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Mar 14, 2010 | Comments

“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.

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  • Rory

    This reminds me of something Ira Glass said in an interview. He was saying how, when you start out, your work sucks. You have taste, but your execution is bad. But you'll learn from bad execution. And the good bits of execution. And you're learning how to bring your good taste to bear, so that you can more immediately go from, "I feel like this is the right way to go" and have it match up with what is, in reality, the right way to go.

    That makes me think of morality too. A lot of our moral development is following certain core principles that feel right to us, but which are hard to execute. We feel we should be just, but we're not sure what justice is exactly. And so we live our lives, trying to be just, trying different ways of serving justice to people. And sometimes we succeed and sometimes we fail. And we only really learn why in retrospect, as each failure and success integrates in our mind, to form a pattern: a pattern that further influences our feeling of what justice is, and makes us more able to be just. (Not saying this is automatic btw, of course: it does require a certain amount of honesty and harshness towards oneself, to admit that we failed and need to grow.)

  • Jonah Leherer's work in "The Decisive Moment" is an excellent follow up read, along the same lines. To share my story, I ended up in a position of "Head of Mobile Strategy" at my company, simply by challenging an exec. "Why aren't we innovating?" The response came "because there is no budget"... Which got me thinking, couldn't I make a compelling business case for why we should invest? A year later, and that's exactly what I'm doing on many fronts. It was instinct that made me speak out, it "felt" wrong that nobody had yet done so.

    Would I have been able to to make this instinctual analysis if I wasn't already a grunt employed by the company? Possibly, but it wouldn't have been given nearly as much value. I know many senior professionals who consider a consultant to be someone who "Turns up un-invited, tells you something you already know, and expects to be paid for the experience".

    On the flip side, I have management who are from a consultancy background, and they are exceptionally good at what they do. Sometimes seeing the big picture from an outsiders POV is useful. It doesn't make you an expert though. Experience does.

  • The story in your comment is exactly why client-side work is so great--you're in power to actually get shit done when it's needed. No innovation team? Let's make one. No budget? Let's find money.

  • Consulting is typically much more intensive then client-side work--so I agree with the "well read" idea. You're assumed to be an "expert," so anything important must be on your radar.

    But most consultants, at least in my field, do not stay current on their clients. They have no idea if their recommended strategy was shit or widely successful.

    Oddly, I just came across this in an article on Adage--I bet that the consultants on the project had no evidence that their advice was successful in the past:
    http://adage.com/article?ar...

  • jimmywhales

    You may be right...however, even as a consultant you have the opportunity to stay well read and current to your vertical of expertise. The constant flow of related information builds upon past, and brings insight into past errors of judgment made to a clients account. Of course they also can call and complain, or even raise holy hell, although that is less likely. (Although they will tell 8 friends about the bad experience.) Maybe I need to focus on my Backgammon...

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