An Advantage of Not Knowing

Frequently clients who are exploring alternative career paths express the concern that because they have limited or no expertise in a field they’re contemplating that they won’t be able to land a job. Relatedly, I often hear worries from clients that they are generalists, “jacks of all trades, masters of none.”

These are certainly legitimate issues, but there’s another way of looking at a lack of in-depth knowledge that not only offers solace but can be used to help convince a prospective employer to hire you.

Francesca Gino, author of the current best-seller “Rebel Talent,” summarizes this position nicely:
“It can be easier to approach problems from fresh perspectives when we are NOT experts. Unfamiliar or unpleasant arguments, opposing views, information that disproves rather than affirms our beliefs*, and counterintuitive findings – rather than familiar arguments and evidence that confirms our views – cause us to think more deeply and come to creative and complex conclusions. And that’s where outsiders have an advantage over experts: They are less rooted in, and defensive of, existing viewpoints.”

Confirming this point-of-view, Gino cites research on 166 solved challenges posted online by InnoCentive, a website that has awarded over $40 million to individuals proposing solutions to difficult problems posed by website visitors. People whose domain of expertise was six times removed from the domain of the problem were three times more likely to solve the problem than people whose domain of expertise was closer to the problem. Nonexperts turned out to be better problem solvers than experts.

Now, obviously, you can’t rest your pitch to be hired primarily on your absence of knowledge! But if you’re seeking a position focused on solving problems in a progressive organization you should combine a past record of achievement with the advantage you have in not being steeped in “conventional wisdom” about key issues. Ideally you will be able to cite a couple of examples of situations in which you used fresh thinking (perhaps connecting dots in ways that conventional thinkers were simply unable to do) that led to successful outcomes. Most organizations will still favor a candidate with in-depth experience in a particular area over one with much less. But don’t overlook the opportunity presented by a smart positioning of your lack of expertise.

*The phenomenon of “confirmation bias” is shared by most people: a tendency to overweight evidence that supports existing beliefs and underweights evidence that contradicts them. “Confirmation bias” is a key contributor to the political polarization that continues to increase, as partisans focus on stories and facts that “prove” that their positions are correct, ignoring information that might undermine those positions.