There are two elements of expertise:
- A knowledge of the new that is up-to-date on all of the latest findings, breakthroughs, approaches and tactics; a catalog of differences as they emerge
- An understanding of underlying principles that makes connections between traditional and emerging tactics, between recent findings and earlier hypotheses, between breakthroughs and the lineage of thought that enabled them; a vision of what is core and unchanging
The frenetic nature of our daily lives, the 24-hour news cycle, and the constant, repopulation of social media’s various feeds with what is novel and urgent, rather than what is most important, has led us to overvalue knowledge of the new.
This element of expertise has its place. You certainly want your physician to be up to date on the latest treatments for what ails you. However, if forced to choose between the physician who can recite findings from all of this months’ journals and the one who truly understands the principles by which the body and health operate, the choice is clear; you want the expert who truly understands, not the one who’s most up to date.
There is a buddhist parable that equates a teaching to a raft. It can be very useful for overcoming an obstacle (a river crossing), but that once on the other side, we should continue on our path, rather than remain behind to worship that particular raft.
Building expertise is a process of crossing many rivers on many different rafts. A focus on knowledge of the new as a means of building expertise is like intimately describing the details of the latest raft: its color, shape, size, cleanliness. A focus on understanding underlying principles looks at all of the crossings on all of the rafts and recognizes what they have in common: they all float. In recognizing this, such a focus can come to understand buoyancy – how they float – as well. By overvaluing novelty, we miss these core truths in exchange for detailed descriptions of the splinters at the bow of a particular vessel.
A focus on core, underlying principles is based on the notion that ideas that appear repeatedly, across disciplines and across generations, contain in them a level of truth that simply cannot be inferred by keeping up to date on the latest fads and trends.
Jim Collins and Morten Hansen studied companies that have thrived in times of uncertainty for their book Great By Choice. In it they argue:
“The best leaders we studied did not have a visionary ability to predict the future. They observed what worked [flotation], figured out why it worked [buoyancy], and built upon proven foundations [underlying principles] (1).”
So as you keep abreast of the latest developments in your field, seek to make connections across disciplines, across time and across circumstance. A breakthrough social media tactic is more likely to emerge from an understanding of psychology and social dynamics than it is from knowledge of the latest techniques. You can’t hack expertise.