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October 29, 2020

Experts on Tap, Not on Top: Our Expert Interview With Vikram Mansharamani

Rachel Salaman


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Vikram Mansharamani's new book, "Think For Yourself," seems a perfect fit for 2020. Subtitled, "Restoring Common Sense in an Age of Experts and Artificial Intelligence," it encourages us to question facts and opinions, rather than blindly accepting them.

The coronavirus crisis has let loose a tidal wave of expert opinion, but it rarely aligns. Who should we listen to, and why? And what if the experts don't make sense? Navigating all this can be overwhelming, leaving many people confused and scared.

Mansharamani's advice helps us to sift the mass of information we face every day, on all topics, and to make better decisions as a result.

In this clip from our Expert Interview podcast, the Harvard academic explains how his book grew out of a journal article that touched a nerve.

Escaping the Silo

Vikram Mansharamani draws a distinction between broad knowledge – which any of us can gain with some effort – and deep knowledge – which is what most experts have. For the best decisions, he says, breadth trumps depth every time.

"Experts live within silos and have better information within those silos than we likely ever will," says Mansharamani. "However, by living in those silos and having that depth of knowledge, they miss the context or the breadth of perspective that is really critical to long-term success in decision making."

Crucially, he doesn't think experts are "malicious or poor intentioned." In fact, their knowledge is essential in understanding the world and broadening our understanding. But in many situations, the deep and narrow silos in which they operate can cause problems.

Widening the Focus

A friend recently shared a shocking example of this. When his father was hospitalized with a severe chest infection, the hospital staff were entirely focused on treating the infection, and they completely ignored the frail senior's other medical needs, which were equally important to his health.

My friend tried to intervene so that his dad would get medication to protect him against stroke and heart conditions. But he was roundly ignored because this fell outside of the narrow focus of infection control. His father was left alone and at risk.

This example is particularly distressing as my friend had limited control over his loved one's treatment. In other situations, we have more power, and that's when widening our focus pays off, according to Mansharamani. We don't need to become experts in everything ourselves. In fact, it can sometimes be better if we don't.

The Bigger Picture

I remember going to see a financial adviser many years ago. I had a little bit of money to invest and was curious to see what an expert would suggest. Tech stocks, he told me, enthusiastically. It was a fabulous opportunity and there would be great returns – almost guaranteed. Just look at how that sector was growing!

At the time, I had a passing knowledge of stock market trends and an everyman's approach to company valuations – in that I thought share prices should probably go in the same general direction as profits. That basic knowledge was enough to make me think twice about tech stocks.

I resisted the financial adviser's advice. The dot-com bubble of 2000 burst a few weeks later. I'd have lost most of my small nest egg if I'd followed expert guidance. Instead, I benefited from what Mansharamani calls "a beginner's perspective" – when you know just enough to see the big picture.

The Importance of Learning

That's not to say that we shouldn't try to expand our knowledge about things that matter. That's always valuable. Mansharamani backs this up, urging us to stay engaged and keep asking questions. We should respect expert knowledge and learn from it, he says, but not be afraid to forge our own individual paths.

"The big problems that we face in the world today, they cross these silos. They cross borders. They aren't defined by single disciplines," Mansharamani reflects. "As we move forward in this world of complexity, there are experts generating lots and lots of dots. What becomes really valuable is understanding how to connect those dots."

Listen to Our Interview With Vikram Mansharamani

Discover fascinating insights from some of the world's leading business figures with our monthly Expert Interviews.

Mind Tools Premium and Corporate members can listen to the full 30-minute interview with Vikram Mansharamani in the Mind Tools Club.

If you're not a Mind Tools member, you can join the Mind Tools Club and gain access to our 2,400+ resources. For our corporate solutions, take a look at our Emerald Works site.

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