Expert system

Since starting this blog, I’ve receives several requests for career advice. I am most heartened and humbled by these requests, especially when they come from young people just starting out. I’ve responded as best I can and tried to offer specific advice, but it’s very hard to be specific when the task is so grand.

But here are some pieces of advice that I can offer, which although not specific, may be interpreted into something useful.

On becoming an expert

The path to becoming an expert is never clear. The way to think about it is this: Ask your parents what it was that they did to make you a great son or daughter. Most parents don’t have a clear map on how to build a family. Building great families, careers or businesses are similar empirical endeavors in that it takes constant trial and error and infinite patience.

Similarly, ask an athlete what is the formula for athleticism. It’s has something to do with talent but more than likely it’s constant practice and attention to detail. Most overnight successes took a lifetime of preparation.

On getting the motivation to practice

In all cases, the path to greatness lies in passion. Without passion there is never the energy to continue doing something when there is no clear benefit in sight. Passion is a relation of faith so many who have faith find it easier to have passion and vice versa. If you have neither for the task at hand, you need to look for something else to do.

On communication

Understanding and communication are inter-twined in many ways. Usually, if you cannot communicate something effectively, it’s likely you haven’t understood it completely. Likewise, if your understanding is weak it’s because you have not communicated enough. Practice one and the other will get better.

On learning

Formal learning if not sufficient but it is something you should seek as much as possible. Think of a degree program like a language class. As someone said once, gain a new language and gain a new soul.

If you passionately practice, learn and communicate, expertise just follows.


  • Jon T

    I's a bit trite, but remember.. "an expert is someone who know more and more about less and less"!

    And importantly, the Malcolm Gladwell 10,000 hours rule..

    And don't forget to watch the most inspiring career speech ever.. Steve Jobs' Stanford Commencement Speech of 2005.

  • Jon T

    And as I can't edit that post, I also wanted to say that I am not in the least surprised the author is approached for advice. Whether he knows it or not, he is an inspiration to others.

  • This post should be required reading by those who believe that expertise is only about knowledge.

  • JakeA

    If one thing I've learned in my years in professional training is that knowledge and understanding are two different things. The latter is gained through hard work, but not without the former. And without motivation/passion, you won't put in the work to translate the knowledge into understanding.

    I couldn't agree more with what horace says: To be an expert, you must have understanding, knowledge is just knowledge, but can you apply your knowledge? If you can, it becomes understanding and enough of understanding (depth and breadth-wise) eventually becomes expertise.

  • Mark Hernandez

    I have a 40+ year career behind me so far, and all I can say is… Always have a direction to head in, but things will generally turn out differently. Learning is a life-long process. Thankfully life goes along slowly, allowing you to have some bad times with the good which are also essential to making you better. Failure is your friend.

    All along the way, listen, listen, listen. But never forget that you are a human being – a psychological creature and not a machine. Watch a lot of TED talks (like J.K. Rowling's Harvard speech), and in particular I highly recommend David Brooks new book "The Social Animal" in addition to his 15 minute speech at TED, and especially his hour-long interview on Charlie Rose all available online. That's core stuff. Get the core right, and everything else will follow. Expertise rides on a human being. Be expert at both.

  • The easiest way to be considered an expert is to find yourself a group of know nothings and stay ahead of them.

    There is no second easiest way because the rest require study and attention and interest and love and passion.

  • davel

    I will echo what is said here.

    To become an expert takes hard work. In whatever field you choose it is about practice. Repetition of the basics builds a foundation. The really good players in whatever field have great basics.

    As stated above it is not just about repetition. It is also understanding. You can repeat the same wrong thing a thousand times and all you do is get good at something wrong. It helps to have a mentor who can guide you. When you repeat things you need to ask yourself why. Why does this work? How does this work? Through practice the answer will show itself and deepen your understanding of what you are practicing. Practice is boring. But it is necessary to get better. Practice of the basics in whatever field you are in leads to better understanding and mastery.

    Teaching is important too. If you can teach what you know then you know. If you cannot teach what you know you may be able to do but you do not know.

    The chinese call this person sifu.

    • FalKirk

      "Teaching is important too."

      Great point. There's no better way to learn than to teach.

  • russell


    Thumbs up on this timely advice to the younger generation. If you find the one thing that you are here to do in this life, passion is the fuel that leads to the top.

  • FalKirk

    If I may be so bold, I'd like to add that to become an expert one needs to labor long and hard as a novice first. If you want to be an expert, you have to be willing to start doing what you love even though you'll do it quite badly at first.

    Don't let perfectionism get in your way. Don't let "best" be the enemy of "good". If true experts don't make many mistakes, it's because they made all the mistakes there were to make earlier in their careers. The only way to reach Malcolm Glladwells' 10,000 hours plateau is to get out there, start doing it, keep doing it and never let mistakes or setbacks stop you from doing it.

  • The last bit reminds me very much of Rand's 'Russian History' post

    "See, in the struggle to get from wherever they started to their eventual engineering gig, the Russian Lit Major networked with a good portion of the company. They learned how different groups worked and they learned how to speak a variety of organizational dialects. Whether they eventually land in an engineering group inside their first company or at your start-up, an experienced Russian Lit Major has developed a complex communication toolkit to relate to the rest of an organization and that’s what your engineering team desperately needs."

  • chandra

    Some useful lessons I've learned from the NLP community over the years:
    A The 4 levels of learning
    1 Unconscious incompetence you're new to a subject and you don't even what you don't know about it.
    2 Conscious incompetence you've begun studies and start to realise just how much there is to know.
    3 Conscious competence you've become pretty good, but you still have to think about what you do.
    4 Unconscious competence you have to go from A to B, you do it perfectly at each stage but you
    cannot remember any of it in detail. You can play an instrument
    expertly and improvise as you chat with friends etc, etc, etc.
    Getting to Level 3 is easy in a reasonable time frame. Getting to Level takes time and passion, commitment etc.

    B The important understanding that there are no mistakes in most things we do, there's only the feedback. No one
    became an artist, craftsman or expert without leaving a rich trail of mistakes behind them. No mistakes means
    we simply aren't taking any risks in pushing the envelope of our abilities or just not trying hard enough.
    And yet so many people beat themselves up over mistakes made in good faith and teachers frown on errors.

    Just my 20 pence.

    Chandra Coomaraswamy

    Caveat: formatting may end up wonky – no tabs to use, or I'm missing something here!

  • Ted

    Anyone quoting Malcolm Gladwell or TED is by definition, not to be trusted.

  • Stef

    Good advice and pretty much what I tell all my staff (and children) – basically if you have no passion for what you're doing you're not ever going to be very good at it. Choosing a career for reward rather than satisfaction generally results in mediocrity.

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  • chandra2

    Great words of advice by Horace… I concur.

    Jon, I like your recommendation of Steve Jobs commencement speech. But no so much Malcolm Gladwell. That book outliers suffers from what I call 'dearth of sufficient conditionism'. Not that 10,000 hours practice is not needed to become successful, but as is a consistent fault in that book, it tover promises in terms of explaining hard to explain things but under delivers. He quotes Gates and traces Gates' success to him spending the 10000 hours. But not all who spend the 10000 hours achieve Gates' level of success. It is quite an inspirational book and well written but the concepts need to be taken with a liberal pinch of salt. The darn book is enormously popular which is a problem as well, people are not critically thinking about the concepts in that book because they tend to go along with it because it is so popular and every one quotes from it. Anyway, just a word of mild caution.

  • I've been living in Japan for nearly 20 years, and blogging about it for 15 years on my website ( I would be seen as an expert on Japan by many I believe. But no matter how much I know about the subject, certain people will refuse to acknowledge that my opinions are worth a damn (mainly this is other foreigners living in Japan, not people outside — there's a strange tendency for gaijin living here to be jealous of other foreigners and to want to tear them down). Bottom line, state your opinions and defend them but don't get bogged down with the people who will want to tear you down.