When can you call yourself an expert at something?
Recently I encountered on a blog that I follow, Expert Enough, the question, “When Can You Call Yourself An Expert?” There have been some interesting comments on the blog. Here is my own thinking on the subject.
The short answer: I try not to call myself an expert at anything.
A short elaboration of the short answer: I try to approach everything as a beginner.
The arrogance of “expertise”
When I was younger (and that even includes myself from a year or two ago), I sometimes liked to think of myself as an “expert” at something or other. Sometimes I just held this thought in my mind privately. Sometimes I would say things that reflected my arrogance. I regret all that now. It did not serve any useful purpose for me to either believe that I was an “expert” or to try to display or boast of my expertise.
I know I sometimes still slip into this mindset, but the difference now is that I actually actively believe that this mindset is harmful and not helpful (so if you catch me displaying this mindset, please gently admonish me). Real “expertise” is not an attitude or a property of a human being, some kind of moral virtue. It is something that someone else believes, as a result of some kind of skillful or helpful action, whether in something created or advice given with an open heart, and received with recognition and gratitude.
I try to get better at stuff, but without aiming for some label of “expertise”. I just want to get better. Adding the ego into the picture only wastes energy that could be spent on getting better.
On a related note: privately, even during my arrogant moments, I have always cultivated “beginner’s mind”. There’s always something deeper to appreciate or integrate from the basics of one’s activities. Amusingly, in the past I used to return to the basics out of fear of having missed something, having not really mastered something. But then I realized that one never “masters” anything that is worthwhile. All worthwhile pursuits are endless, never to be “mastered” as such. I lost my fear and simply enjoyed exploring things anew.
For example, when I learn a new dance, I don’t go around thinking, “Oh, I’ve done other dancing, so this is going to be easy.” The fact is, if you’ve done enough different styles of dance, you realize that they are all different, and no, everything is not just some kind of variant of a unified superior dance technique. Furthermore, even in a particular dance that seems “simple”, there are endless subtleties. Take the waltz, where the basic turning step seems simple enough. You could do the waltz a couple of times and think to yourself, “OK, I know this step, so I want to learn some more steps”. But no, that one step is enough to last a lifetime of practice. The amount of swing, the preparation by the upper body, the lilt, the timing of the 1-2-3 (not as a metronome), the exact acceleration of a turning step, all these things are a matter of lifetime refinement and experimentation and delight. I never think, “Oh, waltz has only one or two steps, so I’ve learned it, and it’s a boring dance, and now I want to learn some other dance with five new steps I’ve never seen before”.
Or when I play the flute (which I very much want to say I’m still pretty “bad” at, but the corollary of not claiming expertise is that I’m also not supposed to denigrate myself either; false humility is just a passive-aggressive form of arrogance), I’m still learning how to play a long tone well. And I know I’m going to be doing this the rest of my life. There’s never going to be a time when I feel that I have “mastered” playing the most beautiful single long note, and then never have to go back to practicing that again. This isn’t “perfectionism”, just the beautiful reality that if we appreciate everything in life, we always have more to learn, more to explore, and will never be bored.
Or as I continue improving my computer programming skills, I keep in mind how incredibly complex and difficult the task of programming actually is, and how great it is that there are all these local groups that I attend, with all of us knowing that we have much to learn about our craft.
I am grateful to have the opportunities to always find things to learn, to correct my mistakes and misunderstandings, and to learn from others (the Web has been an amazing source and amplifier of all these opportunities).
Every day I wake up, I’m a beginner, and I love that. I’m a beginner at running, at writing, at eating, at dancing, at programming, at sitting, at loving, at hearing. It’s an amazing world, an amazing life.
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