The traditional view of expertise is that you become an expert by spending many years working in a broad area. In gardening, for example, you gain expertise by working with different plants, experimenting with different nutrients and soils, and by making mistakes and then learning from your mistakes. Under this traditional view you are then labeled as an expert gardener, but not an expert on anything else. To become an expert on something else, you have to devote many more years. Thus you’re unlikely to become an expert on more than one or two things during your lifetime.
But there’s an alternate approach to expertise. Using the alternate approach, you can become a temporary expert on hundreds of different things during your lifetime. You can’t remain a expert on many of these things at one time, but usually being an expert on one or two things at a time is enough.
Change has Accelerated
The pace of life has changed a great deal in the last fifty years. Up until the mid-1900’s most people got educated in a certain field and then remained in that field their whole lives. Technology change was slow, and so the skills and expertise you developed were unlikely to become obsolete. It was fairly easy to keep up with technological developments in your field — just a small amount of reading and supplemental education would maintain your expertise.
But during the last fifty or sixty years, technology change has accelerated. There are very few fields in which you can maintain expertise without constant reading and reeducation. It’s gotten to the point where entire concepts and approaches are replaced by new ones in the span of five years or so.
This new environment is awful for old-school experts — far more of your time is devoted to just maintaining your level of expertise. But the new world is wonderful for people who have a short-term need for expertise — people who want to become experts quickly in a narrow area, use the expertise for their own purposes, and then move on to become a different kind of expert to satisfy a different need. I call these people “portable experts.”
Suppose I want to clear a path through a dense jungle to get to a certain location several miles away. The portable expert would use a map to figure out a path, then clear a path to the destination that’s just wide enough for our needs. The more traditional expert would bulldoze all of the area between us and our destination, clearing far more area than is required.
In essence, the portable expert only learns what is needed to walk down the narrow path, while the more traditional expert attempts to learn everything there is to know about a broad subject area before embarking on the journey.
The portable expert doesn’t learn as much, but he or she learns exactly what is needed. The traditional expert learns a whole lot of irrelevant stuff along with the relevant things, on the assumption that all of that knowledge might be useful someday.
In the old days, the approach of the traditional expert would be superior. It’s difficult to know exactly what knowledge is needed for a particular task, and knowing more about the “irrelevant stuff” might provide an advantage. But in today’s world of rapidly changing technology, it’s more difficult to keep up with a wide field of knowledge, so the traditional expert is less likely to be up-to-date on the latest advances in the particular subject area needed, simply because of the breadth of knowledge that the traditional expert is having to maintain. That’s where the portable expert has the advantage: the portable expert can develop short-term expertise in the required narrow area of expertise, and then hold on to that expertise only as long as the expertise is needed for a specific project.
Two Secrets of Success
There are two secrets to making portable expertise work. The first secret is to be very sure of exactly what knowledge and wisdom is needed, and to make sure that the things you don’t learn are truly irrelevant. That’s the primary skill of a portable expert: He or she has learned over the years to identify the learning that is required and the learning that isn’t required, and knows how to verify those learning decisions with instructors, mentors and other sources. This differentiation skill is difficult to learn, and the skill is only acquired by becoming an expert in different specific areas over and over again.
The second secret is that the portable expert has to have enough of a basic foundation of knowledge in a field to be able to comprehend the subject area and understand its principles. The portable expert must be able to have significant conversations with leaders in the field, and must be able to learn from those conversations not just the core concepts but the subtle nuances that make all the difference in long-term success. In a sense the portable expert must be multi-lingual — he or she must develop the ability to carry on conversations in the technical language that goes along with each new area of expertise.
Samuel Johnson once said, “Knowledge is of two kinds. We know a subject ourselves, or we know where we can find information upon it.” The portable expert is the ultimate implementer of this principle: someone who is able to supplement personal knowledge with rapidly acquired information from other sources.
To be continued
In my next post, I’ll give you some examples of portable expertise from my own experience, I’ll list four advantages of hiring a portable expert, and I’ll give you some tips on how to create your own portable experts.