Be Wary of the Expert (& Frank Lloyd Wright)

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“The highest forms of understanding we can achieve are laughter and human compassion.” — Richard Feynman

Compare and contrast these words or phrases.
This is an exercise in consideration…

I collect quotes I find insightful or interesting. There’s much to be learnt from a skilled wordsmith’s turn of phrase, their distillation of an important idea into a succinct assertion. However, they have their limitations. This week I stumbled on a juxtaposition to muse on…

Frank Lloyd Wright had a reputation for being somewhat arrogant:
“An expert is a man who has stopped thinking because ‘he knows’”

There’s some sense in Frank, but Albert Einstein cuts him down:
“Any fool can know. The point is to understand.”

[I’d have loved to have been at the wine bar for the conversation that night]

Placing Frank Lloyd Wright and Albert Einstein’s quotes side by side had me thinking. Am I seeking expertise or understanding? For me, seeking understanding is a substantially more powerful and generous act. Curiosity is central to understanding. Being curious and seeking understanding are empathetic acts, they are generous, and they are born of a growth mindset. If we seek to grow, we cannot stop thinking, we cannot stop being curious.

Ruminating on this some more made me a little curious, funnily enough. So I chased down some more quotes on the “expert”.

Niels Bohr has no growth left in him:
“An expert is a man who has made all the mistakes which can be made in a very narrow field.”

Werner Heisenberg, thinks like Niles Bohr, but at least he still seems to be working:
“An expert is someone who knows some of the worst mistakes that can be made in his subject and how to avoid them.”

Colin Powell brings the point home with a great insight:
“Experts often possess more data than judgment.”

A Hindustani Proverb is wise:
“If you would be an expert, keep company with experts.”
but that also made me think of Benjamin Franklin’s quote:
“He that lieth down with dogs shall rise up with fleas.”
Also unreliably attributed originally to Seneca, who suggested that perhaps we should be cautious about the company we keep. There is, however, something to be said for fraternising with extraordinary people, learning at their table and by their example.

I’m not here to deride experts. We should all seek to achieve expertise and mastery in whatever work we do. There’s also no real need to be wary of them, unless their initials are FLW, they wear an opera cape and carry a cane.

The point is to understand.

Want to know more about the author? I’m Michael, co-founder & architect at Redshift Architecture & Art, and founder & coach at Ed Shift, where this article was first published.

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