Thursday, September 22, 2016

Developing Expertise

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About 8-ish years ago I was in a car somewhere, apparently in an English-speaking country, listening to the radio, when the broadcaster asked, "What's the difference between experts and the rest of us?"  His interlocutor thought for a minute and replied, 
"The thing about experts isn't necessarily that they know that much more than the rest of us... It's about how they structure their knowledge."

I remember it hitting me like a revelation.  It felt liberating, in a way, to know that if I ever wanted to become an expert in something, I wouldn't have to know every last thing there is to know about the field.  But I would need to figure out how what I do know fits together.  Expertise felt accessible.  I started to think of developing expertise as detective work.

***

Yesterday, as I sat in the first lecture of the bachelor Entrepreneurship course I'm assistant teaching this semester, I was reminded again of that broadcast while listening to my PhD supervisor, Prof. Dr. Marc Gruber, as he introduced the field of entrepreneurship to 40 wide-eyed third year students.   Marc definitely knows much much much more than most others about this field, but not only that. What's really special is the way he sees connections and can communicate both simplifying overviews as well as nuanced details to the person or class en face.  

I left thinking, "Wow, I'm glad he was here, I could have never given such a lecture today."  But I also realized, looking back over my research notes, that one day I might. He is training me to think the same way. 

I'm going to defend my three-year research plan in a few weeks, and as I was writing up the document, I recall Marc telling me that a key part of this exam is being able to show the professors on my committee that I'm able to discuss the phenomena I'm investigating on multiple levels. I must be able to situate my research in the vast space of the social sciences, the higher-level discussions taking place in management in particular, and then be able to comment specifically on how the studies I propose are moving forward the conversation around some specific theories.  Of course the chosen methods and execution plan need to make sense as well, in light of the larger context. 

"Give a broad overview, but also be able to zoom in.  That's the mark of an expert," he said.

It's much harder than it sounds, and my pursuit of being able to place my research within the larger field of management led me on some wild-goose-chases which ultimately led to a broader perspective, a lot of hours reading theory I may or may not use later, and a lot of options for contextualising and positioning my dissertation.  

I discovered that it's both fun and challenging to tell the story on multiple levels.  There are just so many ways to go about it and there's no one right answer.  You're the author.  It's about the story you want to tell.  Pick an interesting one.  And if you want to publish it, make sure it's an angle that is interesting (or could be made interesting) to many others beside yourself. 

***

Will I one day wake up and think, "Now I'm an expert" ?  Probably not.  But hopefully I'll find some interesting things to contribute along the way.  I think of developing expertise as more of a lifelong pursuit than a title to attain, of every new day as an opportunity to add to the bank of knowledge and experience.  For now I'll content myself with being awed by real experts who are offering some super fascinating new perspectives.  (Not all experts do.  But I'll share as I come across more that wow me.)
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