What’s the value of expertise?

Musician playing violin isolated on black

Watching the Rio Olympics these last several weeks has gotten me thinking about expertise. Everyone agrees that it’s good to be great at something — traversing the balance beam, speaking a foreign language fluently, or baking a soufflé. What’s less clear is how we become great at something in the first place and why we’re willing to work so hard to do so.

There are two schools of thought about how we acquire expertise. Researchers and brothers Hubert and Stuart Dreyfus contend that when learning a new skill, we pass through five stages of competence, from novice to expert. The novice learns initially through rigid adherence to rules, but over time acquires sufficient skill and judgement to become an expert who responds intuitively to unanticipated challenges that present themselves. The more accomplished we become, the more rules limit the additional learning required to achieve exceptional performance. Understanding context and responding reflexively become key.

In contrast, Swedish psychologist Anders Ericsson dismisses altogether the importance of intuition in becoming an expert. Ericsson, patron saint of piano teachers and personal trainers, insists that the only way to develop expertise is through sustained periods of “deliberate practice” during which one hammers away at improving a desired skill until mastery is achieved. (It is Ericsson’s theory of deliberate practice that led Malcolm Gladwell to attribute to Ericsson — incorrectly, it appears — the “10,000 hours” of practice requirement for becoming an expert.) Ericsson considers expertise based on intuition a form of “arrested development” that encourages complacency, discourages continued learning, and as such represents the greatest single obstacle to becoming an expert.

Regardless of which theory of expertise you subscribe to, it’s clear that becoming accomplished at something involves a lot of work. But what’s the point of it all? What’s the value of expertise?

Becoming an expert at something is, not surprisingly, a great way to make money. Economist Robert Frank, in his recent New York Times op-ed “The Incalculable Value of Finding a Job You Love,” describes research that shows that experts in any line of work capture a disproportionate share of the domain’s total income, since demand for highly-developed skills almost always exceeds supply. We appreciate quality work, whether it’s the fit and finish of a master carpenter’s millwork or the inspired performance of concert violinist, and we’re willing to pay top dollar to enjoy it.

Learning some skill or talent also increases our personal sense of agency, our belief that we can control the chaotic forces at play in what appears to be an increasingly unpredictable world. This perception of being in control of events — illusory though it might be — allows us to feel safe as we navigate through the unexpected challenges life tosses our way. This results, I suspect, from the resilience and hard work required to master any craft and the belief that if we can finish a marathon, we can endure any trial we might encounter.

Finally, becoming an expert at something satisfies a primal desire to grow, to progress, to become stronger or smarter than anyone else and, as a result, survive to tell the story. Striving to do something better than others is a powerful human instinct that in its most basic expression propels the evolution of our species — a species that loves nothing more than winning and keeping score. I offer Michael Phelps as a case in point.

Clearly there are significant economic, psychological, and biological benefits associated with learning and developing expertise. But is there ever a time when expertise becomes a disadvantage, when we’re better off not knowing everything we know? I’ll explore this question in my next post.

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