Thoughts on Expertise

by Roger Bourke White Jr., copyright December 2011

Introduction: A Brush with Expertise

I had an interesting experience today: I experienced a flourish of expertise.

Expertise is when your ability, knowledge and experience combine to let you deal smoothly with an unexpected situation that happens in a familiar environment. When you can deal smoothly with a surprising change in a standard situation, your expertise is showing.

For me, today, the expertise showed up as I was navigating my car through a shopping mall parking lot complex during day-before-Christmas crush. I knew the area well, I knew how to drive my car well, I knew that what I was facing was an unusual situation... way too much traffic. So my Judgment Layer thinking kicked into overdrive as I applied "heads up ball"-thinking to the task of navigating the parking complex.

As I watched my usual routes from Point A to Point B to Point C clog up, I started thinking about alternate routes. And... I thought of these alternates early enough in the deciding process that I could take action on them -- that was the sure sign that expertise was kicking in!

The highlight came when I could use my expertise to engage in some judicious rule-breaking. I knew the situation well enough, I knew my performance well enough, that I could act successfully in unconventional ways. That was high-level expertise in action. My rule-breaking worked, it helped the situation (traffic moved better) and I got where I wanted to go faster. I felt like I was supremely on top of the situation.

Judicious Rule Breaking

The most interesting part of this experience was the rule breaking. Rules are established because they define procedures that work well most of the time -- most of the time, but not all of the time. Rules in this context means more than legal rules. It means good advice, common sense, conventional wisdom and all other other informal forms of deciding action as well as the formal ones.

If a person with expertise is viewing a situation, they know when rules can be broken for benefit. (Who's benefit then becomes the next question, but beyond the scope of this essay.) If a person without expertise breaks the rules, they may be clumsy about doing so and they get unpleasantly surprised by the result and damage is often caused. This is why beginners are taught rules. (Damage is not always caused by beginner's rule breaking, and when it's not it is attributed to beginner's luck.)

In the second half of his career Steve Jobs was a famous business-running rule breaker. He got away with this because by then he had expertise. Jobs broke rules in the first half of his career, too, but in those early days he often got bitten when he did so -- Apple III, LISA and NeXT Computer were less than stellar successes. He learned. He gained expertise. And a decade later he was much more successful with his rule breaking.

This ability to know when to break the rules, and when not to, may be the pinnacle of expertise.


PS Closely related to expertise is the issue of confidence, particularly whether or not to trust another person's confidence. I talk about that in my essay Cost of Confidence.


Update Dec 11: A few days after writing this I witnessed a tragic example of expertise going wrong. Two elementary school-age children were flaunting their street-crossing expertise to J-walk across a seven lane suburban main road. They were halfway across, in the center lane used for left turning, when a high-risk situation developed and, sadly, came to full fruition.

A driver in the left-most lane saw them and stopped so they could cross. This blocked the view of what was happening to a driver further back in the center lane who was using his expertise to cruise along the road at full speed. The first kid took the left-lane car's invitation and finished running across... then the second saw what the first was doing and followed... <sigh> The second took the hit and it looked fatal to me.

Watching that did not make my day. I used my old-man expertise to drive carefully away from the tragedy.

The sad moral: when two people are flaunting expertise and doing judicious rule breaking in close proximity, watch out. That's when damaging mistakes become highly probable.


Further Update: Thanks to the miracles of modern civilized infrastructure, I was able to both follow up on this story and discover the ending was much happier than I expected at the time. Further moral: We live in good times.

Girl, 7, hit by car in West Valley City

by Cimaron Neugebauer

The Salt Lake Tribune

First published 30 Dec 11 4PM, updated 8PM

A 7-year-old girl was hit by a car Friday afternoon while attempting to cross Redwood Road in West Valley City.

The child was flown by helicopter to a hospital in critical condition, said West Valley City police Sgt. Mike Powell.

The girl was with a 13-year-old girl when she tried to cross from the west near 3800 South shortly after 4 p.m. Powell said the teen tried to stop the child from crossing, but the 7-year-old continued across the street and was hit by a car when she stepped into a northbound lane.

The girl suffered a broken arm and undetermined internal injuries, but Powell said authorities expect her condition to improve.

The child was not at a crosswalk. The busy road is surrounded by numerous apartment complexes in the area, leading to lots of pedestrians trying to cross the street at various places.

"Jaywalking across the street is a significant problem here," Powell said, adding crossing at a crosswalk can seem inconvenient, "but it keeps pedestrians and drivers safe."


West Valley City girl expected to survive auto-pedestrian accident

by Bob Mims

The Salt Lake Tribune

31 Dec 11 9AM

A 7-year-old girl hit by a car while walking across Redwood Road in West Valley City was expected to survive, police said Saturday.

The child was with a 13-year-old girl when she tried to cross from the west near 3800 South about 4 p.m. Friday. The teen tried but failed to stop the child, and the 7-year-old was struck when she stepped into a northbound lane. She was not in a crosswalk.

The girl suffered a broken arm and internal injuries, and was initially listed in critical condition. On Saturday, however, police said it appeared her injuries were no longer considered life-threatening and she was expected to eventually recover.

The spot where the child was hit is surrounded by numerous apartment complexes in the area, leading to lots of pedestrians jaywalking as they try to cross the street at various places.


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