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Mastery is a Double-Edged Sword

I spend at least an hour a day answering questions about my life and work.

Travel, publishing, self-education, branding; the emails pile up and I love that I’m able to share what I’ve learned with other people so easily.

It’s not uncommon to see someone who has achieved some degree of mastery (or even just competence) in a given field spending a good deal of their time answering questions. Work your way up any learning curve and you’ll find the ratio of people who can learn from you to the people who can teach you shifting precipitously. Before long, you spend most of your time teaching, rather than learning.

Of course, it is possible to learn while teaching — I find that sharing what I know with others increases my grasp of the fundamentals, and even helps me derive new knowledge from old, as I have to explain what I already know in new ways and mentally put that information in new contexts as I do. But this type of learning is different than applied study or research in that it’s looking at existing knowledge from a new angle, rather than acquiring new knowledge.

And this is where I take issue with mastery: all too often, with increased knowledge comes a decreased ability to ask questions.

I believe the difficulty in asking questions as you learn more about a subject stems from two different issues.

The first issue is that there are fewer people you can ask questions who have knowledge above your own. In other words, there are fewer people who possess knowledge or experience you do not, and therefore the number of resources available to you are fewer and further between.

The second issue is one that would seem to be more easily solvable, but which is perhaps even more persnickety in that it’s socially enforced: As our self-perception as experts increase, we’re less likely to ask questions because we 1) don’t think it will be beneficial, due to the dwindling number of people in the world who might be able to answer with sophistication, and 2) asking questions seems to imply a lack of mastery, which in turn could negatively impact our self-perception as experts.

The unfortunate result of this is that we end up with fewer high-level questions to ponder over, and a greater number of experts who lack the rapid growth gained from external sources of knowledge and stimuli.

There is a simple solution to this problem, of course, but like so many simple solutions, it’s actually a bit more complex than it seems on the surface.

By changing our perception of experts from where it is now (experts as people who know everything there is to know about a subject) to something more resistant to stagnation (experts as people who explore more voraciously and question even the most fundamental aspects of a topic), we’ll end up with higher levels of accomplishment and healthier ideas about learning and growth.

This change starts on an individual level.

Ask questions, boldly and frequently. If possible, ask as much or more than you answer. Because although it can be amazingly beneficial to share what you know with the world, it’s even more valuable to ask questions that maintain the momentum of your own growth while encouraging others to find answers for themselves.