Competence, like truth, beauty and contact lenses, is in the eye of the beholder.
– Laurence J. Peter
The World’s Fastest Man in 1980, Allan Wells, would not have made the podium in the 100-metre races at the Beijing Olympics last year. In fact, his winning time of 10.25 would not have even qualified him for the semi-finals.
If you were a trailblazer in the world of personal computing in 1983, you’d be bragging about how your team had just shipped a product that offered a 5 MHz processor, a 5 MB hard drive, dual 5.25 inch floppy drives, support for up to 2 MB of RAM, a graphical user interface, and a mouse.
You’d be bragging, of course, about the Apple Lisa, a machine that sold for the ridiculously low price of $9,995.
And in 1984, one of America’s most influential consumer advocacy groups, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), launched an all-out war on fast-food restaurants. According to their own press release, their goal was “to pressure fast-food restaurants and food companies to stop frying with beef fat and tropical oils, which are high in the cholesterol-raising saturated fats that increase the risk of heart disease.”
By 1990, their campaign had succeeded. Most fast food chains had significantly lowered the amount of saturated fats in their foods, and replaced them with a substitute that the CSPI had been arguing for since 1987: trans fats.
You know that type of mutated fat this is so dangerous to humans that governments around the world are seeking to ban it? Yeah, that one.
Looking back not even 30 years ago, these people were leaders in their field, the best of the best, “experts.” Today, we’d more likely refer to them as unemployed hacks.
Which brings me to the first point I want to make about becoming an expert: Experts aren’t really experts. They suck at what they do. They just suck a little bit less than everybody else around them at the time.
Expertise as Fog
The other point I want to make about pursuing expertise is this: Expertise does not exist.
Sure, it’s a nice label to be given if you’re being interviewed on CNN, or if you’re being introduced into a debate on the existence of God, but it is not something you can achieve. If you’ve set yourself the goal of becoming “a Ruby on Rails expert”, “a blogging expert”, or even say “a fluent French speaker”, you haven’t set a goal at all.
What is a blogging expert? Someone who makes a lot of money blogging about how to make a lot of money blogging? Or perhaps someone who achieves 20,000 subscribers by churning out list posts and other linkbait that do an excellent job of growing traffic, but a poor job of growing the reader?
And if you apply for a job that requires a “Ruby on Rails expert” and you get hired, does that mean that you are an expert? Maybe all it really means is that you know just enough to convince the person that hired you. Which doesn’t actually mean you know a lot about the framework.
The best way to achieve expertise in your chosen field is to eliminate the word “expertise” from your lexicon. As my seven-language-speaking friend Benny Lewis put it, in an email exchange I had with him on the subject of attaining language fluency:
If you really want to be fluent, I recommend abandoning the thought process of “achieving fluency” entirely. Setting a goal of “speak $language fluently” is too vague to be achievable. It implies that some day you will reach the point where you can finally say, “I speak Klingon fluently!” But that day will never come.
You need to have more concrete goals spread across a small number of days or weeks that eventually add up to something tangible, such as, “This week I will learn vocabulary related to objects in the house” or, “Today I will work on my consonant pronunciation.”
If you think about it, isn’t all learning really language learning? Whether you’re trying to achieve fluency in Italian, or building websites with Ruby on Rails, or baking designer cakes, every skill set is really just a vocabulary for self-expression. The more you know, the more you can say.
Just like spoken language, the language of the Builder has no beginning and no end. So the best way to improve yourself in any pursuit is to forget about “becoming an expert” and to instead focus on expanding your range of communication. Ideally in a way that is clearly measurable by an outside observer.
If you want to be a “competent Rails hacker”, then set a goal to get one of your patches landed in the Rails trunk. If your dream is to be a “successful blogger”, bring it closer to reality by aiming to publish, say, three posts per week. And if want to be a “world-class chessplayer”, make it actionable by playing 10 blitz games per day in a specific opening you’re trying to master, and analyze each game afterwards.
Be less concerned with the adjectives of success–good, great, world-class–and more concerned with taking a worthwhile next step. The path to expertise is the path to nowhere in particular. When you get specific, you get results.
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