

I should have known better than to feed the trolls online, but I  got lectured in the comments about essentially analytics purism and, Someone essentially trying to give a Marketing 101 lecture in the comments of a Reddit post. And, first thought is some people have far too much time on their hands.

Second thought. I took a look at that person's profile. I'll probably refer to him as guy, as you know, that guy's profile at some point, I don't mean to assume or assigned gender to someone, but by his behavior and the way that he interacted with people on Reddit in general, I think it's pretty safe to assume that he's a white man in his late thirties to mid forties.

Nothing wrong with that demographic. I'm just saying there's a certain archetype of people online. And I say this as a white man, there's a certain archetype of people online whose decorum is a bit wanting intact and they tend to fall into that demographic. That's all I will say. Sometimes they're younger than that.

This guy, because he was in like a professional, I should say. Uh, communities I'm estimating a little bit older, but anyway, from looking at his profile, I could tell that he was really adamant about establishing himself as an authority. And establishing authority is something we talk about in the marketing world constantly, but based upon his interactions, it seemed like for him, establishing authority meant always being right and always having the answer and proving that he was an expert on everything related to SEO, marketing and web analytics.

And I think perhaps more than any other exchange I've had in the past, that was probably the best demonstration for me, of someone who couldn't quite tell the difference between expertise and arrogance, who had so deeply ingrained a mentality of, "I'm right, therefore you must be wrong." And that anything outside of his viewpoint is just inherently incorrect.

Someone who cannot see a middle ground-- more importantly, especially within the context of finding fulfillment and figuring out what that looks like for yourself-- someone who could not see the limits of their own knowledge. As you were working on building the life that you want. And as you are on your journey of finding fulfillment in your own life, there are a few things that I think you should keep in mind about the concept of expertise.

First obligatory book promo, you can buy my book, Big Picture Living: A Guide to Finding Fulfillment (Even When Everything Sucks) at https://shop.selfhimprovement.com.

But the second and more important than buying my book, which you can buy my book, more important than buying my book. You'll often find that you have more success, win people's trust better, and are able to challenge yourself to grow and really unique ways when you don't pretend to know everything.

When you set that arrogance aside and are willing to say, "I don't know, But we can figure that out," and then put in the work to actually figure it out, whatever it may be... you know, as this, as this is a political season at the time that I'm recording this, or I guess I should say election season at the time that I'm recording this, one of the things that I wish we'd normalize for politicians to do during a debate is to say, "I don't know, I'll have to research that." Or "I don't know. I would have to speak to my constituents." Because it seems like every time a politician is hit with a question that they haven't prepared an answer for, they just deflect it and attack their opponents. And like, if candidates, for example, we've got a really tough question about renewable energy and methods of renewable energy, if someone, rather than saying, okay, "Oh, my opponent's an idiot who thinks windmills cause cancer." If they stepped back and said, you know, I think that wind and solar would be beneficial for my constituents, but it's honestly something I would have to research more to see if there are other methods of renewable energy that could be more productive and cost effective for our region, I think that would be a great answer.

I would love that, but we make it so hard for people in leadership positions to say, "I don't know." And we instead expect for them to have an answer prepared to give that answer and stick with it, however shit it may actually be. So before I get into a political rant, I will cool myself off, take a breath and just say: as you're coming up on situations where you want to present yourself in a certain way and air of authority, when you don't know answers, own it. When you own that, you don't know something, you give yourself an opportunity to figure it out, to do some research, do some testing, create an hypothesis, and come up with a really comprehensive, effective answer.

This is going to benefit you in your career, in your relationships, and as you're figuring out what fulfillment really looks like for you. When you're willing to step back, put your ego aside and say, "huh? Curious. I don't know the answer to that, but I know how we can figure it out." That's where you are going to see major wins and major growth in your personal life.

So again, recap of the two takeaways, A) buy my book at shop dot self-improvement dot com or on the Barnes and noble website, and B) it's okay to not always have the answer. Not always having the answer means you're human. You have an opportunity to grow, pretending you always had. The answer makes you arrogant on that note.

I'm going to go swaddle my dogs and tuck them into bed and then give myself a lovely bowl of Greek yogurt with frozen berries. Have a great night, everybody.


Get to know the author.

Blake Reichenbach

He/ Him/ His pronouns. Blake is a writer, gym addict, dog dad, researcher, and general life enthusiast. He's passionate about helping others reach their goals and live happier, more fulfilling lives.