Category Archives: Expert

proximity, distance, and expertise

The challenge of being an expert is that it is hard to be one in your own home town.

Expertise is valued when it comes from far away. The traveling scholar is special for their pure understanding of a difficult field, and they don’t incur the baggage of being a neighbor or even a friend. The distinguished visitor can be an exemplar of their craft, not distracted by any complicated local entanglements.

If you want to be recognized as an expert you need to be prepared to travel beyond where you are well understood out to the parts of the world where you are known solely for your expertise. Go beyond your narrow orbit and strike out to a place where your reputation is solid and where you are an example of the thing you call your own. Leave your own neighborhood behind, even if only to be seen elsewhere as an expert on neighborhoods.

Expertise is a funny thing. You don’t always get a chance to pick what you are good at, because that can come from the views of others. The further away those others are, the more likely they have some essential insight into your character that your close neighbors will never have. Look at yourself through the eyes of someone far away and see what special characteristics appear.

(Written mostly on a mobile phone while in a familiar cafe.)


Expert heuristics for problem solving – George Polya’s “How To Solve It”

It is characteristic of an expert to have a systematic approach to problem solving.

A very good example of this is George Polya’s How To Solve It, subtitled “A new aspect of the mathematical method”. In it he prepares the math student for a problem solving approach, not so much by the memorization of zillions of dry facts, but an approach and a set of heuristics (read “methods”, “rules”, or even “hacks”) for dealing with a broad range of mathematical questions, discovery and invention.

The core of How To Solve It is a structured approach to problem solving, and a dictionary of techniques which can be applied to this structure.

First. You have to understand the problem.
Second. Find the connection between the data and the unknown. You may be obliged to consider auxiliary problems if an immediate connection cannot be found. You should obtain eventually a plan of the solution.
Third. Carry out your plan.
Fourth. Examine the solution obtained.

The dictionary of heuristic follows with short pithy entries on technique, questions like “What is the unknown?” and strategies like “Decomposing and recombining”.

This book is a math book, but more than that it’s a way of thinking about things – and as such, I’ve found it useful to refer to whenever I embark on a new project to help me understand what I’m after and the sorts of things I need to learn along the way to get to a satisfactory answer. It is as well a brilliant example of how to distill expertise into a handbook which can carry on teaching long after the expert is gone.

Become an expert by collecting other experts in your field or other fields

How do you become an expert in a field? By writing about that field, repeatedly, until you have mastered it to the level which people find you easily and draw on your expertise.

A big part of being able to write about something twice a day is to have a ready collection of other people to call on for ideas or to ask for details or referrals. By being ready to tap into other people’s expertise, you figure out what you need to know fast.

Here from Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird:

There are an enormous number of people out there with invaluable information to share with you, and all you have to do is pick up the phone. They love it when you do, just as you love it when people ask if they can pick your brain about something you happen to know a great deal about — or, as in my case, have a number of impassioned opinions on.

This is part of the “blogger’s secret” series.