Expertise… Is it real? Can you be taught to be an expert?

[Foreword: Whenever I say “You” in a post, I don’t ever mean you the person reading. In fact mostly, I mean it as a reference to myself. Using ‘you’ tends to make things sound more authoritative than I’d like, but writing everything as “I” this and “me” that gets really old really quickly.]

The one thing I haven’t yet talked about is expertise and why it’s a myth or at least a barrier so let me talk about that now and tie it all together for you. Most of us like the idea of expertise for different reasons. When we’re considered an expert, we like it because we’re special. When we’re not an expert, we like it because it means certain things are other people’s responsibility, or because the idea of expertise means there is somewhere we can arrive at which will make us better than we are now. But is any of that really true?

I remember the first time I realised that expertise was at least partly an illusion and a notion to be somewhat distrusted. I used to love the local library as a kid and would visit there often, borrowing as many books as I could carry. It was a magical place. At first, I stayed within the fiction section, but probably around age 12 or 13 I stated to wander into the non-fiction sections, just to see what was over there. And I realised that there were all these books that would tell you how to do things which was really cool! And so I started reading some of the ones that caught my eye.

At some point, I heard about speed reading and because I read a lot I thought that was a really cool idea. Imagine if I could read a whole book in an hour or so?! I could read the whole library! And so I borrowed a few books, including one called something like “Quantum Reading”. I remember reading the first part of Quantum Reading and being confused. The book was about a Japanese school teacher who would have her students read books in all sorts of weird ways. Having them just flick through the pages and then tell her what the book was about. Or hold the book up to their ear and listen to the book to hear what it was about etc. And apparently they could. I was confused. I knew this couldn’t be true, or Librarians would be the smartest people on the planet, but it was written in a book so it must be true, right?

Up until then, I had mistakenly believed that anything in the non-fiction section must be factually true. Non-fiction was to me books of truth about the world. But there in my hands I held a book, printed by a publisher, which I knew simply couldn’t be true. And so began a lesson on critical thinking and distrusting what is presented as truth by objects of authority like books.

That lesson stayed with me and today whenever I hear something on the news, I’m quite sceptical about it or at least about the way it’s presented. I have heard so many ‘new studies’ segments which are disgustingly misleading for me to take research at face value and certainly when presented via a secondary source. Research has shown, very often, completely different things.

The problem I have come to have with expertise, however, is that it’s predicated upon the idea that someone else has knowledge, the possession of which would improve you or what you are attempting to do. Perhaps that seems like a strange statement, and I suppose it is, but I’ll see if I can explain it. There’s also a few other implicit assumptions about expertise and why it’s important, which I’ll address as we go.

Recently, I read something in a book which I took away for contemplation and found to be bizarrely true:

The problem with advice is that until we regain our bearings*, we can’t use it; once we regain our bearings, we don’t need it. ~ Michael Neill, The Inside Out Revolution, Pg. 95.

*By ‘regain our bearings’ the author means being in touch with our inner sense of wisdom that arise naturally from a peaceful state of mind.

At first hearing of this, I thought “No way, that can’t be true” and I thought about all the hundreds of thousands of books of advice on how to do virtually anything and everything. But then I wondered – if those books really helped, there would be a lot fewer of them needed. If you walk around even a small local bookstore, your might find a few dozen books on dating and relationships, or business, or losing weight or quitting smoking. Why are there so many damn books? If you can learn it from books, surely one or two on each subject would be enough, right? But all of the authors have a different take on their issue, with different suggestions, and strategies. But if each author’s strategies worked, why do we need so many? Because, unfortunately, expertise is not transferrable.

Think about becoming an author. You can surely be taught to write a book, but nothing and no one can teach you how to write your personal masterpiece, because no one but you will ever be able to know what the work looks like until after you’ve written it. So how can anyone possible teach you to write something they can’t see? The best case scenario is they can show you how to realise your work in a grammatically ‘correct’ way (unless you’re James Joyce. Who could possible to teach him how to write Ulysses?), and worst case scenario, teach you how to write a copy of their own personal masterpiece. (I suspect a lot of the terrible books in existence are written by authors trying to write like other authors.) And the problem with the concept of attaining expertise from someone else is that you think that the right expert author, for example, would be able to bestow upon you what you lack. They can’t, and you probably don’t need them to.

If you’re an aspiring author and you want to write your literary masterpiece, where are you going to find it? Is it outside you? If it is, it’s not yours as someone else has already made it. The expertise you need is expertise only you can find. You may think that you need to know certain indisputable things such as how to write a good sentence, but if you’re dependant on someone else to tell you which sentences are good and which are bad, then there is a problem. You needed to find that knowledge on your own so that you own it, it’s yours and you can tell for yourself. All the teacher’s guidance has done is probably made you doubt your own wisdom when you need to trust it infallibly, so that you know when to deviate from the accepted and to believe in that decision.

I’m not saying you wont make mistakes, but that you wont end up in that trap of not experiencing your natural learning because you’re trying to avoid mistakes you don’t know you’ll make. You have to be prepared to make genuine, honest mistakes if you want to genuinely learn. But you also need to do it without anticipating a mistake.

Here’s an analogy. Imagine you’re an adult, and for some reason you’re learning to walk for the first time. As adults, I think we’re very much raised to think in terms of not failing, so we try to construct of find ways which mitigate our chances for failing. So instead of your task being ‘learning to walk’, in your mind, it kind of becomes ‘learn to move around without falling over’. And so you might think up a way that you can move around so that it’s really, really hard for you to fall over. Perhaps you crab walk everywhere, keeping your centre of gravity low and your stance really wide. And it works. You can get from point A to point B. The problem is, you realise that you can only move in straight lines, you can’t turn, and that it’s much more tiring, and give you a sore back etc. But hey, you accomplished your goal. You can go from A to B, and you never fell over once! Take that all you children and your plastic brains!

Your friends hears about your success and one invites you to go on a walk with them. Being proud of your success and telling your friend how you’ve never fallen over, and it’s only taken you a week to be able to walk, you set a time to show off what you big, smart, adult brain accomplished. So you go for a walk with your friend, who is rather weirded out by your crab-shuffle.

“What are you doing?” she asks you.

“Isn’t it great?!” you reply. “I came up with this way of walking which makes it virtually impossible to fall over!” For some reason your friend isn’t impressed. She leads you to a nearby building. I just have to go up stairs for a minute. You should come up with me.

“Stairs?” you ask. “I haven’t done those yet!” “Oh but it’s just like walking, it should be no problem.” So you try the stairs and within three stairs you’re stuck, and then find yourself toppling down to the floor.

The problem is that as humans when we contrive things, we often lose sight of the real, long term goal. The actual long term goal was to be able to walk naturally, easily, effortlessly and without thought. But in pursuit of that goal, our learner made a mistake by reductionism. By pursuing the goal as in the analogy, the adult avoid what he saw as the obvious mistake – falling over – but at the cost of discovering a natural, uncontrived way of moving his body. And this is why I think, it is often better to be unanalytical about what we aim to learn, because in our analysis, I personally think that we almost always suffer from a human tendency to oversimplify. We aim to achieve xyz, when we also need to learn A-W as well. We miss the big-picture.

To learn, I think what we really need to do is to point ourselves in the right general direction, do what comes naturally, and learn from our mistakes as we muddle through. I also think this is why Children learn so ‘naturally’, because they are, in fact, learning naturally. They don’t yet have the conscious capacity to contrive their learning experience or to be concerned about efficiency or speed etc. They just know they need to walk, and they continue to try, until they can. And this, in my opinion, is how all genuine learning happens, because our body and mind are capable of learning without conscious instruction. You need a conscious intention, but the body and mind are just naturally designed to learn to do something without analysis.

Think about it. If Darwinism is true, then we evolved from Animals. As far as we can tell, animals do not and cannot consciously think in the way that humans can. They think, but it’s a different form of thinking. But animals can learn and can be taught. Animals relocated to a new terrain will learn to navigate that terrain. They’ll learn where food and water are. They’ll learn the best routes in and out of their trees or caves etc. You can say that much of this is instinctual, but it is completely irrelevant, because there is undeniable learning that occurs. I know a dog who has gone blind with age but has learned to navigate, albeit more slowly, by feel and memory.

And even more amazing is that animals put into unusual terrains will learn ways to adapt and will evolve right before our eyes within sometimes incredibly short spaces of time. It suggests to me that all animals have the ability to learn given there is a necessity, and they can do it with out conscious or analytical thought. Yes, there are limitations, but for example, a dog instinctively isn’t going to see learning to speak English as a necessity.

Anyway, the point is, we can learn from ‘muddling through’ and quite often, I think that learning is more remembered and more reliable. For some reason, things we learn by concious thought are dependant on memory processes which fade with time, but things we learn through doing seem to be recalled instinctively without any real thinking.

Anyway, most of the barriers to creating your work are of your own making or are probably trivial. You don’t know how to punctuate something, or the spelling of a word etc. These things anyone can overcome in a matter of minutes thanks to the internet. The biggest barrier, I suspect, is in thinking that there is something outside of you that you have to obtain in order to ready or capable to produce your own masterpiece. Because while you’re looking out there for it, you’re not looking to where the thing itself lives – inside your mind.

We’ll look at a more everyday situation and see what we can glean about this matter. Let’s say you have a business and that it wants to improve it’s employees’ happiness and productivity. You have a few options, you can:

a) Buy a bunch of the books written by experts on the subject and implement their suggestions

b) You could bring in an external team of experts and implement their suggestions

c) You use your own creativity and try and solve the problems yourself So let’s start with what is likely the best option for most situations like this; you bring in a team of external experts with a good track-record to solve the problems. They come in, spend sometime observing what happens and using their own experience (and if they’re a good team – their creativity) to create a perfect solution. I think we can all agree that it’s an effective option? What’s great about this is that the experience and creativity of this team is able to respond to the real situation of the business, objectively.

The downsides, however, are:

a) That you did not learn or attain that expertise, only a product of it.

b) Businesses change, desired results change, employees change, and as they do, solutions that once were effective become less effective or irrelevant or a hindrance.

c) The external experts don’t have a deep understanding of the company or its employees, they’re mostly relying on superficial data and observations to make their recommendations. etc. So it is a good short-term solution. If you want to think long-term, your best option is to have a permanent team who is responsible for monitoring and developing and implementing solution. While this is a great thing, it unfortunately doesn’t quite achieve or properly answer the initial prompt:

Expertise is predicated upon the idea that someone else has knowledge, the possession of which would improve you or what you are attempting to do. In this situation, you have attained expertise via delegation, and it has improved what you do, but you are no closer to possessing that expertise personally, which is vitally important in bringing this analogy back to being relevant with composing, because you can’t outsource your composing to experts and have it remain your work.

Let’s move onto option ‘a’ then, which is buying a bunch of books written by experts and implementing their suggestions. So you’ve read your giant pile of books, and you’ve gotten 100+ great suggestions, from authors who have proven track records. Which suggestions are the right ones for your business? What about the contradictory suggestions? Etc. The only way to know for sure which suggestions will truly work is through experimentation, and trial and error. Which means, at the end of the day, the author’s expertise may have provided some insight into the subject, their expertise needs to be applied to your company creatively to make it applicable. And even after reading all those books, can you make a claim to possessing expertise on the topic? Increased knowledge perhaps, but you’re not really any closer to the bulls-eye, you’re just more aware of the red and white rings around it. You don’t have expertise, and you don’t have a solution either, not really. If anything, you’re probably less able to act as you don’t know which option to choose.

Okay, so option ‘c’. Sounds like a recipe for destruction doesn’t it? Experimenting on your company with your own crazy un-expert ideas and solutions? Eeep. Well, I’m actually not going to address this option because it is entirely too spontaneous a situation to predict, but I do believe that if you are earnest, and you show up, and you approach the problem from the right space of mind – a quiet, calm & patient place – then because it’s your company – you made it, you know where it’s going etc – it’s you who will ultimately be able to produce the most perfect possible answer that can exist. It may not be the first answer you think of, or the 20th, but it will be your most perfect answer once you get there.

So the analogy raises several questions and issues:

a) Where is the expertise, exactly?

b) We too often think of expertise as a large accumulation of knowledge on a topic, but is knowledge and expertise really the same thing? Why can Martha Argerich play the piano so darn well, and yet not be able to describe in a meaningful way how she plays so well? (No one can).

c) Can you learn expertise or only discover it?

d) Why is it so important to be an expert? etc

The inherent assumptions about the importance of expertise is that if you can go and get it and make use of it, you can avoid making mistakes or if you find the master and learn from him/her then you can avoid the arduous journey to expertise the master had to undertake. What we fail to realise is that it’s the journey that made the Master, not knowledge or learning. It’s the act of pursuit over time that lead the seeker towards the truth, and ultimately and instinctively, embodied expertise. And so we frequently talk about the 10000 hour rule – it takes 10,000 hours ( as very rough guide only) of practice to achieve expertise. And while as musicians, we often think that if we just find the right ‘master’ or teacher for us, we can jump over, or at least speed up the transit time through, the less pleasant bit where you kind of suck at what you’re doing.

Sadly, it doesn’t work like that because while knowledge is transferrable, you can’t attain ‘expertise’ through knowledge no matter how hard you wish you could. It’s true that sometimes, with some tasks, the gap between knowledge and expertise is incredibly small and knowing of or how to do the thing is enough to help you do the thing (normally because it’s piggy-backing or using a skill you already have), but the more complex and nuanced the task, the less and less true this becomes.

If you’re an aspiring violinist, you can, for example, learn (knowledge) how to hold the bow properly and be able to do so fairly quickly, but being able to manipulate and control the bow like Perlman (expertise) isn’t going to happen through instruction; the instruction can point to and constantly reaffirm the outcome (“Try it more like this” “You need to be more like this” etc) but the attainment of the final goal happens through a process of continuous experimentation and self-correction over time.

The issue that arises from the idea of expertise is that while you think the answer is outside of you, you’re not allowing for or trusting yourself to find the answer. You’ve decided you’re not an expert and you’re maintaining that. You’re also assuming that what you’re doing is wrong when it may just be a part of the learning process, and you’re not in touch with the fact that you’re the only expert on you, and as such, you’re the only one who will ever know what the right answer actually is (because you’re the one who will ultimately find it and know it to be the right answer).

I’m not saying teachers don’t have a role, or that it isn’t a big one, I just don’t think it’s the role everyone assumes. They assume that the expert’s knowledge is what is empowering the student to improve, in reality, it think it’s much more that the teacher reaffirms the value and possibility of the journey, and that at some point, the answer can and will be found.

What do you think?

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