November 3, 2003 spout

In Search of Expertise

I had an interesting insight while watching Episode II: Attack of the Clones (I had a hankering to see Yoda kick some butt, OK?!?). The definition of expert is someone that just does whatever it is they do; they don’t think about it. Everyone else is just learning. What drove this home for me was when Anakin heard of his mother being taken and how everyone else had failed or died looking for her, Anakin started out after her without any planning whatsoever. *That’s* an expert. Of course, he had The Force and the rest of us have to live with an average amount of midichlorian, but he’d done what I’ve seen other experts do, too: unconscious competence.

The reason that this is such an insight for me is that for my entire life, I’ve always felt that there were special people in the world that just know what they’re doing. These people worked in companies or were members of a profession and by their association with those organizations, I felt that they must be experts. I mean, how could someone be a member of professional for any length of time and not strive for mastery of the professional? It was watching Anakin that it finally sunk in that mere association is not enough; most organizations, no matter how high their standards, do not stop non-experts at the door. Experts are the ones inside the organizations that rise to the top, that stand out, that set examples for other members. Expertise is the thing that separates a moderately smart person studying up on a topic for a while from someone that really understands something down to their bones. This is what separates me catching up to my financial advisor after 6 months of study from a *real* money manager. That’s what separates a new computer science graduate from me.

That’s not to say that I couldn’t be better than some real” money managers one day or that the new college grad couldn’t be better then me on day one. What it does say, however, is that encountering a true expert is a rare thing. Because of that rarity, I believe that most reasonably intelligent people can, with study and practice, get good at practically anything that they set their mind to. This means that I can, with a reasonable amount of study and practice, check the work of my financial advisor or my accountant or a plumbing contractor and come up with things that they don’t. I know that this is true because I’ve done it (not with the plumbing though, I’m practically clueless there : ). The amount of study I needed to catch up with my professional service provider doesn’t make me an expert, of course, because it’s highly unlikely that either of them is an expert.

So, now that I’ve settled the question of whether membership in a profession makes one an expert (it doesn’t), that leaves two questions:

  1. How do you recognize expertise? I know it when it occurs in something that I’m familiar with, e.g. computer goo, but what about in a discipline where I’m not versed?
  2. How do you obtain expertise? I’ve got this down to a science for programming APIs, but can these techniques be applied to other disciplines?

Comments on my continued quest for expertise welcome.