The Dangers of Being an Expert

I have always loved the saying that an Expert is just a “has been drip under pressure” (Ex Spurt). However, this insightful new article by Rob Sams takes it wonderfully more deeper than that. Enjoy:

The Dangers of Being an Expert

Hello I Am an Expert Nametag Expertise TagIt can feel good to win and argument or be perceived as the most intelligent person in the room. It’s a great boost for our ego and I think typically as human beings that we like being the one who knows the most, or to excel where others don’t.

However, when we know more than others, or we have an overwhelming feeling of joy and happiness at being right, or if our desire is to always be the smartest person in the room this can impact on how we relate to others and can change relationships.

When we constantly feel the need to be right and to know more than others, we can become what Graham Long calls an ‘expert’ in them. We believe that we know everything there is to know about the other person and feel we have all the answers to what we see as their problems.

I’ve been reflecting during the past few weeks on some situations where I felt I was right and others were wrong. I had become the ‘expert’ in them. I thought I knew what was best, that the other person’s views could not be right, and I needed to make sure they knew what I thought.

I remember having one conversation with a good friend of mine who understands how I think about this, and who also knows about Graham’s idea of ‘expert’. We were talking about how we thought we knew what was best for Fred*. We were chatting away and stopped ourselves mid-sentence, almost simultaneously, and said ‘we’ve just become experts in Fred, haven’t we?”

It was a great moment for us both, stopping, reflecting and thinking what does becoming an ‘expert’ in Fred do for our relationship with him? If I think I know all that Fred needs to know, I can only see him as a problem. I cannot ‘meet’ Fred when I am an expert in him, I can only fix him, sort out his problems and see him as a problem. When we become an ‘expert’ in others, what does this do for our relationships with them?

As Graham so eloquently puts things, when we become expert we are not ‘one’ with the other. Graham has an excellent story that he shares where he refers to ‘mission’ and ‘wishin’ in terms of a cycle of life. When we are in ‘mission’ we are at one with the other person, we experience intimacy and ecstasy. This is true love.


Conversely, when we are in ‘wishin’, we are two people, individuals, self and not as one. When explaining this story, Graham often draws a chart to describe this process, which I have attempted to emulate below.

I love the story Graham tells about ‘mission and wishin’. He says when we are in ‘mission’ we are experiencing intimacy and we are like one with another, the closest two people could be. We think only of the other person, and life feels very good. On the other hand, as we move down to ‘wishin’ life becomes more about ‘self’ and about ‘things’. So what can we learn from this in risk and safety?

Risk and safety is all about our relationships with others. When we are at ‘mission’, life is great, we have wonderful teams, people feel good being with each other and we feel a sense of achievement. This is good, necessary and will happen.

True also is the other end of the scale, ‘wishin’ which is also good, necessary and will happen. While we may want life to continue in a stage of ‘mission’, to constantly feel intimacy and ecstasy, as Graham says, “we all have to go from making love to doing the shopping”. So let’s explore how Graham’s ‘mission and wishin’ thinking could help us in risk and safety.

Firstly, if we understand and accept that life will constantly go from ‘mission’ to ‘wishin’, that this is the normal cycle of life, and we cannot maintain intimacy forever, we just might be able to get our head around the fact that you can’t ‘measure’ safety by using numbers. I mean how could you put a measure on intimacy the way that Graham describes it. Further, why would you?

For example, if we were to consider ‘intimacy’ in risk and safety as a period of time with no incidents, while it’s understandable, however it is also flawed. The same can be said if we think of an incident as being in the ‘wishin’ cycle. Incidents are an opportunity to learn and can teach us so much about what previously may not have known. Having incidents, taking risks, and learning are all just part of the ‘mission’ and ‘wishin’ cycle of life.

So if ‘mission and wishin’ thinking works for you, and you accept that this is the normal cycle of life, perhaps it would be useful to think about how we might recognise when we are at in the various stages as this could be a useful way for us to think about how we relate with others. Here are some things I have learned about this cycle of life:

· When we are in ‘wishin’ our language becomes about individuals and ‘self’. When we find ourselves saying things like “well if you just did this” or “look, it’s really simple all you need to do is…” this could be a sign that we are ‘wishin’. Conversely, if we hear ourselves say, “we”, “our” and “us”, perhaps we are feeling a form of intimacy with others and moving to a place somewhere like ‘mission’.

· If we find ourselves avoiding conversations in person and instead, texting or e-mail others because we don’t want to interact in person, this might be a sign that we are at ‘wishin’. Avoiding being close to others (by texting and not talking), may be a way for us to become ‘expert’ in them, because when we don’t have to engage directly, it’s so much easier to be expert when we are providing information in one direction, rather than relating directly with others.

· When we are short with others and don’t consider their views or are quick to jump to solutions and see them only as problems or a nuisance, perhaps this is a sign of ‘wishin’?

I’ve enjoyed getting to know Graham over the past few years. I apologise to him that I have tried to explain his thinking in my most inadequate words, but I do appreciate him sharing his many years of wisdom. It was no fluke that Graham was a keynote speaker at our recent Psychology of Risk Conference held in Sydney. Graham, and all of the team at The Wayside Chapel could teach many of us in the risk and safety industry a thing or two about how to deal with risk, so much of which is about ‘understanding’, ‘meeting’ and ‘loving’ others.

Finally, while understanding this cycle of life is liberating, we need to be careful not to turn it into a ‘management model’ where we develop checklists and programs to help people to maintain ‘mission’ simply by avoiding ‘wishin’. Life is simply not that easy. It is a cycle for a reason, and of course we probably only recognise what part of the cycle we may be in through reflection.

I wonder if understanding ‘mission and wishin’ thinking should be 101 in all risk and safety education programs?

As usual, I’d love to hear your thoughts, experiences and comments as sharing our learning is a good way to embed it.

*Disclaimer – Fred is not the real name of the person in our conversation, and the use of the name Fred should not be taken or seen that all ‘Fred’s’ are not as smart of my friend and me and in need of ‘fixing’. Any relevance to any ‘Fred’ that I know in my life is purely coincidental 🙂

Rob Sams
Rob is an experienced safety and people professional, having worked in a broad range of industries and work environments, including manufacturing, professional services (building and facilities maintenance), healthcare, transport, automotive, sales and marketing. He is a passionate leader who enjoys supporting people and organizations through periods of change. Rob specializes in making the challenges of risk and safety more understandable in the workplace. He uses his substantial skills and formal training in leadership, social psychology of risk and coaching to help organizations understand how to better manage people, risk and performance. Rob builds relationships and "scaffolds" people development and change so that organizations can achieve the meaningful goals they set for themselves. While Rob has specialist knowledge in systems, his passion is in making systems useable for people and organizations. In many ways, Rob is a translator; he interprets the complex language of processes, regulations and legislation into meaningful and practical tasks. Rob uses his knowledge of social psychology to help people and organizations filter the many pressures they are made anxious about by regulators and various media. He is able to bring the many complexities of systems demands down to earth to a relevant and practical level.

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