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The Four Steps to Expertise and Meaningful Contribution

Dec 18, 2019 | Reflections

aerial view of soccer field
Photo by Mike on Pexels.com

There is a common paradigm for thinking about developing expertise that is built around consciousness and competence. The basic idea is that when we first begin doing something, we are unconsciously incompetent, i.e. we simply do not know how bad we are at doing something – a feeling anyone learning the game of golf can easily relate to.

As we progress, we become consciously incompetent, consciously competent and then unconsciously competent. In the next to final stage, we have learned the skill of doing something but it still requires an extremely high level of effort to perform the skill. At the final level, we are able to perform the skill without conscious thought because it has become an almost de facto action for us. Tiger Woods does not have to think about how he is going to swing the golf club each time he steps up to the ball.

While I think this is a helpful way of thinking about skills, there is a second process that occurs in the path to mastery. These are rough ideas but I think we have to think about moving from spectator to producer along a four step path.

The first steps is what I would call an amateur spectator. This is someone who encounters something new and has very little knowledge about what is going on. While sports analogies are not my strong suit, think about this like going to a lacrosse game for the first time for most people.  Lacrosse is a new enough sport that most people know little about it. They can learn some basics of the game and go watch and generally have a good time. But I would be willing to guess that they are going to spend the entire time watching where the ball is moving vs. watching what the players are doing to setup plays, etc.

The second step I call the expert spectator. This is someone who is more informed about the game and can sit down and watch generally what is going on. They can appreciate a great play when it occurs and what makes one team better or another. I would put the average American football fan here.

For those who are truly interested in a discipline, the next step is more challenging – becoming an amateur professional. While that sounds like an oxymoron, it is important to recognize the difference between spectator and professional. A professional is not someone who just understands that something happened, but can explain to you why it did.

Understanding that Lebron scored a layup after a great pass is something anyone can grasp. More fundamental is understanding how three to four moves earlier, a team mate set a great pick which set things in motion to lead to Lebron’s layup is a different level. This requires understanding not only the basic tools available, but how they interact to produce an outcome.

Consider this in a different domain – for example, Ed Catmull talks a lot about how Pixar develops stories in his book Creativity, Inc. One thing he highlights is how they have an internal team called “The Braintrust” which is composed of expert storytellers. Their role is to understand where and how a given story is or is not resonating with an audience. What is fascinating about that structure is that they can use various plot elements or minor supporting characters to introduce ideas / emotions into the narrative arc of the story which dramatically impact how satisfying the ultimate story is.

For example in Toy Story 2, per Ed, Woody faces a choice to either remain a child’s toy or become a collectable. Because it is a Disney film, this feels like an almost false dichotomy. Of course there will be a happy ending and Woody will choose to remain a toy with Andy. But, the Pixar team introduces minor characters early in the film which make Woody and thereby us, actually consider that to be a reasonable and possible choice.

Understanding story telling and how to affect a story is a next level, professional consideration. We may be film buffs and love watching movies, but very few of us can explain why a story works and resonates. Becoming a professional is the first step up this mountain.

The final step of course is the expert professional. At this level, you not only understand why something works, but you are able to deploy various tools to accomplish a desired end. Depending on the discipline, very few may actually ascend to this level.

This is a paradigm I am still forming my thoughts around, but it seems highly consistent with my interactions with experts in various domains.


About David

David is the Founder and CEO of Family Capital Strategy, a strategy consultancy for family offices and family businesses based in Nashville, TN. We help families stay invested together through the design of the family office and the thoughtful development of the family’s investment program. We provide objective, conflict free advice in a strategic, customized and multi-generational manner.


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