“We should stop looking for experts and start looking for analogues. It’s a big world: chances are someone has solved your problem already. And she might be an anteater.”
So say Dan & Chip Heath in the November issue of Fast Company. The Heaths accuse Ph.D.s of becoming “domain experts” who lack perspective on the major problems of their field . Yet “problems that are difficult in one domain may be trivial to solve from the perspective of a different domain.”
Luciano Passuello at the Litemind blog recently posted about the same thing, quoting pyschologist Abraham Maslow as saying “To the man who only has a hammer, everything he encounters begins to look like a nail.”
Passuello takes a different tack to solving the problem of narrow-minded expertise; he suggests talking to “regular people” who don’t know the rules of your domain. They don’t see the boundaries of your field.
I know that I sometimes dislike talking with non-experts about my dissertation–I assume that the conversation will be boring for them. That might sound self-effacing, but actually, there’s a fair bit of snobbery in that assumption. I’m deciding in advance that the other person will not have anything of value to contribute to the conversation. In fact, when people ask me about my work, I see my answer as an (unwelcome) opportunity to deliver a mini-lecture, instead of imagining any kind of exchange.
Here’s a little experiment for all of us experts to try: genuinely explaining a challenge we are facing in our research to a non-expert. Or maybe to an anteater.