“An expert is a person who has made all the mistakes that can be made in a very narrow field”
–Niels Bohr, Physicist 1885 – 1962
Bohr’s definition has a nice ring. It’s different from Gladwell’s 10,000 hour Outliers expert, but recognizes that those endless hours aren’t filled with infallible preaching.
It emphasizes the timeless beauty of trial and error.
I’m reading Jonah Lehrer’s How we Decide, a neurological adventure into the decision-making process. In the book, Lehrer writes about the science of trial and error. Trial and error is a cognitive training process, where, over time, we teach our brain cells to never repeat our past mistakes.
“Experts are profoundly intuitive. When an expert evaluates a situation, he doesn’t compare all available options and consciously analyze relevant information. Instead, an expert depends on the emotions generated by his dopamine neurons. Prediction errors [trial and error] have been translated into useful knowledge, which allows him to tap into a set of accurate feelings he can’t explain.”
Becoming a good quarterback, world-chess champion, or frankly any kind of expert isn’t about endless practice. Lehrer, describing a backgammon champion:
“Robertie didn’t become a world champion just by playing a lot of backgammon. ‘It’s not the quantity of practice, it’s the quality.’ According to Robertie, the most effective way to get better is to focus on your mistakes. In other words, you need to consciously consider the errors being internalized by your dopamine neurons. After a match, he painstakingly reviews what happened. Every decision is critiqued and analyzed.”
Studying your past mistakes, in short, is the path to expertise. Consultants never realize their mistakes. After a gig and before accomplishing anything of substance, consultants are out the door, onto their next project. They studied the client’s problem, made a recommendation, and handed over a bill for their fees. No effort is made to study their advice and determine every single error, regardless of magnitude.
And if Niels Bohr is right, consultants are not becoming better experts. Their expertise has plateaued.
Perhaps the glorified role of consultant, brushing shoulders with c-level execs and recommending strategy is all wrong. Perhaps it’s the guy in the trenches, the person accountable for what went right and what went morbidly wrong, with the real experience.
Something to think about: the only way to get it right next time is to study what went wrong this time. Otherwise, you’re that guy.