How ‘Expert Syndrome’ Was Ruining My Life
Today I’d like to share how ‘expert syndrome’ was my ruining my life.
Expert syndrome is a term I now use to describe something that has been very prevalent throughout my life and perhaps in yours too.
One sentence summary: Expert syndrome is when the tools designed to help us achieve our purposes become our purpose.
Don’t worry, it will all make sense.
What is expert syndrome?
“Put 100% into everything you do.”
“Do all you can in all you do.”
“Strive for excellence at all times and at all costs.”
If expert syndrome is a disease then these attitudes above are the bacteria that lead to infection.
Before we dive in, it’s worth saying that I fully understand where these attitudes are coming from. There is value in them.
9/10 they come from the right intentions and a good heart.
However, throughout my life I have seen people strive for perfection in the name of excellence only to fail because they cannot reach the unattainable (myself included.)
In fact we are extremely limited (more on this later.)
Expert syndrome is our attempt to neglect this and it simply doesn’t work.
An example of expert syndrome: my exercise routine.
I have never been the sporty type. As a child I resented that.
A lot of my childhood was spent scouring bodybuilding websites, reading about the best workouts, latest research in the field of athletics and uncovering the best nutritional practices.
One time I even snuck into a supplement shop, lied about my age and hid a tub of whey protein under my bed only to get busted by Mum.
Investments were made, both in the time spent working out and my pocket money into various gear, weights for my bedroom, equipment etc.
I stayed committed to trying to get on the rugby team even though I was awful. I went to as many after school sports clubs as I could. I woke up at 6am to run hill sprints or workout in my garage while listening to Linkin Park.
I was committed beyond belief and spent buckets of willpower trying to achieve my fitness goals.
I failed miserably.
Why did I fail?
Hindsight is of course 20/20.
Looking back now I can see that expert syndrome was the cause.
You see, deep down, becoming a super-athlete wasn’t something that was true to me.
It wasn’t a core purpose of my life.
Not once did I even believe it was or even desire that for my life.
Then one day it hit me:
Perhaps some of you reading do (and that’s great.)
But this is not one of the true purposes I live for and therefore I will always fail in trying to achieve it.
In trying to do so I’m forcing a false identity onto myself and like an incompatible organ transplant, my very being will reject it.
So what should I do?
Should I quit exercising forever?
Of course not.
Exercise has benefits I do not want to live without, but it should be used as a tool to achieve my true purposes.
For me to use exercise properly, I should harvest the benefits and apply them to what I really care about doing with my limited life.
My true fitness goals
When I boil down what my true fitness goals are they are incredibly achievable.
Keep my body healthy to prevent sickness as much as I can.
Keep my body strong to prevent injury and allow me to adventure.
Look good for my wife and my own confidence
Get the best sleep I possibly can
Use the energy and mental clarity to benefit my writing
For me to achieve this doesn’t take much and it certainly doesn’t require spending thousands of hours or pounds every year.
I don’t need a six-pack.
I don’t need to be the strongest man in Belfast.
So why waste my time and jeopardize what I really care about while trying?
I’ve learned that in my life, exercise is a tool. Not a purpose.
Tools vs Purposes
In my opinion, these are the two categories all actions in our lives can be categorised into.
Purposes: the reasons we live/things we care about most.
Tools: things we use to benefit/reach our purposes.
When they get muddled, that’s when expert syndrome ensues.
Remember, expert syndrome is when the tools designed to help us achieve our purposes, become our purpose.
When money [a tool] becomes our purpose we get side-tracked and lose sight of the things we really care about.
Ralph Waldo Emerson in his essay Nature puts it like this:
“When simplicity of character and the sovereignty of ideas is broken up by the prevalence of secondary desires, the desire of riches, the desire of pleasure, the desire of power, the desire of praise… a paper currency is employed when there is not buillions in the vault” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
We lose our inner treasure from the vault and our lives become paper and purposeless.
So what is my purpose?
I can’t speak for yours, only my own.
Personally I take mine from what some have labelled ‘the golden rule.’
In Mark chapter 12, verse 28, a religious leader of the day asks Jesus: “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”
Jesus responds by quoting Deuteronomy 6:4-5 (often called ‘the shema’) and Leviticus 19:18.
“The most important commandment is this: ‘Listen, O Israel! The Lord our God is the one and only Lord. And you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength.’ The second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ No other commandment is greater than these.” Mark 12:29-31
From these words I take my purposes and subsequently my priorities.
Love my wife
Love my family
Love my neighbours (whom Jesus defines as everyone else in Luke 10:25-37.)
This is the core of who I am. Anytime I neglect them or rearrange the order of them, my life falls apart.
I also have a 5th point which is: change lives through my craft/calling
This is also key in my opinion.
A quick note on craft/calling
All of us are called to have a craft.
Not only is it often the source of our livelihood but also a source of deep, personal fulfillment and flourishment (I know it’s not a word but it should be.)
Some are obvious, like carpentry or metalworking.
Some are less obvious, like teaching or communication.
It is possible to have a few/operate in multiple… but it is unlikely to master more than one.
Callings/crafts are like purposes in that we will not fully flourish unless we chase and pursue them.
For me in this season it is to: write to change lives (starting with my own.)
The tools can be endless but here are a few examples to show how they can be used to directly impact our purposes.
The most valuable resource we have because it is the most limited.
Time ultimately plays the starring role in all of my purposes.
Whether it’s spending time with God, my wife, my family, my neighbours or developing my craft/writing.
This month I’m really learning that my calendar determines my life because it determines how and where I spent my time.
Of course, the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil, but it is an incredibly useful tool for:
Living: paying for food, rent, travel etc.
Giving: loving our neighbours, both locally and globally.
Investing: developing our craft and investing in relationships (e.g. grabbing dinner with a pal.)
It’s amazing how much time, energy and money we spend thinking, preparing and eating food (not to mention having to do the dishes too!)
I’m trying to see how I can improve this area of my life, both in terms of my diet and the time I dedicate to it.
Heath/energy: “Man is not fed to be fed, but to work” – Nature, by Emerson.
Hospitality: food is a great way to connect with friends, family and neighbours
Pleasure: “A person can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in their own toil. This too, I see, is from the hand of God” – Ecclesiastes 2:24
In the past, I have been guilty of making experience a purpose in my life. I would chase experiences whether it was for professional development or personal pleasure.
This led to a lot of priorities getting out of whack in my own life.
But experience is an incredibly powerful tool to:
Help others avoid mistakes we’ve made
Add value to people’s lives and society
Often make money in the process
Prayer is the most powerful tool we have, because it is the only way to make our earth look more like heaven.
I use prayer to:
Connect to God and his plan for my life (my purpose)
Change my world
How to cure expert syndrome
With this in mind here are a few points to think about as you embark/continue on this journey.
Connect with your true purposes
Build your life around them
Gently bring yourself back when you stray away from them
These are simple principles, but they are the most worthy things you can do.
I have planned to expand these in future work and will link them here when I’ve published them.
In the meantime you can sign up to the monthly newsletter at the end of this post to be notified when they become available.
So why does all this matter?
It matters because our time, money, energy and lives are limited.
We cannot give 100% to everything.
In terms of time we spend 30%+ of it on sleep alone which only leaves 70% left to spend on the places that matter most.
This is why expert syndrome is deadly.
Because spending our lives on tools is meaningless.
When we do we get exhausted and distracted.
We feel dissatisfied and purposeless.
We must learn to spend our resources and use our tools wisely.
We must use what is limited to impact what is unlimited.
What is unlimited?
For me it boils down to the ripple effects of change a single life can have and eternity.
I’ve learned I’m not superman.
I’ve realised I’ll never be an Olympian.
I’ve come to terms with the fact that I’ll never climb Mount Everest (or tick off other things on my bucket list.)
Because that’s not why I’m here.
Don’t let expert syndrome ruin your life.
Spend what is limited on things that are unlimited.
Run towards the true purposes you are here to achieve.
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a huge crowd of witnesses to the life of faith, let us strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily trips us up. And let us run with endurance the race God has set before us.” – Hebrews 12:1
Thanks so much for taking the time to read this.
Would love to hear your thoughts and talk more about this in the comments below.
All the best,
– Matthew Thompson