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Unafraid of Being Afraid

August 12, 2009

“My definition of an expert in any field is a person who knows enough about what’s really going on to be scared.” –P. J. Plauger

When things get really hairy, all things being equal, laypeople or novices fear that they know too little and experts fear they know too much.  In complex and dynamic situations we don’t have time to sort out all the factors influencing our decisions, identify alternative courses of action, evaluate our options, and test each against our objectives.  In many cases, we may have difficulty even figuring out what our objectives should be.

In such situations, expertise helps us figure out whether we’re in over our heads.  If we’re really lucky it also helps us identify a plausible course of action that, although not optimal, will buy us time to keep working on a better solution.

Non-experts will often try to discern an optimal or at least better course of action as if they had a range of alternatives before them, which they rarely do.  Experts know that the luxury of choice comes only from successful efforts to keep disaster at bay until the situation stabilizes enough to permit a more careful and considered approach.

In their quest for optimum outcomes, novices often isolate themselves from others, fearing any advice  serves the interests of those offering it and confuses rather than clarifies the decision-making process.  Experts, in contrast, know the importance of seeking input and continuously checking their understanding and assumptions with others.

Experts understand the importance of intuition and emotion.  Novices believe wrongly that successful outcomes depend on intellect and reason.

Fear, like all powerful emotions, serves a purpose.  Experts understand that fear is nothing to be afraid of.  It helps us focus, keeps us alive, and reflects our commitment to doing the right thing.

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