Should You Become an Expert?

by Stephen Mills on March 1, 2011

This is a question that I think few people consider seriously and yet I think in today’s world it is a very important question.  I will  celebrate (or mourn) my 50th birthday  this year.  I think I’ve lived about one half of my adult life and this question is something I have been thinking about.  I will attempt an answer in this article.

In today’s hyper-specialized world I think the “well-rounded” person person is disappearing.  By default we are becoming specialists.  I graduated college with a computer science degree and went into the IT profession.  I am profoundly ignorant of most of the field.  The amount of knowledge or skill in most fields is so vast and increasing so rapidly that you can likely only be a narrowly focused specialist if you want to achieve anything significant.

To take one example, the medical general practitioner is becoming almost uselessly behind in every area; the field is so vast nobody can begin to hope to be much of a generalist and be of as much use as the internet. You don’t go to a criminal lawyer to do your taxes.  I follow several scientific fields and the well-known scientists are usually very narrowly focused in a sub-specialty of their field.  The same thing is true with athletes and artists.  Yo-Yo Ma is a cellist and audiences don’t pay to hear him play the trumpet.  Bobby Fischer focused on chess so much from a very young age he never learned to be a competent human being and he ended up a raving lunatic.  The Olympic decathlon champion probably couldn’t win a college level (or maybe high-school) competition in any particular event, and despite Michael Jordon’s undeniably rare athletic skills he couldn’t play baseball at the professional level.  As a blogger, one of the most consistent pieces of advice I hear is to find and focus on a narrow niche (which I ignore).  In other words, be a super specialist.

Of course there are exceptions but we are talking about relatively normal people – you and me.  A few centuries ago you could probably learn a lot about a lot of different subjects and be considered to have a reasonably well-rounded intellect.  Many educated people achieved this universal knowledge and some remarkably talented people actually became true polymaths or Renaissance Men (e.g. Leonardo Da Vinci).   I don’t think this is realistic anymore (there may be a few exceptions) and the embarrassing result is that many world-class experts in one area try to throw their weight around on things they are unqualified to speak about (artistic people who think they are political or economic experts come to mind).

In times past many people out of necessity were multi-skilled in a variety of activities and if they couldn’t do it themselves it didn’t get done.  Even in the western world, at the practical skill level, this persisted well into the 20th century in rural areas on farms and ranches.  My father is a do-it-yourself handy man in many different areas.  I can barely hammer a nail.

We love and are captivated by human excellence and in all fields we benefit from the single-minded focus of the experts.  I wouldn’t want to live in a world without them. Specialization is undoubtedly productive and has produced great wealth.  While this hyper-specialization seems necessary for significant achievement and economic progress, the question still remains should you try to be an expert or a more well-rounded generalist?

And The Answer Is?

I don’t know, but I’ll take a shot.  Given the hyper-specialized world we live in the obvious answer seems to be that you should become a narrowly-focused expert.  No matter what you choose to be doing at any particular time, there are going to be any number of other people who are specialized in that area and doing almost nothing else.  If you aren’t focusing most of your time on it, they will be much better at it than you.  Since the world is so connected, people who want their services will be able to find them.  You are never going to be able to out compete the specialist in a specialty.  If you don’t want to spend a lot of time at your chosen field, there will be others who easily surpass you.

I think if you want to achieve at very high levels this is the answer.  If you want to excel in your career, achieve recognition, money, or status I don’t think you have much of a choice.  While there may be exceptions, you probably aren’t one of the genetic freaks who will be one of them.  I’m certainly not.

But I Hate That Answer

My heart’s desire is to have a number of pursuits and areas of interest and do them all well.  I don’t think just dabbling in a bunch of different things gives one much satisfaction.  You need to achieve some level of competence to feel some accomplishment.  I have been fairly specialized most of my life and it seems like I constantly need to be more specialized to keep up and be good.  I absolutely hate it.  I’ve been too focused and many things I want to pursue have been left by the wayside.  I’m determined to change that.

The High Cost of Expertise

To achieve high-level expertise you have to devote enormous amounts of effort.  In others we see the results, but not the painful effort that went into those achievements.  Most skills have a fairly steep initial learning curve and it takes quite a bit of effort to achieve any competence.  However, once you achieve a certain basic competence in something, improvement is very rapid; you are initially getting a lot of results for your effort.  These are the boom times.  As you continue to rise in expertise, the improvements come more slowly; the returns diminish  At the highest levels it may take enormous effort to achieve even tiny incremental improvements.

So once you achieve a certain level of competence the question to ask yourself is it worth the continued effort to gain even higher levels?  It all depends upon what you want.  If you want the recognition, money, achievement, or simply the satisfaction that comes from expertise then go for it.

The Alternative

Here are some things I have zero competence in that I would like to become reasonably competent doing.  Speaking multiple languages, a martial art, a sketch artist, playing chess, being a published writer, and some other things.  I barely know a few words in any other language than my native English.  But I would like to learn another language.  Since I live in the Southern Texas, Spanish is the obvious choice.  It would have a lot of practical advantages.  I could spend a tremendous amount of effort to become remarkably fluent in Spanish or I could spend the same amount of effort to become reasonably fluent in both Spanish and French and maybe even a third language.

Maybe instead of learning three languages, I could become reasonably fluent in Spanish and also learn to be a decent pencil artist and achieve a middle level belt in a martial art.  To me this kind of thinking clearly lays out the consequences of expertise – the opportunities you give up.

My gut instinct and personal experience says that to achieve the best life satisfaction, maybe being an expert isn’t the right choice.  This is something everyone has to decide for themselves, but societal pressure seems to be on becoming an expert; being the best you can be and all that.  I’m pretty sure that’s the way to high achievement in anything.

I’m just not sure that’s the way to high happiness with your life.  To give up on expertise, you will have to give up some other things, but I think for many if not most people it’s worth it.  Don’t get caught in the trap unless you are really sure that’s what you want.  Consider earning a living four or five hours a day and spending the rest of your precious time on other pursuits.  After a career of 30 years, those 12 to 14 hour days may just not have been worth it.

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{ 23 comments… read them below or add one }

Ryan March 1, 2011 at 8:21 am

I really understand what you’re saying. There are way too many things that are interesting to become an expert, but I too wish I could become really good at a lot of different things.

However, I think you only really need to become an expert in something if you want to be competitive in that thing where expertise matters (for example, finding work). For everything else just do the activities because you enjoy them.

Or you could spend each year of your life learning a new skill, and in ten years you’d be fairly competent at ten different things.
Ryan´s last [type] ..Websites Versus Blogs- What’s the Difference

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Stephen Mills March 3, 2011 at 2:51 pm

Hi Ryan and thanks for commenting. I think your last sentence says lot. How much time you need to spend and what level of competence is sufficient is highly variable of course.

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NomadicNeill March 1, 2011 at 8:35 am

Something I’ve though about many times as well.

I have all kinds of interests and have attained a fair few competencies. But I’m not sure I’m an expert at anything.

On the other hand, do you need to be an expert at things to be able to leverage them? In some cases you just need to be better than 80% of people out there.

In other cases you want to reach for mastery level.

I think as with many things the law of diminishing returns applies. After a certain level you won’t get much more satisfaction from it.

Unless it is used as a means for self exploration and betterment on a deeper level.

So in conclusion I think everyone should have at least one thing that they try to become a master in, something that you carry with you your whole life. This doesn’t have to be something work / career related.
NomadicNeill´s last [type] ..The ‘Fuck It’ Philosophy

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Stephen Mills March 3, 2011 at 2:54 pm

Hello Neil, thanks for your thoughts. I don’t necessarily disagree about the “master” point but I don’t think you need to carry it to extremes. This is obviously a highly personal decision. The point I’m trying to make is that the world is moving rapidly in the direction of specialization and I think it is a mistake for many of us.

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Henway March 1, 2011 at 10:58 pm

I think being an expert in something will increase happiness. The more you become better at something, the more fulfilled you will get, and the more in the flow you’ll get too. Take something such as learning to play music. In the beginning, you’ll be frustrated as you get acquainted with the basics. But as you get better, playing music becomes more enjoyable, and fun. You just want to do it more often and get better at it, try new things, etc.
Henway´s last [type] ..iPage tips

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Stephen Mills March 3, 2011 at 2:56 pm

Hi Henway.

“In the beginning, you’ll be frustrated as you get acquainted with the basics. But as you get better, playing music becomes more enjoyable, and fun.”

I couldn’t agree more and I said so in my article. This is when you are getting a big return on your investment. The point of the article was that as you move towards high and higher levels of expertise, the returns diminish and it may not be the best choice anymore.

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Jaime Anderson March 1, 2011 at 11:57 pm

An interesting debate. I think if you have one thing that you’re seriously passionate about and your commitment is unwavering, you should devote the necessary time to becoming an expert. But if you’re one of those people who requires diversity, who likes learning new skills all the time, who can’t stay put in one place, there’s nothing wrong with being a generalist. It’s all good.
Jaime Anderson´s last [type] ..Freak Out Panic Moment

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Stephen Mills March 3, 2011 at 2:58 pm

Hi Jaime and thank you for stopping in to comment. You are right it is all good, but as the world is becoming hyper-specialized, we need to be careful about buying into that without understanding the consequences.

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Bransby March 2, 2011 at 5:17 am

I’m glad someone else is thinking about this too, it’s been bothering me for ages. All my friends who are doing well in their careers are doing so because they’ve been focussed on one thing since they left high school (some since they were in high school) and whilst that’s admirable I simply can’t live my life like that. There are too many interesting things in the world to focus on one of them for the majority of your life, and I can’t help feeling that those who focus much of their lives on one specific thing may come to regret it in later life.

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Stephen Mills March 3, 2011 at 3:00 pm

Hello Bransby.

“I can’t help feeling that those who focus much of their lives on one specific thing may come to regret it in later life.”

I can’t help thinking that either. I’ve experienced it myself to some degree. Here’s to the generalist!

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Dale March 3, 2011 at 10:54 am

Excellent post. Having recently turned 50 myself, I’ve been having lots of these thoughts as well. About 25 years ago, I could reasonably have convinced myself that I pretty much everything there was to know about the IBM PC — and what I didn’t have hands-on experience with, I had good working knowledge. Today it’s totally different. There’s just no way I’ll ever come close to having that level of expertise even in some subset of the computer world again. So, I am happy to be good project manager.

One unfortunate comment in this blog, however, is the reference to “genetic freaks”. I am certainly no expert in the field of genetics, but have read extensively on genetics and intelligence and know the “jury is definitely out” regarding whether advanced intellectual abilities — in this case, being an “expert” in multiple fields — is genetic. There are so many variables, the brain is so dynamic (through research in neuroplasticity) and there so many different aspects and brain functions that go into becoming an “expert” that is not credible (with today’s science) to simply suggest that those who excel beyond the rest of us are somehow “genetic freaks”.

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Stephen Mills March 3, 2011 at 12:42 pm

Thanks for you comment Dale and I appreciate it. On the “genetic freaks” comment, I also happen to be well read in this area and I completely disagree. I happen to be a strong believer in the potential plasticity changes in the brain and the fact that there is a great deal one can do to “change your brain”. I have written much to that effect on this blog.

However, to suggest that we all have the same brain genes and that we all have the same potential flies totally against available evidence. We do NOT have the same genes that build our brains and the idea that those differences would not lead to differences in what we can do with them just like other genetic differences say in our muscles would not lead to differences in what we can do with them seems strange.

My muscles are “plastic” too. But no amount of variability in my environment would make me the fastest man in the world. The fact that the fastest men in the world train and improve themselves and that I could do the same is not an indication that that in running speed they aren’t “genetic freaks” with a lot more speed potential than me.

I’m not going to get into a long debate on intelligence on this thread but I believe the evidence is clear that it has a strong genetic component and we will just have to disagree. At the same time I think there are a lot of ways for most people to improve the functioning of their minds and I have written on that topic many times.

For some reason some people can’t admit that we are different and part of that differences is in our genes. I can and I celebrate that fact.

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Dale March 4, 2011 at 8:58 am

Hi Stephen,

Not to debate this too much further, but there are two follow up worth considering:

1. One’s atheletic ability are influenced by parts of our body which are more “genetic” and less “plastic” like our skeletal structure. This doesn’t appear to be the case with the mind.

2. In my opinion, since the human genomes were sequenced about 15 years ago, there has been a literal sea change in how we should approach claims to the genetic foundations of various traits. Previously, identifying a trait as genetic because it couldn’t otherwise be isolated seemed modestly reasonable. But, now we should be much more cautious since there’s real science that can help provide much more evidence to those claims, or lack thereof.

Lastly, you said “I believe the evidence is clear that it has a strong genetic component and we will just have to disagree.” This is not a matter of agreeing of disagreeing (at least based on mere opinions without scientific evidence), but rather a matter of weighing available scientific evidence and coming to a reasonable conclusion based on that evidence. I would greatly appreciate it if you could point me in the direction where I could read more about this evidence pointing a strong genetic component as a basis for intelligence. That way I will be able to consider your information as well. Thanks.

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Stephen Mills March 4, 2011 at 7:41 pm

Hi Dale, this is the last comment on this debate in this forum. I welcome you to go to my contact link at the top and that will send me an email if you wish to continue.

It is about disagreeing because we disagree about what the evidence says and I simply completely disagree about both muscles and speed and intellectual traits. Weaken the muscles on a sprinter and see how fast he runs?!. Athletes are training the “plastic” parts not their skeletal structure and without the training they can just sit at home. I’m sorry a good skeletal structure is necessary but the muscles are moving him in the sprint.

The availability of the evidence is massive and there are many references in the “Heritability of IQ” entry on Wikipedia. As a matter of fact I believe the evidence is that for those relevant experts (as opposed to those with simply political agendas) the debate is over about whether there is a strong genetic component. It is about how strong the genetic component is – high or really high. Also the scientists are now starting to identify genes that relate to intelligence but once again this is such a political hot potato that most of them will simply not go near it nor able to get funding.

Here is a nice summary from the mentioned Wikipedia article that I think gives a good overview of why the debate about the fact (as opposed to how much) of the strong genetic component is over.

Estimates in the academic research of the heritability of IQ have varied from below 0.5[6] to a high of 0.9.[9] A 1996 statement by the American Psychological Association gave about .45 for children and about .75 during and after adolescence.[10] A 2004 meta-analysis of reports in Current Directions in Psychological Science gave an overall estimate of around .85 for 18-year-olds and older.[11] The New York Times Magazine has listed about three quarters as a figure held by the majority of studies.[12]

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Nea | Self Improvement Saga March 4, 2011 at 2:25 am

This really made me think. I don’t like feeling trapped, but I still find myself feeling trapped by one thing: time. I have tons of things that I want to experience, but most of my time goes to fulfilling the “expertise bucket.” I’m definitely pushing myself in 2011 to have some variety. I want to become bilingual (French), learn Salsa, make a habit of strength training, become a frequent international traveler, brush up on public speaking, become relatively good at skiing…..the list goes on. I don’t think I need to feel like I’m extremely accomplished with each of these endeavors, but I do want to step outside of my element….a lot. I’m just not content with life being primarily about my area of expertise.

Thanks so much for this post.
Nea | Self Improvement Saga´s last [type] ..How to Bounce Back When Things Go Wrong in Life

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Stephen Mills March 4, 2011 at 7:59 pm

Thanks for stopping by Nea. I think our specialization is limiting our exposure to experiences that might lead us to find other things we would like to pursue further. We spend so much time specializing (because we have to in order to succeed by traditional standards), we forgot to experiment with life.

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Bunnygotblog March 4, 2011 at 5:03 am

great article and you have impressed upon me the uncomfortable pressures from family,friends and society in general which many of us allow to influence our direction in careers and life.This is something I believe we learn at some point on our own.Turn off the outside interference and trust yourself.
We have one life and we should live it to the fullest.

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Stephen Mills March 4, 2011 at 8:04 pm

Hello Bunny! That social pressure is unfortunate and I believe it is very influential. We do not get a do over!

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Lynn Dee March 5, 2011 at 11:40 am

I have really been enjoying this blog and found helpful insights. This particular subject reminded me of a free e-book I read recently. How to Live on 24 Hours a Day by Arnold Bennett. I believe it was published in the late 19th century but don’t let this deter you. Mr. Bennett has some very good ideas on how to make the most of your day and helped me look at work and my “free” time from a different perspective. There are probably hundreds of books more current on this topic but I find “advice” books published around the late 19th and early 20th century to be refreshing and pragmatic.

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Hunny March 8, 2011 at 8:21 am

I know the mean what you want to say.
Every man have limited time and vigour in life .maybe we can become a specialist in one or two fields, but ,In limited time ,we just do a thing and do it well is a best achivenets!

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sudan April 11, 2011 at 1:18 am

Hello lynn!
Could you please send me the link of that free e-book by Arnold bennett?

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Lynn Dee April 21, 2011 at 8:17 am

Sorry for the delay Sudan. I have been having problems with my laptop. I downloaded the book from Amazon.com. Here is the link:
http://www.amazon.com/How-Live-Hours-Day-ebook/dp/B000JQU7DA/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&m=AG56TWVU5XWC2&s=digital-text&qid=1303391720&sr=1-1

Hope you enjoy the book!

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jenny123 June 13, 2011 at 3:30 am

Good clean UI and nice informative blog. I will be coming back soon, Thanks for posting some great ideas and I’ll try to return back with a completely different browser to check things out! Also, I put a link to your blog at my site, hope you don’t mind?
jenny123´s last [type] ..GRE Test Questions

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