Monthly Archives: November 2010

On Being an Expert: Are you an Exploiter? Or an Explorer?

You become an expert by digging more deeply into your discipline than anyone around you. It could be chess. Or playing the piano. Or medieval banquet  artifacts. Or becoming a great manager. Or software developer. Or tennis player.

It could be anything, but what you did was spend thousands of hours focused on your specific discipline. It’s such a curious thing to do, to apply yourself so diligently when there are so many other interesting things to do, to read, people to talk to and then of course, there’s always something good on television.

Where does this drive to become an expert come from?

In his recent book “On Second Thought“, Wray Herbert describes twenty hard-wired habits, called heuristics, that we all carry around in our heads. They come free with the brain we were born with and mostly without our being aware of them, guide a lot of our behaviors and choices.

The Foraging Heuristic is particularly interesting when you think about becoming an expert. Herbert describes our ancient ancestors hunting for food on the savannah. It’s a very unpredictable environment; sometimes you stumble on an oasis or a particularly huge herd of gazelles. What do you do then? Do you stay put and hunt these animals? Or do you move on, looking for an even better spot? If you make the wrong choice, you could die.

Today, the stakes aren’t quite so high, but the habit remains: when we’re faced with a choice, we either stick with what’s in front of us or let it pass and wait for the next choice.

Do I take this job, or keep looking?
Do I ask her out, or wait for someone cuter?
Do I practice a little bit more, or check my Facebook?

Experts stick with the herd they’ve got, they exploit, go deeper, learn everything they can about how the herd behaves and what’s the best way to corner the biggest one. You might call these people Specialists.

“The act of liking,” as Herbert says, “molds the brain’s thinking, opening it up to nuances that are unapparent to others.” The more expert you become, the more detail and texture you’re able to see.

Non-experts keep moving, they explore, skimming along from one herd to the next, picking off the slowest one but not putting in the effort to get bigger ones. You could call these people Generalists.

The world-class tennis player who reaches the top of the sport made a choice years ago to be a Specialist. Something inside her felt right, that this was the right herd to hunt and she settled in for years to learn everything she could about it. Of course, she gave up the chance to become an expert in medieval banquet artifacts and that’s the fun part of it. Each of us is an expert in something but not in everything.

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