Expertise: Complex or Simple?

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Success is simple. Do what’s right, the right way, at the right time. — Arnold Glasow

Art is the elimination of the unnecessary. — Pablo Picasso

Beginners hardly know anything, while experts know a lot. Thus skills start out simple and get complicated as you learn them. Right?

Oddly, it’s the other way around. Beginning efforts are inefficient, arbitrary, and random. And randomness can generate enormous complexity. Expertise, on the other hand, is simple and straightforward. The expert knows what to do directly and effectively.

A professional will know many more things about a given skill than an apprentice, but those things are discreet and focused. The beginner’s mind casts about in all directions for a way through a situation the expert has already solved.

The first time I tried a crossword puzzle, it took two hours and a dictionary. Within a year, I was tossing them off — in pen no less — in five minutes. (Competition puzzlers often can complete them in less than two.) My crossword skills went from inefficient and ignorant to knowledgeable and focused. Beyond the puzzle-solving techniques I’d learned, I’d also internalized a vocabulary of special words for filling in the odd corner. But those skills and words were specific: instead of struggling with a dozen approaches, I had particular ways forward; instead searching through reference books, I could call on a short list of words from memory.

Blood-flow studies demonstrate that beginners’ brains are much busier than those of professionals: learners are all over the map, while masters are homed in. “ . . . [E]xtensive practice over a long period of time leads experts to develop a focused and efficient organization of task-related neural networks, whereas novices have difficulty filtering out irrelevant information.”

Basically, the pro sees the problem as a pattern with a solution, while the newbie sees a jumble of noise. One sees a map; the other sees a maze. The expert finds pathways; the beginner wanders around.

Expertise, then, tends to be elegantly efficient and simple, with few wasted moves — it’s economical — whereas students must slog slowly through their own ignorance.

Think of the inexperienced marketer or administrator, who takes too long to explain a situation, and the seasoned pro who encapsulates the problem in a phrase. Or the office assistant who makes a series of mistakes that his boss clears up with a couple of quick decisions. Or your golf partner’s swing, with its inefficiencies, compared to the fluid power of Rory McIlroy or Jason Day.

Of course, no two problems are the same, and even the experts must slow, sometimes to a crawl, as they approach new questions. In that respect, everyone is a beginner. But the pros have tools of experience they can wield at all times to cut quickly through the randomness of novelty.

What about all that knowledge and lore, the sheer number of facts to be learned? Doesn’t that make expertise more complicated? True, your acquired skills involve a library of facts a beginner won’t have. But those facts greatly simplify the process, enabling you often to see at a glance into the essence of a problem, turning it from a puzzling predicament into a process quickly fulfilled. Your store of knowledge makes things easier, not harder, and you complete tasks more quickly, with less total energy expended.

To attain the simplicity of mastery in any field or profession:

  • Relax … and practice: Your brain will find its way through the maze of ignorance to the exit of competence, and it will do so automatically — all you have to do is practice. There’s no need to force things; your mind will grow the particular skills it needs in good time. (Still, it’s possible to “master mastery”, as with the suggestions that follow.)
  • Find mentors: Don’t re-invent the wheel if you can befriend an expert who will teach you how it’s done. Of course, you can also study books and other media that describe the skills you’re learning. All these resources will speed things up tremendously.
  • Find the general principles: Every skill has a set of fundamentals which serve as shortcuts to learning. If you can master these, you’ll become expert faster. (You’ll know you’re becoming competent when you discover how to break the rules now and then for even better results.)
  • Find simpler ways: Once you have the basics down, think of how you can do them more efficiently — how to perform the action with fewer steps, how to say it in fewer words, how to focus in on the important data. This will move you quickly toward the end goal of polished mastery.
  • Find the 80/20 Rule in your field: As you practice, you’ll discover areas where your efforts generate much higher returns. If 20 percent of your work gets you 80 percent of your return, then increase the 20-percent activity.
  • Search for expertise in others: When partnering or hiring, look for people who have an easy grasp of the topic, who respond to challenges in a relaxed and confident manner, and who ask questions and incorporate the answers quickly into their process. Effective mastery depends, not only on your own skill set, but on the competency of your co-workers. Leverage each others’ contributions to multiply the results.

The goal is to be effective — to arrive at the solution without wasting time, energy, or money. While the student puts in hours, the master gets results. A few well-placed words, a stroke of a pen, a simple phone call, a single idea that solves a dilemma, an elegant motion by a craftsperson — these are the home runs, the three-point baskets, the hat tricks in the game of expertise. Practice the simplicity of mastery, and your scores will soar.

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UPDATE: The seven fatal thinking flaws, and how to transcend them

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Published by

Jim Hull

Jim Hull graduated from UC Santa Cruz with a degree in philosophy, then spent ten years as a lecture-demonstrator in the performing arts, including tours and TV appearances. More recently, Jim has produced research, copywriting, and editing for numerous clients. He also has published two books: the set of essays ARE HUMANS OBSOLETE? and a novel, THE VAMPIRE IN FREE FALL. Jim teaches classes in current events and music at The Braille Institute in Los Angeles. He applies his unique perspective to create surprising, compelling solutions to difficult problems. Jim thinks the world would work better if people spent less time dominating each other and more time working alongside those with different viewpoints to resolve the challenges we all face. CONTACT JIM: jimhull@jimhull.com ...

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