Closed-world expertise

Venkat Rao has an interesting take on the ideas of deliberate practice, flow, and the 10,000 hour rule. In The Deliberate Practice of Disruption he points out that these ideas of expertise are always presented in closed worlds.

The real problem is that research on expertise focuses on fields where “expertise” is a well-posed and objectively codified notion. This means mature fields that are closed and bounded, and can be easily observed, modeled and studied under laboratory conditions. So it is not surprising that the work … is based on fields like “medicine, music, chess and sports” … all sharply circumscribed and regulated domains.

Rao’s essay may be a bit too harsh on closed-world domains and a bit too romantic about open-world domains, but the distinction between the domains is important. You don’t become a successful entrepreneur, for example, the same way you become a successful violinist. Closed worlds place a much higher emphasis on error-elimination, at least initially, than do open worlds. In an open world, the concept of an error may not even make sense. Where there is no law there is no sin.

Consulting is a more open world than academia. As Rao notes, academia can close off an otherwise open world through “bureaucratic productivity measures like publications and citations.” Clients are happy if you solve their problems. They could not care less whether your solutions are publishable and all that implies. Original and thoroughly footnooted work that doesn’t solve their problems is not appreciated.

Clients are not going to give you an oral exam to see whether you’ve mastered some canon. And they don’t care if you cross academic boundary lines to use something “outside your field.” They do care about credentials sometimes, but in a pragmatic way: they may need someone with the right credentials to review something. In that case, your credentials are part of the solution.

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2 thoughts on “Closed-world expertise

  1. .. work that doesn’t solve their problems is not appreciated

    Not only is it not appreciated in consulting, but it’s actually viewed as squandering the time they’re paying you for.

  2. The problem, of course, is that people who hire consultants don’t usually just want a problem solved by any means practicable. They usually have a vivid idea of just how they want it solved, and there is often a conflict between the two positions. (This is partly because in the U.S. there are definite advantages to hiring consultants and illegally treating them as employees.)

    The rest of this note belongs at the linked “best or worst?” post, but comments are closed there.

    When you have way too many alternatives, you simply have to use at-the-worst selection to filter them. 5000 resumes for one position? Chuck out as many as you can, as quickly as you can. Where I live there are 9 movie theaters within easy walking distance, showing anything from 3 to 12 films each, so I have to judge each film at its worst if I want to see one at all. Horror, dumbass comedy, or documentary? Out. Less than 90% at Rotten Tomatoes (barring exceptional circumstances)? Out. Critics say it’s slow, loud, pictorial, or “atmospheric”? Out. Etc.

    The Nobel Committee for Literature’s actual standards are quite interesting, and have varied over time. At the moment, however, you are most likely to get a Nobel if you have (a) pioneered the direction in which world literature or a specific genre has gone, and/or (b) are important to the literature of your culture but unknown to the world generally.

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