I devoted an entire chapter of The Motivation Myth to the idea that you should talk to a pro, not a coach, when you need help creating a routine to achieve a goal. (Teachers are great, but if you want to start a business, a successful entrepreneur has lived the steps.)
Pros? They know what you need to do.
But what if you want to learn how to do something?
That's when turning to an expert might not be the best idea. According to a study just published in Psychological Science, top performers generally don't give better advice than average performers.
Partly that's because research also shows experts tend to have skills so advanced their advice is beyond the understanding of a non-expert. (And sometimes, especially where a physical skill is involved, experts can't necessarily explain what effort, practice, and muscle memory allows them to do.)
Take my Nascar driver friend Ross Chastain. Ross and I have raced go-karts together. I've ridden in a racecar with Ross at Road Atlanta. He's given me driving tips. They're great ... but also, to be honest, beyond me.
Not only is he operating at a level I can't relate to, his years of racing experience have resulted in skills so intuitive they at least partly defy self-analysis. Like physicians whose experience allows them to make surprisingly accurate snap judgments, what seem like intuitive decisions by Chastain are actually the product of years of experience and thousands of hours of practice.
As the authors of a 2005 study write:
Contrary to the claims of knowledge engineers, we argue that expertise in general ... cannot be captured in rule-based expert systems, since expertise is based on the making of immediate, unreflective situational responses; intuitive judgment is the hallmark of expertise.
Oddly enough, that means experts are unlikely to be the best teachers since their expertise makes it almost impossible for them to explain -- to people like me, and maybe you -- what they do.
Here's a fun example of that finding in action (h/t to Wharton professor Ethan Mollick):
All of which is a problem, and not just because research shows we tend to think experts are always the best teachers: We also think the people who give the most advice are experts.
As the researchers write:
Although advice from the best-performing advisers was no more beneficial than advice from other advisers, participants believed that it had been -- and they believed this despite the fact that they were told nothing about their advisers' performance. Why?
The best performers did not give better advice, but they did give more of it, and participants apparently mistook quantity for quality. [my italics]
These studies suggest that performing and advising may often be unrelated skills and that in at least some domains, people may overvalue advice from top performers.
In short, not only do we assume top performers provide better advice, we also assume that people who give lots of advice must be experts: that quantity somehow equals quality.
Even though it doesn't.
As Professor Mollick writes, "The very nature of being an expert makes it hard to teach your expertise clearly to others. Experts combine so much complex intuition and experience into decisions that is hard to share it."
So what should you do with all this?
If you need to learn what to do -- if you need a process or routine -- as an expert. (Ask a pro.) Say you want to run a marathon; someone who has actually run a few marathons can give you a practical, real-world, basically guaranteed-as-long-as-you-follow-it training program.
If you need to learn how to do something -- if you want to learn, say, to run with optimally efficient biomechanics -- ask an expert teacher.
Lastly, if you do have access to an expert, take advantage of the opportunity -- but keep your questions simple.
When I was at a go-kart track with Ross, I asked him for one tip. He told me to go flat-out through the S-turns. "Go in wide," he said, "tap the inside corner of the first turn, then tap the wall just before the narrowest point on the next one. That's the line you want to take. The back end might slide a little on the exit of the last turn and you may kiss the wall, but that's OK."
And it was -- and it was advice I could digest and put into practice.
While experts possess experience so vast and intuition so deep that sharing how they know what they know might actually be impossible, if you ask the right questions, you may be able to learn to do one or two things the way they do.
Which is all you can -- and according to research, should -- ask.