The expert continuum

I like reading blogs that make me think, and that make me want to blog back. But of course I only read 2 blogs regularly — my brother’s and Penelope Trunk’s and both of them make me think. I read PT’s post about being an expert and I’ve been thinking about it for a couple weeks. My brother is now at TED — a place and an event where a lot of people who might be called experts gather together to exchange ideas around a theme having something to do with Technology, Entertainment and Design. Likely a gathering of very smart, high-achievers who have very intelligent things to say. Experts.

Penelope is trying to become an expert, she says. And as I read what she wrote, I realized that one of my greatest fears could be finding myself in the mediocrity section of the failure-to-expert continuum. And reading her post, it seems that she equates being an expert with being a success. I’m not sure if I agree. And then there’s the phrase “being great” in her post. Is “being great” the same thing as “succeeding” as “being an expert”? I’m thinking 2 things — one, there might be some subtle differences in those terms; and two, it’s not an either/or situation. It’s a matter of degree. And let me say up front that I’m not going to try to define terms.

I totally agree with her that putting all your effort intensively into something will result in a better product or outcome than if you distribute effort into a variety of tasks. It was quite clear to me in the 1980s and 1990s that attempting to work as a public  health consultant, function well as a  parent, do my duty to extended family, play guitar, write creatively, climb mountains, keep up with friends, stay fit, plan for the future, and attend to my marriage were all pulling me in so many directions that I simply could not get good at anything. And the personal relationships were ultimately the most important, followed by my “career” which took a major hit during those years of juggling everything. I came to the conclusion more than once that I would never be an expert at anything because I could not focus on any one thing and exclude everything else. And I was OK with that eventually. Ultimately, my greatest worry was not that I would never be an expert in my chosen career path, but rather that I had not given enough quality attention to my children. I still worry about that.

But “expertness” is not an either/or situation.  I think you can be good at something somewhere along a continuum, depending on how much effort you find yourself wanting to put into something. And sometimes, I think we’re not sure how much effort is worth the trouble. And then, sometimes we put a huge amount of effort into something and we think it ought to pay off, but it doesn’t and we think we’re just not good enough, and we get depressed. The worry is that we’re mediocre which means we’re lost in the fat section of the bell curve. But that means we’re more like the majority. And anyway, what’s so bad about mediocrity or being in with the majority?

People with talent need really good coaches to get to expert levels, says Penelope. You can’t get by with just talent. And you need to have good mentors at work or you end up treading water. But even if you have great coaches and a family who gives up everything to support you, you still need serious talent to become an expert — to become exceptionally successful. And like expertness, talent is a continuum, too.  In high school, I was voted one of two “most likely to succeed” — I always wondered… succeed at what? What does it mean to succeed? I still don’t really know, but I find that I don’t worry much anymore about trying to become an expert at anything or trying for greatness. So what? Who cares?

I work in an academic environment where the measures of success include multiple advanced degrees, obtaining prestigious grants [not just any old grant but the “best” ones], and publishing in desirable journals — and publishing a lot. Luckily, I’m not on one of those tracks; I only work around people who are. I work with many people who would be considered experts, very successful and maybe even great — some of them. Somewhat to my surprise, I have no desire to be like them. I’m one of those people who just wants to do a good job — to do the best job I can. I know I’m not a failure at anything I do, but I also know I’m not an expert at anything, but deep in my heart, I don’t mind. And it’s OK.

Penelope says you need feedback to be successful. That makes sense if you’re worrying about being an expert or a success. If you’re not, then it’s still helpful to get feedback if you’re thinking you want to keep your job for an extended period. Or if you’re wondering how your kid is going to turn out. But everything’s a matter of degree. And it’s a great relief to not want to be on top of any mountains anymore. I work, I do my best, and that’s all I can do. Because I really do like getting at least 7 hours of sleep every single night. That’s one of my goals this year.

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