The Betrayal of Experience
Is expertise sabotaging your success?
Laurence Gonzales almost had his hand bitten off by an ashtray.
As a child, Mr. Gonzales was fascinated by his grandmother’s ceramic ashtray, which was fashioned in the form of a coiled rattlesnake. Decades later, while hiking in the Santa Monica Mountains, he came across the ruin of a stone house. Picking through the rubble, he spotted it among the debris: his grandmother’s ashtray!
As he reached out to pick it up, the ashtray flicked out its tongue. Mr. Gonzales froze, backed away, and lived to tell the story.
Even Laurence Gonzales admits the absurdity of having mistaken a real rattlesnake in the mountains for an ashtray in a living room. He uses his experience to demonstrate how the mental models we create for ourselves can lead us into folly. Nostalgia, familiarity, and wishful thinking often assert themselves so powerfully that they overshadow knowledge and common sense. We become so focused on what we expect or what we want that we make decisions with no rational justification — sometimes with catastrophic consequences.
Practice makes permanent
Mr. Gonzales rallies plenty of evidence to support his thesis. He cites the case of a policeman who trained himself to disarm assailants by snatching a gun from the hand of a fellow officer again and again. After each attempt, he would return the gun to his colleague for another try. When just such a situation arose in the line of duty, the officer neatly disarmed the culprit, then automatically handed the gun back as he had done so many times in practice. Fortunately, he survived the encounter.
Lynn Hill, an internationally acclaimed rock climber, interrupted the rhythm of her preparation routine to tie her shoe and forgot to tie her harness. Her subconscious mind registered her shoelace as a harness strap and allowed her to proceed to the next step of her checklist. She survived only because tree branches broke her 72-foot fall.
The great irony in these stories is how experience and training sometimes work against us. In mountaineering and law enforcement, as in every potentially hazardous field, exhaustive preparation conditions men and women to react instinctively and…