NOTE: This post is Part 9 in my month-long deep dive into exploring "expertise and authority." Get the whole series (as it progresses) here.
We've spent a lot of time looking at experts, but it might help to look in the other direction for a while. What does it mean to be a novice?
Actually, that's the wrong question, because it immediately sets up a novice as being the opposite of an expert—as if the two are diametrically opposed. But the truth is, the term "novice" is just as subjective and relative as the term "expert." These two terms aren't the extreme left and right of the spectrum of knowledge, but are instead gradients along that spectrum, relative to each other.
For example, if I have played chess for 30 years and you started this morning, you would certainly be considered a novice, compared to me. But if you've been playing for a month when your friend starts, they'll be more of a novice than you are. You're still new to the game, relative to me, but your friend is green relative to you.
And because you've played longer, you have things you can teach your friend that he or she might not know. At which point, relative to your friend, you cease to be a novice and instead become an expert. You would still be a novice compared to me, and I would be a novice compared to a chess grand master who has played all of his live.
Expertise is a spectrum, not a scale.
There are advantages to being new to a subject. In Zen Buddhism, there's a principle known as Shoshin—"beginner's mind." In short, the concept is that you approach experiences with an open and clear mind, the way a beginner would. Doing so makes it possible for even an advanced thinker in a subject to learn something new each time they study it.
Shoshin is a handy tool for gaining new perspective on persistent problems. In business, sometimes it can be very helpful to bring a "fresh pair of eyes" (FPOE) into a conversation, to get a new perspective on dealing with a persistent problem, or to apply outside expertise in a new way, thus making all new creative leaps.
In his book The Ten Faces of Innovation: IDEO's Strategies for Defeating the Devil's Advocate and Driving Creativity Throughout Your Organization, author Tom Kelley talks about "cross pollinators," who function essentially in this role of "beginner's mind" for an organization.
"The Cross-Pollinator draws associations and connections between seemingly unrelated ideas or concepts to break new ground. Armed with a wide set of interests, an avid curiosity, and an aptitude for learning and teaching, the Cross-Pollinator brings in big ideas from the outside world to enliven their organization. People in this role can often be identified by their open mindedness, diligent note-taking, tendency to think in metaphors, and ability to reap inspiration from constraints."
In a sense, the Cross-Pollinator that Kelley describes is the quintessential novice. They are bringing all of their experience and knowledge from an outside discipline and applying it to a new problem, making connections and intuitive leaps as they go. They are weaving connective tissue between disparate ideas, like neural pathways in the brain. And these pathways often yield something unexpected and kind of cool: A new idea.
But the trick here (if you can call it a trick) is that the Cross-Pollinator is leveraging existing experience. They are exposing themselves to as many different ideas and methods and concepts as they can, and then connecting those ideas to existing knowledge, and repeating that process with every new problem or idea they encounter.
How Problem Solving (and Learning) Works
In the case of our chess players, if you come into the game knowing nothing about chess but a ridiculous amount about repairing automobiles, you may find yourself connecting what you learn with what you already know. Maybe you can create connections between repairing a carburetor and running a playing strategy.
The way you approach the problem of playing chess will be influenced by the connections you make between what you are learning and what you already know. Your perspective on chess will be filtered through your existing expertise, and the more connections you make the faster you can master this new skill.
That's how problem solving works. It's how learning works. We are hard wired to make hard-wired connections, between what we already know and whatever knew skill we are learning.
This is where being a novice is actually an advantage.
Earlier we talked about how experts (such as math majors) aren't always the best teachers of a subject, because they already have a strong competency in the subject. It becomes difficult to "dumb it down," because the concepts seem so simple to them. We call this the "expert blindspot." There can be a disadvantage to being an expert in a subject, when it comes to learning something new or transferring knowledge to developing a new skill.
As we learn, we form neural patterns in brain. We literally make connections between new stuff and old stuff. And the better we know something, the thicker and stronger these neural pathways become.
Think of them as threads versus ropes.
If you have a single thread held by two people playing tug-of-war, that thread can snap under the right amount of tension, because a thread alone isn't very strong. This is where you reach the limit of your knowledge and skill, and can't make any intuitive leaps. You have a harder time solving a problem because you have fewer resources and connections to draw upon.
But if you keep adding threads—keep reenforcing the line with new experiences and new learning—eventually the thread becomes a string, and then a rope. There could be thousands, millions, even billions of threads woven and wrapped up together in that line now. The tug-of-war guys can pull against each other all day, and there's little chance that the line will snap.
Knowledge gets stronger with new connections.
But what if you're using those ropes to make a bridge? You want to cross a chasm (aka "solve a problem"), but to do that you'll need more than just one rope. So you weave the rope into a larger network. You connect additional ropes. You tie these off at different connecting points, making a latticework of ideas and experiences. Some ropes are thinner than others, but they add their strength to the whole. Eventually you have a bridge you can cross with confidence.
We do this all the time, usually without even thinking about it. We take on a new task, like writing a blog post, and we apply what we already know—such as how to write an essay. We transfer knowledge and solve a problem using the tools we already have.
Sometimes we get it wrong. We try using our hammer to get that screw in, and end up doing some damage. Not every problem is a nail. And that's fine. It's a mistake. Mistakes, despite their reputation, are good.
As a novice, we make a lot more mistakes than an expert. But those mistakes serve an important purpose. They are a means of learning as we we go. They let us twine more threads into our growing rope.
Ignorance On a Sliding Scale
The interesting thing about being a novice is the implication that we are working toward expertise. We enter into something with a "beginner's mind" in order to master the concept. Sometimes we give up. But if we persist, we grow in that area of expertise. We move a bit further to the right on the spectrum. Relative to someone just coming into the field, we're now an expert. Relative to what we knew when we started, our expertise has increased. And yet, relative to the person who has practiced this for 30 years, we are still a newbie.
That's how this works. That's why it's impossible to give a measured and quantified definition of expertise that can be considered universal. Even our ignorance is on a sliding scale.