This essay was originally published on Aaron’s blog.
Experts are generally right until they’re wrong. Unfortunately, it’s very easy to get fooled into thinking that experts are always right. This is because they are…experts. They are authoritative and knowledgeable. This is especially true when it comes to trying new things in existing fields. We are biased into believing that knowing a lot about something confers an ability to predict the future.
The problem with expertise is that it doesn’t necessarily come paired with an openness to new ideas. Expertise can be used to shut down new ideas and avenues of exploration just as easily as it can aid in invention. I’ve been guilty of this when hearing about new ideas. In fact, it often feels easier to shut things down than to use what I know to figure out how to make something new actually work.1 Perversely, being negative may make someone seem like more of an expert than they are, creating a negative feedback cycle.
When you don’t know much about a subject, you’re free of the constraints of what has been tried. That means people who are inexpert will often have wilder ideas. Sometimes, that’s called naive or stupid. However, when those ideas happen to work, then it’s called genius or groundbreaking.
That doesn’t mean that every problem can be solved by creative ignoramuses. There seems to be a level of expertise which, when paired with the right environment, is conducive to productive creativity. I wish I had a way to know those levels for different areas.
Without a clear set of rules to use in evaluating expertise, I instead try to evaluate founders based on what I can learn from talking to them. This is especially true in areas that I understand fairly well. While there are certain things I might expect a founder to understand about what they’re doing, I’m much more interested in how they think and test assumptions. This is part of how I try to figure out if I’m investing in potential (good) or track record (not so good).
One of the tricks in doing this is to see whether or not the tests that founders run cause them to ask increasingly interesting questions. Coming up with questions is a good sign of creativity, while answering them well builds the expertise necessary to actually get something done.
Technology increases the likelihood that a seemingly naive approach to a problem will work because it reduces the iterative cycle of trying that approach. Given enough time and resources, you could try every single solution.2 In the real world, though, we have to pick solutions to work on. This is where the good founders are separated from the bad ones. The good ones get better and more open as time goes on, while the bad ones get more closed down and start rejecting ideas out of hand.
The same is true for investors. The best ones use new knowledge to open up new ideas, while the worst use it to close out entire categories of ideas.3 That’s short sighted because the world constantly changes, which makes new things possible. Founding and an investing in those new possibilities is what creates the companies that change the world. That creates new areas in which to be expert, starting the cycle all over again.
2. And enough monkeys at enough typewriters will eventually produce Hamlet.↩
3. This is different than investors who understand the limits of their expertise and focus on specific sectors. An investor can be sector focused and open to lots of new ideas within that sector, just as an investor can say they’ll invest in anything only to shoot down every idea.↩
Thanks to Craig Cannon for feedback.