In business speak it’s called the paradox of expertise. That mindset where a leader or company stops being curious, stops exploring new ideas, stops asking hard questions because we know everything there is to know about how this market works or how things are done around here.

The paradox of expertise explains why 4×8 sheets of plywood are still presented as the foundation for starter layouts, even though far more interesting alternatives exist. It also explains why we believe in complex operations as a given rather than a choice.

The paradox of expertise embodies the state where what we know limits what we can imagine. If I say operations-oriented layout, you think of multiple trains zooming back and forth around a large space on one or more levels. I suspect you envision as much track as possible, industry around every corner and a certain style of operation or control system. You see this image because “that’s how we do things in this hobby mister.” And, by inference, the alternatives are too boring, even though one of them might be a perfect fit for your circumstances.

In a hobby of abundance, where many voices all seek your attention, how do you choose what’s important to know and important to you? Thank god for experts who point the way through the morass so we can just sit back and relax knowing we’re in good hands. Good hands that will perpetuate the status quo forever because of the power of expertise.

My sarcasm aside, I acknowledge that expertise can be a helpful and good thing, until it gets in the way of creative thinking and exploring new ideas. I take this view because I’m saddened by how quickly hobbyists seem to copy and rely on someone else’s experience and judgement rather than explore on their own. We’re quick to jump on the bandwagon for the latest and greatest design fad or techno gimmick, whether such things genuinely serve our individual needs or not. After all, no one wants to feel left behind or out of step because we’ve been taught to pay attention, follow the rules and do as we’re told since the first day we entered school. Creative thinking has been frowned upon until just recently because we are in the middle of a cultural shift that views conformity in a less flattering light. Furthermore, we’re bombarded by messages and technology from the minute we awake in the morning to the moment we fall asleep at night, which adds to the mental exhaustion many experience. “I’m too tired to think, just tell me how-to do_______(fill in the blank), so I can start having fun.”

I think of this craft as a creative pursuit with plenty of room for new ways to enjoy and experience it. I realize that my relentless independent approach is uncommon. I realize not every one wants to trade the comfort of what they know for the what-if of the unknown and I’m not insisting that anyone do that. However, if we assume the future will be just like the past and that how we do things today, will be how we do things tomorrow, then we might be in a quandary when the reality of the future takes both the experts and us by surprise.



  1. Chris Mears

    On the one hand they’re a source of “help” that isn’t always what’s really needed. Those experts are everywhere these days and it seems we divide ourselves into two groups; further we perpetuate a belief that becoming an expert is a function of Divinity and not the product of effort. But I digress.

    Closer to home, there are the experts that we look up to. Those who inspire our own work. Being a hobby for the creative mind, we play a balancing game with finding some sort of validation for our work and it can be difficult to find your path for fear of being all alone when you get there. We might look to our own cadre of experts not as guiding lights but with the private ambition that in our work we might inspire a connection to someone we’ve grown to admire.

    I believe that a lot of us in the hobby live in this paradigm: We have this passion that we find easiest to express in the form of model railways. We’re learning to express that voice and in doing so are challenged to nurture it productively both for the health of our craft and its community as well as our own work. All the while not dwelling too introspectively with the worry of “If I model this or work in that scale maybe I’ll fit in a little better than I feel like I do now.”

    That reliance on the expert is a delicate balance. If we’re the ones asking for their help we owe it to ourselves to not regard their advice as law but equally when asked to give the advice, that we don’t phrase it that way either.


  2. mike

    Hi Chris,

    It is a delicate balance. Approaching someone with greater skill or understanding and saying: “I’m attempting to do this, and have tried this and that but I keep getting stuck here. Can you help me understand what I’m doing wrong or not seeing?” is a far different conversation than saying: “I don’t know what to do. You’re the expert tell me.” Like you, I have no need for unsolicited opinions about what I should be doing but I’m always eager to learn from someone whose work I respect and admire.