Lazy Expert Syndrome: How to Stay on Top of Your Game

The gist: We all eventually suffer from “lazy expert syndrome.” The best way to snap out of it and grow is to mentor someone new to your field.

It was the “roaring twenties” in America, and business was good. Even for criminals.

Al Capone had slowly built himself an empire making upwards of $100M each year. The only problem? He was in the business of narcotics, prostitution, gambling, and murder.

Capone literally got away with murder for years because he’d painstakingly built a network of minions to do his bidding. He was a careful man. All the major crime-fighting bureaus in The U.S. were trying to take him down, but he was untouchable.

That is, until he made an extraordinarily dumb mistake telling a prosecutor he was sick and couldn’t come to court to testify in a case. The police investigated, found him perfectly healthy, and arrested him on contempt of court. That started the ball rolling on a series of charges that eventually brought down the whole operation and sent Capone to the infamous Alcatraz prison.

One of the biggest businesses in America, brought down by a tiny flub. How could it happen?

He got lazy. Capone let his ego get the best of him; he thought he was so untouchable he didn’t need to exercise caution anymore.

The world is better off without Capone’s expertise, but it’s not better off without yours.  If you’ve ever made a rookie mistake—one you should have known better about—you might have experienced what Capone did: Lazy Expert Syndrome (LES).

Read on to learn how to keep LES from ever taking you down or setting you back.

Image courtesy of Susana Fernandez
Image courtesy of Susana Fernandez

Why You Suffer From Lazy Expert Syndrome

To understand how even the smartest people in the world can destroy their lives and careers with a tiny mistake, you have to understand how the human mind works.

You’ve been blessed with the ability to think, reason, and do math. Put these skills together, and what you have is an incredible ability to assess the risks that surround you every day.

When you first learn about these risks, you’re scared of them. That’s how the brain works—it fears what it doesn’t understand.

When you cook your first meal with your parents, they teach you the stove is hot and to be careful. As a result, you’re overly cautious. You watch your hand as it hovers over the hot surface. You don’t pick up more than one pot at a time. You wear a mitt every time you reach in the over, just in case.

But, as time goes on, you become an expert cook. You can juggle pots, make adjustments without a mitt, and move quickly with confidence. As that confidence builds, your fear subsides.

This is a good thing. You make better food faster. If you’re not careful, though, you can become overconfident. You start to think you’re such an enigma in the kitchen that all the rules you learned before are just for rookies. You’re so good you can’t get burned.

And that’s when you end up in the hospital.

How to Avoid Rookie Mistakes

In a previous life, I was a construction manager for a multinational firm. We were obsessed with safety.

Insurance for construction companies is extremely expensive; one way to stay competitive is to make sure employees don’t get hurt. There was just one problem; lots of our employees were getting hurt.

So, we did the logical thing. We improved our training programs. Any time we hired a new employee, they had to undergo rigorous safety training. We programmed them to be walking, talking safety machines. But the injuries continued.

When the bigwigs analyzed the data to see why the new safety program wasn’t working, the problem was glaringly clear. New workers were safer than ever. They weren’t getting hurt. The older ones were.

The older workers knew all the rules and best practices. They’d had the “culture of safety” drilled into them for years and they were experts at their trade. But, because they’d spent so long on the job without a single scrape, they became overconfident, and decided some of those rules could go.

They suffered from LES. Then, they got hurt.

Knowing this, we changed our approach. Rather than letting the older workers rest on their laurels, we put them in charge of training the younger ones. That’s when things changed. All of a sudden, employees who hadn’t thought about safety in years were forced not just to remember it, but to teach it as well. They became the “safety police” for the younger generation.

No cop wants to be caught breaking the law and, suddenly, our older workers were the new model of safety. And they lived happily ever after with all their limbs and lower insurance premiums.

Put This to Work by Mentoring

If you’ve become comfortable in your work after a long time in the field, it might be time to take the same approach we did.

What you’ll want to do is find a way to bring all the important things you learned long ago—the principles that made you great—to the front of your mind. And you need to do it regularly.

The best way I know to do that is to become a mentor.

Find someone new to your field. Look for someone full of ambition but without a lot of experience. It’s the perfect opportunity to not only develop yourself as a leader, but to keep yourself sharp.

Newbies have a way of asking questions and seeking information that force you to remember all the key principles behind the way you do things.

Sometimes, they even help you realize you’ve been doing something wrong all along—or at least that you could do it better.

The end result is that you get a new a follower to your way of thinking, and you improve your own processes at the same time by reminding yourself of what got you to where you are now and implementing new ideas you wouldn’t have found otherwise.

And you don’t need to be the star of your field to take on a mentorship role. If you’ve been doing what you do for awhile, there will always be someone new who could benefit from your wisdom.

If you work for a larger company, ask your HR department if there’s a formal mentorship program. Oftentimes there is. But if not, that shouldn’t stop you.

There are likely many times every day you have an opportunity to share what you know with someone else. Start making a habit of helping newer coworkers learn.

If you want to stay on top of your own game, mentorship is an effective way to do it.