The Betrayal of Experience

Is expertise sabotaging your success?



Laurence Gonzales almost had his hand bitten off by an ashtray.


As a child, Mr. Gonzales was fascinated by his grandmother’s ceramic ashtray, which was fashioned in the form of a coiled rattlesnake. Decades later, while hiking in the Santa Monica Mountains, he came across the ruin of a stone house. Picking through the rubble, he spotted it among the debris: his grandmother’s ashtray!


As he reached out to pick it up, the ashtray flicked out its tongue. Mr. Gonzales froze, backed away, and lived to tell the story.


Even Laurence Gonzales admits the absurdity of having mistaken a real rattlesnake in the mountains for an ashtray in a living room. He uses his experience to demonstrate how the mental models we create for ourselves can lead us into folly.


Nostalgia, familiarity, and wishful thinking often assert themselves so powerfully that they overshadow knowledge and common sense. We become so focused on what we expect or what we want that we make decisions with no rational justification — sometimes with catastrophic consequences.


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