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Manoj Rao

Your Average Common Man

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Learning a complex topic deeply involves the ability and practice of correlating the topic with existing knowledge at fundamental levels. This sounds sexy, but you won’t get to a point with a sizable previous knowledge without first tackling some uncomfortable problems. The ability to correlate new concepts with those already internalized is what lets you make strong connections. The problem of dealing with a new topic is uncomfortable because its nuances are unfamiliar to us. We can’t draw on any prior experience to tackle them yet. Addressing such uncomfortable situations helps you build the “prior knowledge” for future use.

Well trained software developers, engineers (non-software disciplines), builders, creators in other areas often tend to keep their cards too close to their chests. Well trained people of these domains are experts in consistently building things that work. Once they start a project in their wheel-house, they see it to completion by successfully avoiding the common pitfalls. Such folks will stay away from making unusual choices that have no record of success from the prior art. This is what experts are paid for; to build things that work without any surprises. Ironically, this is not how their skills were accumulated.

If no one starts out being an expert, then they must have failed on their way (at least in small enough doses to stay afloat) to get to where they are. Now, failures through the proxy where you learn through the failures of others do not count because this would imply you still relied on failures to actually learn the lessons. Besides, your mentors/teachers can’t and don’t always fail on behalf of their students to be able to teach. Becoming an expert in anything worthwhile is not easy. If expertise can be conveyed through words, there would be many who would have done it easily, thereby, changing who we would call an expert.

However, the conscientious folks who put in the effort and hard work tend to become experts in their niche roughly after a certain amount of time spent in their domain. Therefore, by definition, there exists an optimal number of failures after which you can call yourself an expert. The fact is that you have a ceiling function with a limit on the number of failures you can experience after you have this “status” before you are no longer regarded as an expert. In the real world, this translates to situations like a successful movie star can have only a small string of flops before they are written off, a successful sports person can go only for so many games/tournaments without achieving success before they are removed from consideration for Prime Time, etc.

The trend is that if every player is well-meaning and tries to increase their base levels by diligently working towards this common goal of achieving expertise, then your expertise today is tomorrow’s common practice (or “best practice” at best).

Following this trail of thought, expertise can be loosely defined as a mental state among people with a certain number of failures in the past that is considered optimal by current standards. The current standards are an ever-changing parameter. The burden of expertise will stop you from failing further, therefore, feeling like an “expert” is suboptimal at best, stasis at worst.

The best antidote to this is to simply put your mind in a state where you internalize that falling back on your “expertise” for anything other than remembering the lessons from previous failures is a strict NO. Without this, you will lose the “expertise.” Another benefit of such a belief is that it keeps you humble enough that you can look at new problems with an open mind. if the problem fits a pattern, great! apply it and move on. If it doesn’t, then you have another pattern to learn and use in the future. Usually, such patterns tend to be omnipresent spanning multiple domains and fields.

In short, once you start feeling comfortable with applying a set of patterns, take up new projects that make you feel slightly less comfortable. Rinse and Repeat.

This is not a technical topic although the lesson can be applied anywhere. There
is nothing terribly new in this post. I'd be shocked if I'm the first person to
come up with the points in this essay. OK, with that said, I hope I can live to
adopt this lesson and be even remotely successful in applying it to my life.

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