What Makes You An Expert?

Experts recognize patterns.

They started out, as we did, frustrated as hell with this stupid game. I’d bet that Lionel Messi swung and completely missed the football when he was five years old, just like you and I did, hoping that no one saw.

Gary Kasparov made idiotic opening moves that caused him to lose in minutes.

Laird Hamilton fell over and over and over.

But in slow, glacial, barely noticeable steps, they improved and got really, really good. So good, that the rest of us watch from the seats and marvel at their natural ability. They play like they know what’s going to happen next, that it’s the easiest thing in the world to do what they do.

Their brains have learned the complex patterns of their sport to the point that they no longer have to consciously think about them. It’s become art, an effortless expression of physical and mental intention that comes about from many years of, well, let’s call it what it is, playing crap.

You wouldn’t be wasting 90 minutes of your life to watch the documentary It Might Get Loud. Near the end of the film, The Edge, the amazing guitarist of U2 describes the awful process of trying to see the pattern:

When you go past a managed forest, you see a mass of tree trunks. Then at a certain point you look again and realize they’re all in perfect rows.
Clarity. Clarity of vision. What you’ve been looking at from the wrong angle and not seeing at all. You labor, you sweat to see what you couldn’t have seen from that other perspective.

That struck me as the perfect explanation of expertise. At first, all you see is chaos and you fight to make sense of it all. You keep moving, hacking, running, playing and then suddenly, the chaos fades away and the trees line up perfectly. The pattern has been there all along and the only difference is that now you can see it.

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2 thoughts on “What Makes You An Expert?

  1. alan says:

    You are completely correct except for Laird…I watched him as a small child on the North Shore of Oahu…out of humility he will say they existed but I will tell you there were no missed steps…no falterings…the boy was a waterman from the beginning. He perfected and expanded as he grew into manhood but he did not fall…
    I have always had the sense of zen movement…sports have come easily to me…for whatever unexplainable reason I have always understood and converted the concept of movement to the joy of expression through that movement. The body rocks…through the trees…around the trees and over the trees.

    • Steve says:

      I’d like to have seen that. I see young kids who also just “get it” almost from the start. It does make me wonder how they get it. To be able to dribble a basketball from the first time you pick up a ball seems beyond remarkable, the same with Laird. What might he have done (probably unknowingly) before he got into the water that first time that gave him such an advantage?

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