Notes on Trying & the Limits of Expertise

Written by Jennifer Griggs

This fall, I served as a reviewer for a series of grant applications for the National Institutes of Health. This is something that we do in my line of work to serve the scientific community, and I’ve always loved this part of my work.

In their applications, investigators describe research projects they hope to conduct with the support of funding from the National Institutes of Health. Reviewers rate grants applications on, among other things, both innovation—doing something new and paradigm shifting—and the approach, including feasibility, being urged to present preliminary findings that support that what they are embarking on is indeed achievable. And the investigators need to have sufficient expertise to conduct the research. That is, there’s a balance between This hasn’t been done before and We know what we’re doing.

This brings up a key question for me (and, as you read it, maybe for you too): How do we try something new when we have to show, and believe, that we can succeed? When does expertise constrain innovation?

Life is a series of experiments, isn’t it? If we live on the leading edge of life, we will try and fail and try again. On my team, one of our guideline principles is having a growth mindset, both individually and as a program. Growth mindset means that we encourage one another to try new things, to be willing to make mistakes, to be accountable for our errors, and to ask one another for help.

Playing with words. Here’s something helpful. The word experiment comes from the Latin word expertus, which means “to try.” And get this…the word experience also comes from the same word. And you don’t need me to tell you that, yes, the word expert does as well. So…we experiment, have experiences, and become experts through the very act of trying.

In the book Trying by Kobi Yamada, a sculptor explain to a boy who wants to create beautiful things

If you do nothing, it feels safe, but everything stays the same. If you do nothing, there is less to experience, less to love, and less to learn. 

The fear of failing is the scariest part, and it stops most people from starting. The only way to get to where you want to go is to take a step in that direction. And the best way to do that is to begin.

When the boy says, “I can’t imagine you ever failing,” the sculptor responds

The truth is, we are all failures.

The dreamers, the doers, the creators…

Being a failure means you loved something.

You cared. It means you stepped forward,

You didn’t hold back, you tried.

Our fear can hold us back from doing something we’ve never done before. And not solely fear of failure but related fears of how others will judge us, what they will say, fear of looking foolish or stupid. Perhaps we’ve grown up in an environment where it was not safe to fail. Perhaps we work in a place where it’s not okay to fail.

Here are the questions. What would it take to move into a willingness to fail? To innovate? What’s at stake if we don’t try? What can we do to make it safe for others–our children, our colleagues, those whom we lead–to try and to fail, to get up, and to innovate into experience and expertise? What is one thing you can do today to try something new, to experiment? 

Daisy and me on Zoom during the grant review meeting