experts and mastery

5 minute read

to get good at anything takes at least 10 years+

I’ve been thinking about ‘becoming an expert’. Mostly because I am about to embark on five years of specialisation in radiology.

My future brain is going to look very different. There’s going to be remodelling in the visual circuits. There’s going to be a deeper understanding of concepts in physics and pathophysiology of medical conditions. Procedurally, I might learn how to guide wires through 5mm vessels using X rays, and dislodge clots in someone’s brain (crazy). So much more. I’m pretty excited.

Here are some thoughts around this theme of ‘becoming an expert’

increasing complexity

Science (as a body of knowledge) is becoming too complex for any individual to understand. Newton may have been able to lock himself in a room and understand classical mechanics, but this is no longer the case. The idea of a lone genius is a myth.

All the major technological solutions are as a result of a network of individuals sharing their expertise and knowledge. Science as an endeavour, combined with economic incentives and a health dose of luck, leads to large scale technological change.

For example : Steve Jobs is often thought of a lone genius. That’s not the case at all. He was embedded in a team of engineers, designers, managers, financial advisers etc. It’s hard to predict whether or not we would have the iPhone without him, but he certainly wouldn’t have been able to make it by himself.

Being a polymath / generalist is becoming less common. Less economically rewarded. Even with management, you may not need a pHD, but you do need to understand the space well (which I would argue is expertise).

You want to become a specialist in an area. As Matt Ridley says :

Specialise as a producer, so you can diversify as a consumer

Pick a field that you are

  1. Interested in
  2. Good at
  3. Congruent with values

And then throw yourself into deeply understanding it and work on it for at-least 10 + years to have any chance of a macro impact.

to be in the 0.01% - you need to sacrifice your life

I think to be the best scientist - you would have to work something like an athlete. Dedicate your life purely to understanding.

For example - To truly understand quantum mechanics from the ground up, you’d have to start building up the foundation of knowledge from around 5-6 years old.

Then you would have to study within academia for the next few decades to come to a cutting edge understanding of the field and potentially contribute. Even then, your lone contribution may add nothing. Many radical discoveries in science are luck based.

This involves sacrifice.

is it worth being the ‘best’ in the end?

By the best, I really mean ‘0.0001%’, one in the a billion.

It comes at a cost. You would have to choose to neglect aspects of your social life, relationships, other areas that life has to offer.

For some, yes it is worth it, because that is what they have been trained to do from a young age. Their whole cognition has been built from the ground up to be able to operate at the edge of a field.

But should you worry that ‘you’ are not the best?.

Aim to have a local net positive

My current view is rather than aiming to be the best, you want to have a local net positive.

Start with ‘micro changing the world, rather than ‘macro changing the world’

And the centre of this is ‘you’. Ensure first of all, you inherently enjoy the work you do. Going back to my post of autotelism

Doing work simply for the pure ‘art’ of it. Enjoying the process rather than any particular outcome

The happiest people I know are the ones who make a living doing something that pays well, and they do their art for the love of it— Derek Sivers

From then, you can branch outwards and make changes in your local environment.

solve micro problems first > macro problems

Example of macro : Climate change, AI in Medicine, Poverty, Digitising the NHS, Nuclear disarmament.

Example of micro : Your mental and physical health, your families health, your patients health (medicine is at default a ‘non scalable endeavour’ - you are dealing with a patient in front of you'), writing a script to automate certain tasks, building a a small app to store quotes, reaching out to someone you haven’t spoken to in a while. The list goes on.

For your own mental sanity, focus on these small problems that actually impact your life on a day to day basis.

For the macro problems, there is no use worrying about them. I’m not saying they are not worrying, but it is too much weight on a single pair of shoulders. We have not evolved to be in a constant state of worry about events 5000 miles away.

If you sort out the micro, you can move onto macro problems.

I was watching Yuval Noah Harari and someone asked how best to tackle the main challenges of the 21st century (technological disruption, nuclear war, climate change)- and he recommended

For macro problems - Join institutions and organisations.

There is no such thing as an individual who has an outstayed impact on humanity. They all stand on the shoulders of giants, and embedded in a vast ecosystem of knowledge and skill. The idea of a lone genius is a myth

The world is becoming too complex for any single individual to understand. So we must outsource our knowledge to authority in most matters, but pick a field where we can become an expert ourselves and learn from the ground up.

Conclusion

  • Get (really) good at something
  • Solve micro problems in your life
  • Join institutions for the macro problem you want to help solve

I think this is a much more peaceful way to live, compared to the ‘hustle culture’ that you see in some areas. Paradoxically, it may be more effective, as you need a clear mind to solve the truly complex problems.


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