Lately I’ve been watching a show called “Forged in Fire.” It’s a reality show produced by the History Channel, in which four bladesmiths per episode do competitive blade making; the first two rounds the smiths make a knife, the last round, the two remaining smiths each make an historical bladed weapon or tool. I don’t know anything about bladesmithing (or at least, I didn’t when I started watching the show), but I’ve watched quite a few episodes so far, and I’ve found it to be fascinating for many different reasons. The one I want to talk about here, though, is the light this show sheds on expertise.
Bladesmithing is a very complex skill. There are many, many different types of blades that are suited for different tasks, there are also many different types of metal, many different techniques for forging, and many different things that can go wrong in the process. The show quite deliberately brings in smiths of a wide range of experience, and gives them demanding challenges. After watching just a few episodes, it quickly becomes apparent that more years of experience in smithing does NOT mean that the smith will produce a better result.
Most telling is when a smith very confidently says to the camera at the beginning “I have twenty years of experience bladesmithing, I can take anything they throw at me.” Then they go into the first round and they’re told to use a specific technique or to make a specific style of knife, and you see the same smith look at the camera with wide eyes and a slightly panicked expression saying “I’ve never done that before.”
In other words, this smith has spent twenty years making the same three or four knives with the same three or four techniques, over and over again. He doesn’t actually have twenty years of experience, he has two years, repeated ten times.
Almost as telling are the smiths with two or three years of experience, who jump into the work, try stuff, experiment, (sometimes inventing new ways of doing things in the process) and present the judges with a knife that stands up to their brutal testing just as well as (sometimes better than) the one produced by the guy with twenty years of experience.
Why the difference? It’s because becoming an expert isn’t about just putting the time in – if that were the case, we’d all be expert drivers by now, which we’re demonstrably not – it’s about continuing to push the limits of your skills. The guy with twenty years experience is likely quite a good smith who has lots of happy clients – and that’s part of the problem; if you have lots of happy clients and very few (or no) unhappy clients, you don’t have incentive to keep learning and pushing yourself. The young guys don’t yet have laurels to rest on, so they’re still in the habit of learning and pushing themselves, and they do, sometimes showing up the older guys.
One of my favorite models of adult skill acquisition, the one created by the Dreyfus brothers, sheds some light on this. In that model, the first two levels are about using recipes; that is, using a specific, set sequence of steps with specific tools and ingredients, to get a standard result. The following three, though, are about taking emotional responsibility for the work, and for improving your skills.
It means that you don’t just feel bad about a poor result or good about a good result, but you spend lots of time pulling apart your outcome, goals and processes, to figure out what went right, what went wrong, and how it could be done better. It’s difficult, frustrating, and at times tedious, which is why most people don’t do it.
Not pushing yourself to this extent isn’t inherently a bad thing; the vast majority of jobs don’t require a really high level of expertise, and it’s not physically or psychologically possible to become capable of an expert level of performance at everything you do.
The problem comes when someone claims to be an expert (level five of five) when they’re not (such as a level two of five). Just because you’ve been smithing blades for twenty years, doesn’t mean you’re an expert smith – how many different techniques have you mastered? How many different styles of blade have you made? How vigorously have you challenged yourself to make knives that were better, stronger, sharper, able to stand up to brutal tests?
If you have twenty years of experience, but you haven’t been deliberately challenging yourself for those twenty years, then you aren’t the expert you think you are.
If you want to see the paper by the Dreyfus brothers on their model of skill acquisition, you can find it here.