How to Pick an Expert?

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At the last Investec Academy course in Riebeck West, I chatted to some of the boys about how they were finding the lectures. A comment was made about how they realised one of the lecturer’s was really top notch, only towards the middle of his second lecture (the player had lost some of the value of the first lecture and he was now kicking himself). The lecturer’s style was to share expert knowledge rather than to entertain. More dictionary than comic book, however his knowledge was second to none. I then asked the player what was his criteria for deciding if someone was an expert? He hadn’t thought of that, so I shared my thoughts which are detailed below.

Its important to break things down a bit, I am going to go into a lot of detail here; however if you just want the just of it read the bold headings.

Holders of expert knowledge are not always expert at helping others learn that expert knowledge. These are two separate skills. Knowing at an expert level and the ability to teach that content are different skillsets.

Many of us learn through our metaphor for learning. Does your metaphor enhance or detract from your learning from an expert (or anyone)? If your metaphor for learning is that of a detective; who needs to analyse all the clues before making a decision, your learning will be slow, but once you have learnt something it is there forever. You may not know your metaphor explicitly, but just see if you can answer the question, “If I had a metaphor for learning, what would it be?”

My metaphor is: I think of learning as a sieve. Anything anyone has to say goes into the sieve to be considered. Expert or Beginner, qualified or not, it all goes into the sieve. Everything is considered. What passes through the sieve into my knowledge/mindset has two initial criteria. Does it make sense OR Does it work? Many great ideas are rejected out of hand because they ‘don’t make sense’ If it makes sense and it doesn’t work there is an application error, if it works and doesn’t make sense there is an error in my thinking or mindset – what have I rejected or not considered that I now need to? Once it has gone through that filter, the last filter – does this fit with my values and ethics? Even if it doesn’t, I need to understand it so I don’t automatically disrespect the people who chose to use this info.

There are two primary types of Experts – The traditional expert, someone who is blinkered and focused on one subject exclusively (or almost exclusively.) This was the expert that predominated before the information age. The second type of expert is The Sequencer or the Collector expert, this is the expert who sorts through other experts work to thread together cutting edge ideas and link previously unseen and unnoticed compatible ideas. This type of expert is best typified by Malcolm Gladwell. There is also an emergent Hybrid Expert** who combines the best of the both of these attributes, but those are very rare indeed.

“Having just started reading Gladwell’s latest book, “What the dog saw”, it is now clear to me after reading his introduction that he is also a hybrid expert – perhaps he was all along …… and I am now only able to see it …. :-)”

In Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, he quotes some of J.Anders Ericson work, who identified that a traditional expert requires 10 000 hours to be masterful, or roughly 10 focused years on one subject to become an expert. He referenced The Beatles (music), Bobby Fisher (chess), Bill Joy (computer programming), Bill Gates (computer programming) as examples of this – all ‘traditional experts.’ What Gladwell the sequencer missed (or failed to mention in his book) was the learning strategies that were required to become expert. Every one of the experts was given direct and immediate feedback on what was working or not working as they learnt and improved. For the Beatles it was crowd response and feedback when they were playing 7 days a week and upwards of 12 hours a day. For Bobby Fisher, he either won or lost and for Joy and Gates, their program either compiled and worked or didn’t. There are numerous examples of people who have spent 20 years on just one thing, and by no stretch of the imagination are they experts.

An expert is enthusiastic about their subject matter. To spend 10 years (and often much more) dedicating yourself to something and getting maximum value you got to love it! Does your expert love what they are talking about?

Both the traditional expert and Sequencer expert need to be expert learners. Before the information age a traditional expert could sometimes get away with just learning from his/her own experiences, but even those cases are very rare, they are more the case of being informed by previous great thinkers, and not collaborating with others after a certain stage (Eg Leonardo Da Vinci), rather than 100% self learners. The modern expert learner (the true nature of the Sequencer Expert) needs to do both, be informed and collaborate, or else in the information age you will be left behind. Some traditional experts get stuck in a certain dogma or style of thinking, which will limit him or her in a very specific way which can be difficult to overcome, simply because they are not challenging their own thinking and assumptions.

Expert learners don’t let their ego get in the way of their learning, they can be wrong and can own up to it, they will also tell you what areas they are not expert in. These traits fast track their own learning.

Unfortunately many experts have supersized egos; so when you consider what they have to say, try to work out how their ego is limiting their knowledge and figure out what YOU are going to do about it. This can often be challenging and difficult to do; so as a rule of thumb, the bigger the ego the more critical your thinking needs to be.

An expert is not tied to one specific dogma/thinker/methodology/style – they create their own hybrids and specialise in that hybrid. They may prefer one methodology or hybrid and that in itself is not a negative – the negative is when they don’t challenge their own process, thinking or method. The key way to ascertain if your expert is dogmatic is to ask them about the weaknesses in their own content/style/dogma/methodology. Their response will tell you all you need to know, regardless of what words they use.

Due to the collaborative requirement of the information age, a modern expert (traditional or sequencer) will be able to tell you who are the people that informed their thinking and who are the people they are currently working/collaborating with.

An expert rides the continuum between simplicity and details. For the masterful, truly the mastery is in the details. This kind of detail is not for details sake, it is just the ability to know each and every important and relevant aspect about what you are talking about, so when you simplify you know what to include and what to not include, and if required he/she can get to the detail to make a point or answer a question.

In my mind only the ignorant or expert can make things simple. They can break things down to their core components, and conceptualise what they are talking about. At an expert teacher level, they can use the words you used in your question to clarify their points whilst giving you a simple answer. At an expert expert teacher level, they can not only break things down to concepts using your words, they can also teach you in the most optimal way to absorb the information – they can order the information in progressively relevant chunks.

If you hear something explained simply use the points above to work out what you may be dealing with; In a nutshell, consider anything spoken by someone who is humble, enthusiastic, can speak simply – whilst sharing relevant detail and shares where they got their knowledge from whilst acknowledging their own learning’s and limitations.

Make your 2010 count!

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