html xmlns="" xml:lang="en" lang="en"> From the archives: Generally

Wednesday, April 11, 2007


I love experts. Really. I love experts. I love experts on anything. It is impossible to have a boring conversation with an expert who is still thinking about her field. As long as the expert still cares and pays attention to his field, I want to talk to him. Experts are sometimes reluctant to talk about their field, ‘cause they’re afraid they’re boring you or because it can be a lot of work to talk to laypeople. But when they’ll let me, I will sit and interrogate someone for two or three hours. I really want to know what it is like to think like them. The best questions are general: ‘and then what?’, ‘how does that work?’, ‘does that part suck?’, ‘is that part like the conventional wisdom?’. The other thing I love about true enthusiasts is that the more dedicated and knowledgeable they are, the more prosaic they get. They don’t mystify or glorify or obscure things. “Well, yeah,” they say. “That part is a pain in the ass. But is it worth it when it makes this other part possible.” When they get to the core of their expertise, the part they can’t explain, they aren’t coy about that either. “I just know, because I’ve done it thousands of times.” “My way isn’t the perfect way, but it is the way I like it best, and I’ve tried lots of things.”

One of the best things about this huge world is that there is so much for people to be expert in. I am jealous of them. I want their eyes. It was amazing to go out on Sherry’s boat and know that she was monitoring dozens or hundreds of tells about sailing, only consciously thinking about some of them, and only saying six or seven of them out loud. I can’t believe what people know. I know I am also like that in a couple fields, but I am freshly jealous every time I find a new way that people know something that well. I am also ridiculously disappointed every time I run into someone who disparages that ability in her or himself or won’t tell me. I swear I want to hear it.


Blogger billoo said...

Excellent post. I enjoy reading this type of writing the most.

Whilst not disagreeing with you I would add that there are other types of experts who are in the service of power and there can be experts who know something extremely well (science, say) but who do not necessarily remember how to think like a human. i.e it can be a narrow type of expertise/intelligence (cp. what Goethe would say: often rounded, always open).

Or, as Rumi narrates a story...

A king sends his son off to the best university and many years later he comes back with the highest degrees. The proud father wants to show the court just how smart his son is and so he, unbeknown to his son, places a ring in his hand and then asks his son , in front of the whole court, what is in his hand.

"My years of expertise knowledge in physics", the son starts, "tell me that way that light is refracted it must be something hollow".
the court is stunned.

"Go on", the King says.

The kid then uses his expert knowledge of biology and muscle positions to say that the object is round.

"go on" beams the King.

Having studied the periodic table I say it must be very heavy, it must be gold.

The court is truly amazed.

The King says, do the formalities then, son. You have rightly said it is gold, hollow and round.

"Is it your crown, father?"

An expertise knowledge of the details can mean we sometimes miss out on the whole picture, no?

2:59 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Reminds me in a way of "Seeing Like a State" by James C. Scott. He talks a lot in the book about how bureaucracy requires standardizing all sorts of knowledge, often displacing highly specific place- and time-dependent local knowledge.

Alas, nearly all of my knowledge is of the hollow, round, gold type, or the general, bureaucratic type.

7:30 AM  

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