Expertise Does Not Have Units

Actually Getting Big Things Done is a series of guests posts on how to make things happen from those who know how to… well… actually get big things done. Today’s post comes from Gabe Weatherhead of Macdrifter. I’m an unabashed fan. Not only is Gabe an all-around nice guy, he’s wicked smart and is very generous with his time (read: he puts up with far too many of my annoying emails). Gabe is a creator, a maker of things. He has an annoying habit of turning his ideas into a reality. He leads by example, and it’s an example I strive (yet struggle) to follow.

We measure length in feet[1], weight in pounds, time in seconds and expertise in failure. The problem with becoming an expert is that often there’s no beginning and no end. Worse, there’s no measure we can use to perceive our progress. This is my attempt at a retrospective measurement of my journey.

What does a ten-year-old know about success? Well, if you were an uncoordinated oaf that had been repeatedly placed in special education programs by lazy teachers, you believed success was synonymous with respect. You believed that there was a magical point in your awkward progression where the world would take you seriously and believe in you. You knew nothing about success.

I began studying chemistry in the 5th grade. I read science books that I brought home from the library and idolized the scientist mythos in popular culture. I wanted to be an old gray man with wild hair that alternated between a tweed blazer and a lab coat. So I started a methodical progression toward becoming a “scientist”.

Over the years, chemistry became an escape for me. It was a topic that supplied an endless stream of ideas and small joys. I could play with thought experiments in my head as easily as normal people carry a tune. While I loved chemistry I never felt like a chemist. To me a chemist was still that gray old man in a lab coat shouting “Eureka!” and scribbling on a blackboard. So I continued on.

I proceeded through college throwing myself into the lab and plowing headfirst into graduate level coursework. I was no genius. I often floundered and struggled to keep my head above water. But I was single minded. I needed to become an organic chemist.[2] I completed every graduate level organic chemistry course with top grades by the end of my senior year (but nearly missed graduation by not completing humanities coursework). I didn’t attend a single party and spent every holiday in the lab, but that was OK because I was almost a chemist.

By my measure, I was half-way to my goal. I was 20 years old and knew more organic chemistry than I had ever imagined. I knew enough to get a job doing chemistry for a paycheck. My days were work and my nights were books. I focused on the small bits that are often left as floor shavings when a boy is turned into a college graduate. Half of every pay check was reinvested into chemistry textbooks and half of every day was reinvested into becoming an expert. Four years of work and study saw me off to graduate school and I was almost a chemist.

Now at this point, most reasonable humans would consider that I had reached some significant plateau. However, organic chemistry is a deep and subtle science, chock full of history and anachronistic legacy. We speak in combinations of English, German, French and Polish. We name things after old dead men who ceased being mortal and became gods. We prize minutia and celebrate knowledge of the obscure. At 25, I was ignorant and absurd and still not quite a chemist.

Graduate school was a playground full of the hardest problems I had ever faced. I was consumed by becoming an expert and the world around me disintegrated. I emerged six years later with another degree, far less hair, and a keen mastery of organic chemistry. I overshot my goal.

Sometimes, the problem with achieving a goal set for you by a ten-year-old is that you have no idea what to do at the finish line. The world changed and I missed it. I was an expert and I was tired and bored. For me, the sweet spot of expertise hovered around the 70% mark. Being an expert is boring. While there’s always more to learn and new problems to solve, nothing is so thrilling as problems that make me fail. The moments when I struggled the most were the moments when I was scientist. I was at my best when comprehension was just out of reach.

Expertise is a funny thing. There’s no way to measure our progress towards obtaining it, yet we always feel far from our goal. When I did finally feel like an expert it hardly felt valuable enough to hold on to. I only learned afterward that expertise is not a destination but a vehicle. It’s the golden ring that makes us jump higher and reach further. In the end, it’s just a ring.

I can’t blame that little boy though. How could he know that he was already a scientist?

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  1. Sorry world. I’m an American. We use logical measurement standards like the appendage of a long dead ordinary human from the Roman empire.  ↩

  2. Organic chemistry is the study of carbon-based chemistry, not an aisle in Whole Foods.  ↩

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