Specialists and Experts

“…the rash of home renovation or cooking or talent shows has empowered a whole generation to truly believe that, if the put their mind to it they can appear as gifted as any so-called specialist.” (Globe and Mail, Sat, 16 Jul 2016, Songs in the key of life).

While true, something about the statement bugged me, so I mulled it over while walked to stampede breakfast. I came to the conclusion that the phrase “so-called specialist” was the problem. Some specialists/experts aren’t what they claim to be, but specialism and expertise are important. We mustn’t throw out the baby with the bath-water, and our relationship with the notion of expertise and specialists is skewed. Some would say that if you aren’t a specialist, you can’t do that task. That is wrong. Others say that anyone (almost) can do that task, so specialism is useless or even elitist. That is wrong. The truth is in the middle.

The book reviewed was about human limitations – in particular amusia – but the quoted sentence highlights our relationship with experts and specialists. Ignoring the very real limitations of our own bodies that the review and book focussed on, it’s not that we can’t do anything. But we haven’t. Specialists can do what they do because they have paid their dues – not in money, but in time, in practice. Sure, I can tile my bathroom floor, sing a song, shoot a basketball, and if I enjoy those activities then I will. But make no mistake, I can’t do those as well as the specialist can, nor as quickly. I can become a specialist interior decorator, if I want to, but I haven’t paid my dues yet – in practice. I haven’t made the sacrifices needed to spend the 10,000 hours, or whatever other measure you wish to use. I’ve spent my time on physics (a decade+ of study and research), dance (ballroom and other styles) (most of my adult and teenage life), software (20+ years), writing (1.3+ million words) and a raft of hobbies. That’s not to say I can’t lay a tiled floor – I can – but I won’t be as fast or as good as the expert. I would do my research, practice first, and even then, take the extra time to do a good job.

At a motivational speech given by a very successful local business owner (he started and owns a pizza chain) a few years ago, he pointed out that no one can be an expert in everything. His message was: choose your skills, focus on those, and find others with other skills to help each other.

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