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The more I learn, the more I question: the longer I have practiced my craft, the less certain I am about many things.
As a teenager going through the U.S. education system, the success cues from my teachers and society were that if I earned good grades I was smart. This translated into success after school, so the bargain began. But to be considered intelligent, my teachers told me I had to have all the answers, and a single letter on my report card showed the world if that was true. It wasn’t okay to say ‘I don’t know’ and embark in group learning and understanding. It wasn’t okay, for example, to take exams with friends together and draw on one another’s strengths, expertise and interests. That is cheating. But if our societies continue to value ‘experts’, individuality, and ego over collaboration and humility, we will not raise generations and create a society to meet the acute challenges of our age.
The idea of an ‘expert’ is problematic: First, it creates the need to know clear answers in a world where problems are complex. It also creates distance between ourselves and others because we feel like we either don’t know enough to share, or we need to develop a niche and strong opinion first so others will hold us in high regard. We outsource the realities of our problems. Ultimately, valuing ‘experts’ closes our minds to allowing our thoughts and opinions to be challenged — leading to a less understanding and more ego-driven, judgmental world. Yet as venture capitalist Vinod Khosla says, “Research shows that experts are no better at predicting the future than dart-throwing monkeys”.
We live in a world brimming with experts. I encounter them daily, whether superintendents or heads of school systems, CEOs or investors of startups, professors at universities, or lead policymakers. Sometimes, at Moringa, I’m considered one, which has made me uncomfortable as I grapple with the complexity of higher education challenges and feel like I need to know the answers. Over time, I have felt pressure from peers, funders, and society to position ourselves as experts. Being an “expert” is good for fundraising, marketing, and just generally feeling triumphant in accomplishments, but I’m starting to believe it’s actually pretty bad for leading teams, learning, and evolving.
The more impressive people I meet, the more I realize that this idea of ‘expert’ is truly an illusion. Most of the truly accomplished people I’ve met aren’t “experts” per-se, but they’re skillful learners, repositories, connectors, and co-day-dreamers. With a world picking up speed – whether through global climate change or the increase of technology and its impact on society and otherwise – there is no one that could possibly be an expert in a whole field or industry. Within each global shift, there are a number of vantage points that can inform varying opinions. And, there’s none that should be more or less valued than the rest. But because of our education system and societal value on experts, people often turn to experts who speak from only one vantage point and seek an elegant and simple solution rather than understanding and explaining the complex problem. Our education system risks a generation for which winning a debate is deemed a greater achievement, than collaborative solution creation, and the betterment of the world. I fear this is a world we’re already living in.
In the last few years at Moringa, I’ve attended a lot of conferences and met numerous impressive individuals. Several of these luminaries have chatted with me about their struggles with imposter syndrome, where they doubt their accomplishments and have an internalized fear of being exposed as a fraud. And yet as I shared my own imposter syndrome with an acclaimed US business leader, he told me to simply “overcome your imposter syndrome” because “no one knows what they’re doing.” To him, success boils down to knowing your worth and selling yourself. And unfortunately, that thinking promotes this idea of ‘expert’.
Yet being an imposter is a reality – we are all imposters and we need to embrace that idea so we are constantly open to learning from each other, as opposed to positioning ourselves as knowing more than another. Own being an imposter, so you can own being a learner. The alternative is an unhealthy distance between each other, where, instead of sharing learnings and failures, we focus purely on our successes and opinions. Not only does a world of experts hamper our ability to truly understand challenges, it also creates a world of ideological jerks.
Solutions to complex problems undoubtedly have spillover effects. Yet the rule of unintended consequences seems not to apply to experts’ opinions once those consequences leave his expert domain; rather creating opportunities to change their opinion, admit their mistakes and gain a fuller picture. In education and policy, we often look at the cabinet secretary or lead officials, who are presumed to be thought leaders, but it’s often the case they’re the last to see the realities of shifts on the ground. A government official’s knowledge of how government and policies work is crucial and must be paired with operational complexities on the ground (from school leaders to teachers and students). Most importantly, officials must embrace an openness to listening to key stakeholders, rather than ‘yes men’ that rever their ‘expert’ status.
The mark of a free man is that ever-gnawing inner uncertainty as to whether or not he is right…He must constantly examine life, including his own, to get some idea of what it is all about, and he must challenge and test his own feelings. Irreverence, essential to questioning, is a requisite. Curiosity becomes compulsive. – Supreme Court Justice Learned Hand
When starting Moringa School in 2014, I was aware of my limited knowledge, but was curious enough to explore the challenges of high-quality education that we aimed to solve. With open eyes, ears, and few assumptions, we embarked on a path of research and discovery about Kenya’s skills and higher education systems. We listened to students, startups, larger companies, professors and training school owners. I spent little time claiming to be an expert of any sort, but instead strived to be an avid learner and compassionate listener. My initial assumptions of our learning model came from conversations with our stakeholders and partners. And, despite our best efforts, a lot of those initial assumptions were wrong. But we’ve continued to listen, revise, and adapt over time. Today, I am constantly in awe and humbled by how little I know and how much I continue to learn from senior team members, frontline team members, our students and alumni, and our employers.
I can only share my own experiences and knowledge gained as I continue to uncover what I don’t know that I don’t know. My hope is that sharing our learnings will help foster a world where we can be more compassionate to others’ struggles and challenges and where we can be more intentional about learning and questioning our assumptions over needing to be right and know the answers.
Being an expert requires us to have an opinion, put on a hat, and be clear on who and what we are dissenting against. But in a world that’s increasing in complexity and interconnectedness, spending more time judging and less time understanding will halt the progress we could make together for our society. When a society or a community fully embraces learning at its core, their members will have a stronger growth mindset, normalize openness and vulnerability to share failures and mistakes, and build solutions together that society can celebrate as a collective success, rather than an individual’s expert or genius.
December 30, 2018 at 12:34PM
Forbes – Entrepreneurs