Throw your expertise out the window

Jeremy Whittaker, A local council member in Mesa, introduced me to Carlos Mateos, who is a sophomore at Red Mountain High School and co-founder of High X Incubator.

Carlos had met with Jeremy and his council assistant Blaise Caudill to discuss his team’s ideas for creating a student-run incubator program.

I agreed to meet with him as well, to provide some guidance and mentoring. As I wiped the whiteboard before his visit, I was running through the questions I would ask about the project.

Carlos came in and sat down on my orange couch.

“So, tell me about your project,” I said.

Carlos then launched into a 20 minute overview of his vision. He had already met with officials from the Mesa City Council and school district. He was setting up meetings with our state senator and university professors. He had researched business models and crafted unique story angles for his social media content.

I sat in my chair in silence.

The first word I uttered was “Wow.”

This high school sophomore was running circles around me. I had to shift my attention into hyper-drive so that I could track the systems-thinking way he viewed this endeavor. His ecosystem knowledge and influencing skills were at master level. He had a vision for a funding model that would support high school entrepreneurs who could use their business earnings for college, so they would not incur debt. And he wanted to develop a model that would create profit sharing for his school, adding a funding mechanism to our cash-strapped district.

At that moment, I realized that the very best way I could support Carlos and his team was to help clear obstacles, connect my network to their work and lend my name and background in cases where they had to prove that they had backing from an “expert.”

The only moment I remembered our age and experience difference was when I suggested a follow up meeting the next week.

“Um, I am in school then, and I don’t drive,” he said.

“Also, can you please write a letter to our Moms so that they know that we are doing something legit?”

I handled the Mom letter — I totally understand why their moms want to make sure the adults helping their kids are trustworthy and ethical.

As for the project, I am excitedly taking the back seat, and watching my mind be blown at every turn.

When expertise gets in the way of innovation

We spend a lot of time building our knowledge, developing our point of view and polishing our expertise. Mastering your craft is awesome, and applauded.

However, when we want to innovate new ways or working, or serve new audiences (like high school students), all of our experience just gets in the way.

The expert system is often designed to reinforce mediocrity and sameness.

  • “Why don’t you use something that is already developed?” (Because it is boring and doesn’t work)
  • “All businesses have to start with a comprehensive plan.” (No they don’t, just watch us!)
  • “You have to get everyone’s permission before moving forward.” (Says who? Let’s give ourselves permission).

Releasing the need to demonstrate how smart and capable we are will liberate our innovative ideas and approaches.

Will all the new ideas work? Of course not. Some of you fans of Trading Spaces will remember when Hildi Santo-Tomas  glued straw to the walls in one home, and painted another room black and anchored the furniture to the ceiling. Probably some home owner somewhere thinks these designs are avant-garde and lovely.

A whole bunch of the rest of us are glad our rooms were not sacrificed for those “innovative” designs.

In this whole mess of try/experiment/trust/let go, there are all kinds of cool ideas that will  help us solve problems we didn’t even know we had. Not to mention open doors for new innovative leaders.

How to let your expertise go

We are deeply socialized to maintain expert status. So we have to practice letting go. Here are a few ways to do that:

  • Listen deeply to what someone is saying, without simulataneously playing out your response in your head
  • Lend the weight of your brand or reputation to people who need to use you as a calling card or shield from a world that demands that we only listen to “real” experts
  • Instead of continually thinking why a new idea won’t work, think of all the ways it could work
  • Instead of thinking “this would never work for me or my clients,” think “who would this work for?”

I am looking forward to participating in High X Incubator’s development, not as the wise mentor, but as the eager student. I can’t wait to watch them blow all traditional ideas out of the water as they develop a learning program that is by students for students, and supports business ideas that make for people who aren’t old enough to drive, like Carlos.

If you have the opportunity to let your expertise go, I highly recommend it. It will set your ideas free, and refill your pot of creative energy.

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