How to Break the Expert’s Curse

Experts could be our most powerful teachers—but often they've lost the ability to connect with novices. Research by Ting Zhang reveals how experts can rediscover the experience of inexperience.
by Carmen Nobel

Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw famously wrote, "He who can, does. He who cannot, teaches." But it's often more accurate to say, "He who can do can't teach."

It's natural for novices to seek out experts for guidance. That's why many organizations adopt formal mentorship and training programs. Unfortunately, though, experts frequently make lousy teachers.

Experts are sometimes so steeped in expertise that they don't remember what it was like to be a newbie—in terms of both how much they knew and how they felt back then. The memory gap leads to an empathy gap.

"Having a lot of knowledge and skills can make it harder for these experts to transfer what they've learned to people who know very little about what the experts do," says Ting Zhang, a doctoral student in the Negotiation, Organizations and Markets unit at Harvard Business School.

“There's one underlying question behind this research: How do you help experts help novices?”

Researchers refer to the problem as the "curse of knowledge." Zhang is on a mission to break the curse. In her research on the psychology of rediscovery, she's looking into how experts can rediscover the experience of inexperience.

"There's one underlying question behind this research," she says. "How do you help experts help novices?"

According to Zhang, experts can rediscover inexperience in two key ways. One, when they are still novices, they can proactively document their own early-stage learning process from day to day, anticipating eventual proficiency. Later, when they become masters, they can look back and reflect on what they wrote as novices. Two, experts can actually re-experience how it feels to be a beginner.

Through a series of experiments in 2014, Zhang investigated the efficacy of each rediscovery method.

Documentation Vs. Recall

In one experiment, Zhang hired 169 college undergrads to keep daily diaries of their summer internships, with the understanding that Zhang would hold on to the diaries in a "time capsule" to be opened at a later date. The interns were told to record surprising experiences, unforeseen challenges, and meaningful interactions with colleagues.

Two months after the internships ended, the participants received a follow-up questionnaire about their summer experiences. Half of them also received copies of their summer diaries, reminding them of how they had felt as new interns. The other half did not gain access to their diaries; they were told to recall their experiences from memory.

After completing the questionnaire, all the veteran interns were asked to provide some advice to interns of the future. Zhang then hired 93 other undergraduates (who were seeking internships for the following summer) to review and evaluate the advice.

As a whole, the young advice recipients gave higher ratings to the advice from the experienced interns who had "rediscovered" their own summer diary accounts. Zhang was not surprised.

"The people in the recall group would give vague advice like, 'A meaningful summer internship experience is one where you can learn a lot,'" she explains. "Whereas the people in the 'rediscovery' group were more likely to say things like, 'Make sure to seek out a mentor, and get that person to explain exactly what you'll be doing.' They would give advice that was relatively actionable."

The Upside-down Guitar Effect

The next experiment explored how experts could experience the feeling of inexperience without the benefit of past documentation.

Zhang hired 74 skillful right-handed guitarists to record themselves playing the guitar for one minute, any song they liked. Half, the control group, were told to "play as you would on a typical day."

Click to watch.

Expert guitarists in the control group were told, "Play as you would on a typical day."

The other half were told to flip their guitars around and play with their non-dominant hand, strumming with the left hand and forming chords with the right. This was the "rediscovery" group. The idea came from Zhang's personal experience.

"I used to play the violin," she explains. "During orchestra practice, sometimes we would turn around our instruments and play them that way. It's a really bizarre feeling. It makes you feel like a beginner all over again."

Indeed, the rediscovery group in Zhang's experiment reported that playing with the non-dominant hand made them feel (and sound) more like beginners.

Click to watch.

Experts in the "rediscovery" group played with the non-dominant hand, making them feel and sound like beginners.

After playing for a minute, all the expert guitarists watched a YouTube video clip of a true beginner, who struggled to play a series of chords. They each wrote a few sentences of advice for the beginner, and then reported the extent to which they related to his struggle. Playing backwards proved to be an effective rediscovery technique for the experts. Compared with the control group, the rediscovery group reported feeling more empathy for the greenhorn.

Next, Zhang hired 75 beginner guitarists to evaluate the advice from the experts. (The novices read each piece of advice at random, knowing nothing of the previous experiment.) Indeed, novices favored advice from those experts who had played their guitars backwards—and thus rediscovered the feeling of inexperience.

Overall, rediscovery experts gave advice that was more specific and actionable. Experts in the control group offered comments such as, "This player's hand placement is wrong." In contrast, those in the rediscovery group gave more constructive advice; for example, "Have that right hand flowing on the strings, and suspend the hand using your pinky finger as a swivel on the body of the guitar."

The advice from the rediscovery group was more encouraging, too. ("Play slower and work your way up to full speed," one expert wrote. "Kirk Hammett didn't learn it overnight!")

"The experts who felt the experience of inexperience ended up seeing more potential in the beginner they were evaluating," Zhang says. "Their advice reflected that."

Corporate Field Studies

Zhang and her faculty advisors hope to study the effects of rediscovery in a corporate setting, where mentorship and training programs are often integral to everyday operations.

"We'd love to understand how managers can understand the feeling of being a novice in the organization," she says. "This is a really important problem in organizations because transference of knowledge of skills and expertise is critical to helping new employees learn."

The field studies will include hospitals, where seasoned physicians routinely mentor brand-new doctors through life-or-death situations. "There's a huge learning curve in medicine, and teaching is highly variable in terms of training," Zhang says. "Some attending physicians really prioritize mentoring, while others think students should fend for themselves. If these people can rediscover what it was like to be a medical student, can that change the type of training that goes on in a medical context?"

Zhang acknowledges that the rediscovery process might be uncomfortable for experts. But her research indicates that it can yield positive results for any organization where leaders pass their knowledge on to followers.

"It's not something we do naturally," Zhang says. "Once we get good at something, our intuition is not to say, 'OK, let me go see how it feels to be bad at it again.' But the findings suggest that if you get people who are experts to rediscover the feeling of being a beginner, that could actually have powerful implications for how advising takes place in an organization. It has implications for how experts can better understand those who have less experience than they do."

Note to managers: If your organization is interested in participating in a field study on rediscovery, please visit The Research Exchange, or email with the subject "Research Exchange Field Study."

About the Author

Carmen Nobel is the senior editor of Harvard Business School Working Knowledge.

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In order to be published, comments must be on-topic and civil in tone, with no name calling or personal attacks. Your comment may be edited for clarity and length.
    • Bill Kaplan
    • Founder, Working Knowledge CSP
    Another way for novices to help the experts to help them (the novices) is through a planned and targeted knowledge transfer strategy. The novices, who may not know how to ask the questions to get the knowledge that they need, craft a strategy with defined objectives for the knowledge they need, along with the method by which this knowledge will be transferred. The novices are the seekers of knowledge and the experts provide answers to the questions asked by the novices.

    This does several things:
    1. Takes into account the capabilities of the learners
    2. Makes learners responsible for seeking the knowledge
    3. Provides opportunity to understand what other knowledge is required from the interaction with the expert
    4. Aligns knowledge transfer mechanism with the type of knowledge required
    5. Identifies specific knowledge items to transfer with a timeline and measures of success for the value of the knowledge transferred.
    6. Builds relationships between experts and novices so trust can be established and further interactions will be more likely successful.

    • WD
    • CEO, Stealth Org
    This "curse of knowledge" is a struggle I face frequently.

    The most fundamental example comes when explaining a very familiar concept/product to someone for the first time.

    Given that documenting the journey is often hard to do or even impossible, it seems that the only practical option this article suggests would be to basically go do try to understand something equally challenging for you to learn prior to explaining a complex concept to someone else?
    • Judith Clear
    • Manager, Workplace Training Unit, NSWPF Police Force
    "Failing as an older experienced adult educator - learning the new skill of motorcycle riding - was both a humbling and enlightening experience and made me much more aware of the advice I gave back in the workplace, the patience which was needed to teach a new skill and the empathy all novices deserve.
    • Peter Blok
    • Lecturer and writer about HRM, Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences
    Fascinating research project! What I find interesting about it is that the border between tacit and codified knowledge seems to be a dynamic one and not static.
    • Burt Alper
    • Instructor, Stanford Graduate School of Business
    Fascinating insights. One underlying element to this research relates to empathy. As experts gain more expertise, they start to lose touch with their audience. The knowledge gap makes it harder for them to articulate the relevant details in a way that makes sense to their audience.

    I teach presentation skills to business students. A key part of my instruction is about relating the speaker's wealth of data to the audience's needs. "How can you filter all that you know into the crucial tidbits that the audience needs to understand your wisdom?" And further, "What language can you use (metaphors, analogies) to make your content more accessible to your audience?"

    Too often, communicators focus on their own needs at the expense of their audience's needs. Playing the guitar upside down re-establishes the empathetic connection between the expert and the novice. It reminds the expert what it was like to be a novice, and consequently, gives them the proper perspective on how to communicate with their novice audience.
    • Sanjeev Badhwar
    • Vice President, Mphasis UK Limited
    A very practical analysis. I have often observed that when talking to experts, the key to getting the right answer is to ask the right question. The novice does not realise that the expert is interpreting the nuances of the question asked in light of his expertise, and not necessarily in light of what the novice wants to know. Mentoring is indeed a very complicated exercise as it is critical that teacher and pupil are 'in sync'. Another limitation of this exchange is how much grasping power the mentee has. He has to be able to absorb knowledge and internalise it, because often the expert in his answer assumes that certain things are already known. The way to do a successful knowledge transfer therefore is to have reverse Knowledge transfer sessions whereby the mentee explains to the mentor what he has understood. This is critical to achieve te hdesired objective.
    • Steve
    • Owner, Q9C Quality Consulting, LLC
    Yes, the best coaches, teachers, instructors, mentors - and even leaders - have the gift of empathy.
    • Chris Lyons
    • Faculty, Grand Canyon University
    This is the most practical article I have ever read. I worked in the tax world for a few years in public accounting. Every Senior and Manager with oversight responsibilities needs to read this article. They could use a jolt of reality. Awesome!

    Chris Lyons
    • Talha Khurshid Siddiqui
    • Founder, Experts Nest
    Quite interesting research though. But I was wondering whether there are other options available to help mentors help hustlers besides making them feel like a hustler themselves?

    Waiting for the answer!
    • Kapil Kumar Sopory
    • Company Secretary, SMEC(India) Private Limited
    It is an irony that higher knowledge makes many forget the base from which they rose. We proceed ahead forgetting our baselines. I came across a Ph. D. in Mathematics who failed as a high school teacher because he could not get to what actually the students needed. For a mentor to succeed, understanding and then bowing down to match the knowledge/skill levels of the students is very important. Some of the leaders start expecting that even a new recruit will rise to their level immediately which will obviously not happen due to such expectation mismatching the possible.Result : misunderstanding and discord.
    Training mentors to develop empathy is a must before giving them this responsibility.
    • Aim
    • Drilling Supervisor, KOC

    What if the expert intentionally hides his advice/mentoring? This experiment makes no distinction between people who are incentivised/forced to give advice to newbies and the ones who do not wish to.

    It seems like the experiment assumes the willingness of the person to give the advice which may not always be the case despite capability/expertness.

    Willingness to give advice pre-requires the capability to give advice as the former can make one seek out methodologies suited for his subjects.

    I was tempted to comment, because just this evening we had a discussion among the family that people nowadays are far less willing to share basic experiences in life. And when one does share, the person is seen as naive for disclosing a "valuable information" (emphasis on double commas).

    Best regards,

    • Dorothy Leonard
    • Harvard Business School Professor, Emerita, The Leonard-Barton Group LLC
    Very interesting! For the past two years, we have been working on transferring what we call deep smarts (business-critical, experience-based knowledge) from highly experienced personnel to less experienced ones. The gap between expert and novice is the harder to bridge than between expert and journeyman because the novice may lack foundational knowledge in the expert's domain. In the case of experience-based knowledge, the novice often lacks receptors for the expert's know-how--ones even as basic as understanding terminology or scientific principles--and that lack makes learning inefficient. Certainly empathy and a lack of arrogance on the part of experts is necessary, but analyzing the nature and extent of the knowledge gap between expert and learner is an important step in making knowledge mentoring effective.
    • David Perkins
    • Research Professor, Co-principal Investigator of LILA, Harvard Graduate School of Education
    This intriguing set of findings has a provocative connection to a theme a number of colleagues and I have been pursuing this year in the LILA (Learning Innovations Laboratory) group at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, a group of chief learning officers and others with similar roles that engages in inquiry into themes around organizational learning, leadership, and innovation. This year, our theme is "flexpertise," meaning the flexible deployment of expertise. Expert knowledge has both vertical and lateral potential, vertical potential in the sense of deeper and deeper technical applications and lateral potential to address challenges beyond its most immediate focus. However, the lateral potential tends to get stuck in organizational silos and in the minds of the experts themselves. Ting Zhang's research concerns experts sharing insights with novices, but some of her techniques seem very relevant to mobilizing lateral pot
    ential. The barrier is much the same in both cases: much of expert knowledge is tacit. When experts work in their own domains, pattern recognition activates the knowledge, but when experts try to reach outside their specialties, strategies are needed to surface some of that tacit knowledge and make less usual connections. Ting Zhang's research very helpfully suggests some ways that might be done!
    • Shiv Gaglani
    • Co-founder, Osmosis
    This is fascinating work, with great potential for improving education particularly in apprentice-type environments. I could imagine a day when those serving as mentors regularly apply tools such as self-reflection to improve their ability to coach mentees.