I really like the way that Daniel Kahneman describes expertise in his book Thinking Fast and Slow. His description is incredibly meaningful today, in a world where so many of us work in offices and perform knowledge world. Expertise is important, but it is a bit nebulous when you think about knowledge work expertise compared to craftsmanship expertise. Nevertheless, a good concept of what expertise is can be helpful when thinking about personal growth and success.
Kahneman writes, “The acquisition of expertise in complex tasks such as high-level chess, professional basketball, or firefighting is intricate and slow because expertise in a domain is not a single skill but rather a large collection of miniskills.” By thinking about expertise as a large collection of miniskills it becomes more understandable and meaningful, even in the context of knowledge work. For sports, many crafts, and even physical labor, expertise as a collection of miniskills is so obvious it is almost invisible. But for knowledge work, expertise as a collection of miniskills is invisible because it is not obvious or ubiquitous.
The image coming to mind for me when I think of expertise as a series of miniskills is iron forging or glasswork. It is clear that one must have a lot of different skills ranging from skills related to noticing subtle changes in materials as heat is applied to physical skills involved in shaping the material once it is at a certain temperature. One also has to have imaginative skills in order to see the shape and design that one wants, and be able to connect the right twists, bends, and physical manipulations to the object to match the mental image. Forging a knife or making a glass marble requires a lot of skills in related but different spheres in order to make one final product. It is obvious that one needs a lot of miniskills to be successful, but unless we enroll in a beginners class, we don’t necessarily think about all the miniskills that go into the craftsmanship.
In the knowledge work economy, our final work products are also an accumulation of miniskills, even though it feels as though we just produce one thing or do one thing with no real “skill” involved. However, our work requires communication skills, writing skills (a particular variation of communication skills), scheduling and coordinating skills, and oftentimes skills that require us to be able to create visually stimulating and engaging materials. Whether it is creating a slide show, coordinating an important meeting, or drafting standard operating procedures, we are not simply doing one thing, but are engaging an entire set of miniskills. True expertise in knowledge work is still derived from a set of miniskills, but the skills themselves don’t seem like real skills, and are easily ignored or overlooked. Focusing on the miniskills needed for knowledge work expertise can help us understand where we can improve, what our image of success really entails, and how to approach important projects. It is the mastery and connection of various miniskills that enables us to be experts in what we do, even in our ubiquitous office environments.