Wasted Talent: The Tragedy of the Expert Beginner

Back in September, I announced the Expert Beginner e-book. In that same post, I promised to publish the conclusion to the series around year-end, so I’m now going to make good on that promise. If you like these posts, you should definitely give the e-book a look, though. It’s more than just the posts strung together — it shuffles the order, changes the content a touch, and smooths them into one continuous story.

But, without further ado, the conclusion to the series:

The real, deeper sadness of the Expert Beginner’s story lurks beneath the surface. The sinking of the Titanic is sharply sad because hubris and carelessness led to a loss of life, but the sinking is also sad in a deeper, more dull and aching way because human nature will cause that same sort of tragedy over and over again. The sharp sadness in the Expert Beginner saga is that careers stagnate, culminating in miserable life events like dead-end jobs or terminations. The dull ache is endlessly mounting deficit between potential and reality, aggregated over organizations, communities and even nations. We live in a world of “ehhh, that’s probably good enough,” or, perhaps more precisely, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

There is no shortage of literature on the subject of “work-life balance,” nor of people seeking to split the difference between the stereotypical, ruthless executive with no time for family and the “aim low,” committed family type that pushes a mop instead of following his dream, making it so that his children can follow theirs. The juxtaposition of these archetypes is the stuff that awful romantic dramas starring Katherine Heigl or Jennifer Lopez are made of. But that isn’t what I’m talking about here. One can intellectually stagnate just as easily working eighty-hour weeks or intellectually flourish working twenty-five-hour ones.

I’m talking about the very fabric of Expert Beginnerism as I defined it earlier: a voluntary cessation of meaningful improvement. Call it coasting or plateauing if you like, but it’s the idea that the Expert Beginner opts out of improvement and into permanent resting on one’s (often questionable) laurels. And it’s ubiquitous in our society, in large part because it’s encouraged in subtle ways. To understand what I mean, consider institutions like fraternities and sororities, institutions granting tenure, multi-level marketing outfits, and often corporate politics with a bias toward rewarding loyalty. Besides some form of “newbie hazing,” what do these institutions have in common? Well, the idea that you put in some furious and serious effort up front (pay your dues) to reap the benefits later.

This isn’t such a crazy notion. In fact, it looks a lot like investment and saving the best for last. “Work hard now and relax later” sounds an awful lot like “save a dollar today and have two tomorrow,” or “eat all of your carrots and you can enjoy dessert.” For fear of getting too philosophical and prying into religion, this gets to the heart of the notion of Heaven and the Protestant Work Ethic: work hard and sacrifice in the here and now, and reap the benefits in the afterlife. If we aren’t wired for suffering now to earn pleasure later, we certainly embrace and inculcate it as a practice, culturally. Who is more a symbol of decadence than the procrastinator–the grasshopper who enjoys the pleasures of the here and now without preparing for the coming winter? Even as I’m citing this example, you probably summon some involuntary loathing for the grasshopper for his lack of vision and sobriety about possible dangers lurking ahead.

A lot of corporate culture creates a manufactured, distorted version of this with the so-called “corporate ladder.” Line employees get in at 8:30, leave at 5:00, dress in business-casual garb, and usually work pretty hard or else. Managers stroll in at 8:45 and sometimes cut out a little early for this reason or that. They have lunches with the corporate credit card and generally dress smartly, but if they have to rush into the office, they might be in jeans on a Thursday and that’s okay. C-level executives come and go as they please, wear what they want, and have you wear what they want. They play lots of golf.

There’s typically not a lot of illusion that those in the positions of power work harder than line employees in the sense that they’re down operating drill presses, banging out code, doing data entry, crunching numbers, etc. Instead, these types are generally believed to be the ones responsible for making the horrible decisions that no one else would want to make and never being able to sleep because they are responsible for the business 24/7. In reality, they probably whack line employees without a whole lot of worry and don’t really answer that call as often as you think. Life gets sweeter as you make your way up, and not just because you make more money or get to boss people around. The C-level executives…they put in their time working sixty-hour weeks and doing grunt work specifically to get the sweet life. They earned it through hard work and sacrifice. This is the defining narrative of corporate culture.

But there’s a bit of a catch here. When we culturally like the sound of a narrative, we tend to manufacture it even when it might not be totally realistic. For example, do we promote a programmer who pours sixty hours per week into his job for five years to manager because he would be good at managing people or because we like the “work hard, get rewarded” story? Chicken or egg? Do we reward hard work now because it creates value, or do we manufacture value by rewarding it? I’d say, in a lot of cases, it’s fairly ingrained in our culture to be the latter.

In this day and age, it’s easy to claim that my take here is paranoid. After all, the days of fat pensions and massive union graft have fallen by the wayside, and we’re in some market, meritocratic renaissance, right? Well, no, I’d argue. It’s just that the game has gotten more distributed and more subtle. You’ll bounce around between organizations, creating the illusion of general market merit, but in reality, there is a form of subconscious collusion. The main determining factor in your next role is your last role. Your next salary will probably be five to ten percent more than your last one. You’re on the dues-paying train, even as you bounce around and receive nominally different corporate valuations. Barring aberration, you’re working your way, year in and year out, toward an easier job with nicer perks.

But what does all of this have to do with the Expert Beginner? After all, Expert Beginners aren’t CTOs or even line managers. They’re, in a sense, just longer-tenured grunts that get to decide what source control or programming language to use. Well, Expert Beginners have the same approach, but they aim lower in the org chart and have a higher capacity for self-delusion. In a real sense, management and executive types are making an investment of hard work for future Easy Street, whereas Expert Beginners are making a more depressing and less grounded investment in initial learning and growth for future stagnation. They have a spasm of marginal competence early in their careers and coast on the basis of this indefinitely, with the reward of not having to think or learn and having people defer to them exclusively because of corporate politics. As far as rewards go, this is pretty Hotel California. They’ve put in their time, paid their dues, and now they get to reap only the meager rewards of intellectual indolence and ego-fanning.

In terms of money and notoriety, there isn’t much to speak of either. The reward they receive isn’t a Nobel Prize or a world championship in something. It’s not even a luxury yacht or a star on the Walk of Fame. We have to keep getting more modest. It’s not a six bedroom house with a pool and a Lamborghini. It’s probably just a run-of-the-mill upper middle class life with one nice vacation per year and the prospect of retiring and taking that trip they’ve always wanted, a visit to Rome and Paris. They’ve sold their life’s work, their historical legacy, and their very existence for a Cadillac, a nice set of woods and irons, a tasteful ranch-style house somewhere warm, and trans-Atlantic flight or two in retirement. And that–that willingness to have a low ceiling and that short-changing of one’s own potential–is the tragedy of the Expert Beginner.

Expert Beginners are not dumb people, particularly given that they tend to be knowledge workers. They are people who started out with a good bit of potential–sometimes a lot of it. They’re the bowlers who start at 100 and find themselves averaging 150 in a matter of weeks. The future looks pretty bright for them right up until they decide not to bother going any further. It’s as if Michael Jordan had decided that playing some pretty good basketball in high school was better than what most people did, or if Mozart had said, “I just wrote my first symphony, which is more symphonies than most people write, so I’ll call it a career.” Of course, most Expert Beginners don’t have such prodigious talent, but we’ll never hear about the accomplishment of the rare one that does. And we’ll never hear about the more modest potential accomplishments of the rest.

At the beginning of the saga of the Expert Beginner, I detailed how an Expert Beginner can sabotage a group and condemn it to a state of indefinite mediocrity. But writ large across a culture of “good enough,” the Tragedy of the Expert Beginner stifles accomplishments and produces dull tedium interrupted only by midlife crises. En masse in our society, they’ll instead be taking it easy and counting themselves lucky that their days of proving themselves are long past. And a shrinking tide lowers all boats.

  • Expert-Schmexpert

    It feels shit to realize that this post pretty much summarizes my so-far 5 years of career in frontend. Perhaps self-delusion is the key word here.

    This is a path that I’ve been going through my high school and some part of the university. I learn in a blaze and I can pretty quickly outsmart most of my peers in a new field but have almost no self-discipline to sustain the progress.

    So I change disciplines, because it’s easy to be seen as smart in a field where you’re the only expert.

    Sad and bad but it’s very hard for me to change this. I’ve been this way since I remember and only at around 25-30 I’m getting to do something about it. Otherwise I will spend my miserable life changing jobs forever.

  • wtpayne

    Ouch.

  • http://www.daedtech.com/blog Erik Dietrich

    The good news is that you’ve got all of the time in the world in front of you to make your career whatever you want it to be. The people I’m referring to in this post are the ones who settle into a pattern of not bothering to try to improve their situation, skills, or really anything at all. If you’re changing disciplines and contemplating your career’s path, whatever problems you may have, complacency certainly isn’t one of them,.