Expert Colored Glasses

“And then I’ll be staying on a tiny island and I don’t know if I’ll be living in a hut, or what.”
“Very exciting … as a luggage problem!”
Joe Banks and the Luggage Salesman in “Joe Versus the Volcano” (1990)

One of the great qualities of humans is that we can burn for something. From mainstream to the most obscure topics, we can become interested in anything. We spend time with these topics, we learn about them, and after a while, out interests shape us.

It influences what we notice, what we talk about, and how we see the world.

A photographer looks at the pictures around him differently, a designer notices, e.g.,  kerning problems, someone who is interested in organization spots ways to improve the processes around him.

And in itself, this is what interest and expertise is for — we have a cult of the amateur, but when things are really important, we need experts. No matter whether professional or enthusiast, but we need someone with knowledge and skills.

However, this can become a problem when people drag conversations to the area they have expertise. The original issue is not discussed in whole, but reduced to this area of expertise or left altogether.

Instead of talking about the architecture of a room it it all about the photos, instead of talking about the text, it is all about the typesetting, instead of questioning whether to do something in the first place it is all about improving the processes.

And I think this can impede the overall goal. First, it can make us sound like a broken record, like we always go on about the same subject and make everything about it (we might see the relation to our special area of expertise, other might find it unimportant and far-fetched). Second and even more damaging, it elevates part of the whole — and this part is influenced by our prior interests/expertise, not by the importance of the part. It might be irrelevant in the greater whole.

For me, this issue came up when I was browsing opinion blogs — where people share their view on the world and related everything around them to issues they feel strongly about. But I also notice it in my blog, although I am a bit lucky that the topic I am writing about is very broad (I hope). After all, I’m not interested in writing a blog with a constrained focus on specific work methods. I discuss these too (see for example the postings about different tools or scientific work or writing in general). But I also like to look at the whole picture — and step back from time to time and do some far-off or even off-topic postings.

But the risk is always there.

As good as it is to have interest/expertise in a subject and use this expertise to the fullest, it is also important to be cognizant of one’s expertise and see when it takes us for a ride. If our environment does not stop us, we should notice when we have to stop, take a step back, and look at the ways our interests/expertise influences us — and what it makes us and others miss.

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