“Expertise is deeply gratifying, but it is also a potential trap”

From last week’s issue of C&EN, some lessons learned by ACS President Allison A. Campbell following a bicycle crash in Washington, D.C., and how they relate to laboratory safety:

Campbell after her bike crash. Credit: Allison A. Campbell

Campbell after her bike crash. Credit: Allison A. Campbell

Since I regularly ride near my home in Washington state, I know the trails there quite well, including the overall quality, locations of potholes, and other hazards to be avoided. Additionally, we don’t get much rain, so it did not occur to me to pay any particular attention to puddles on the trail. So as I rode through a large puddle that morning, I was surprised when my front wheel dropped into a deep crater, sending me hurtling over my handlebars. My nose and chin slammed against the trail’s packed-gravel surface. I picked myself up slowly, stunned, stinging, and bleeding profusely. I was, all in all, fortunate. Even though I felt fine, I made a visit to the emergency room. I had neither a concussion nor broken bones: only scrapes, bruises, and two front teeth that were slightly pushed in but easily straightened.

We are all experts of one form or another, whether in the laboratory, the office, the kitchen, or any number of other settings. Expertise is deeply gratifying, but it is also a potential trap when it leads to overconfidence and a false sense of familiarity. Since my accident, I have been thinking about the idea of the “beginner’s mind” popularized by the Zen monk Shunryu Suzuki back in the 1970s. Suzuki observed that, as beginners in any practice, we are fully present and humble as we dedicate ourselves to learning something new and are on guard to grasp things we don’t know or might miss. As we accumulate skill and experience, the intensity of our awareness tends to erode. Suzuki urged us all to nurture our beginner’s mind, regardless of how advanced we might become at our pursuits, and to recognize that we are always beginners. Until recently, I had not thought about Suzuki’s advice as practical safety guidance.

Read Campbell’s full column at C&EN.

Author: Jyllian Kemsley

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2 Comments

  1. Thanks for sharing this Jyllian this really helps to be kept focused on what you are doing and even improve yourself to be more effective.

  2. Thanks for covering that thread. I actually ride a bike quite a lot and 2 of my worst crashes were within my home area…:) I guess overconfidence is really a trap!

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