Expertise & mastery

First draft of an article I’m planning to post on my company’s blog:

When reflecting upon and critiquing performance in situations where key variables are unknown, it is important to analyze it from two perspectives: hindsight and improvisation.

  1. Analysis from the perspective of hindsight asks “Had the unknowns that came to light in the course of events been known ahead of time, what would we have done differently?” The value of hindsight analysis is primarily in developing new forms of expertise — learning to quickly recognize known problems and to respond with established methods.
  2. Analysis from the perspective of improvisation asks “When I find myself in situations with unknown variables in the future, what will I do differently?” The value of improvisational analysis is developing mastery — learning how to respond to novel problems with untried methods, intuitively trying new approaches and adjusting on the fly until favorable results are produced.

In doing these kinds of analysis, it is crucial to stay alert to the fact that unknowns are a permanent feature of practical life, and that no amount of expertise can replace mastery. Internalizing this truth is itself part of mastery.

Expertise and mastery should not be confused or conflated: they are related but distinctly different.

Expertise is about techniques — matters of training in how to do something, following a logical flow. We sharpen technique through repetitive practice. Mastery is improved through the opposite, through exposure to uncomfortable and unfamiliar variety.

Elements of mastery are largely tacit, and involve such fuzzy categories as intuitive depth of understanding of one’s problem space, receptivity to hearing and seeing what people are saying verbally and non-verbally, ability and willingness to shift framings and see things from multiple angles, empathic sensitivity to the interplay of emotion and intellect in individuals and groups, focus on root problems which can change as understanding deepens, emotional self-discipline to stay steady and focused in the face of intense anxiety and chaos, and finally a sense of elevated freedom: knowing and feeling in our bones that we are authorized to do what it takes to solve this problem and liberating ourselves to solve it. It also involves knowing yourself — knowing your own strengths and weaknesses — and knowing others — knowing when other people’s strengths can come to the rescue or where you might be able to come to theirs. If it didn’t have such a ludicrous ring, I’d call these elements “professional wisdom”.

Leave a Reply