I: Interaction with relevant information sources

Post no.3 in a 5-part series on basic conditions for expertise

Are you or the potential expert interfacing with relevant data? Is this the sort of data that an expert would plausibly engage? Note that merely encountering relevant sources is not sufficient. The expert needs to have paid attention to these sources, as the first example will illustrate.


You want to hire a graphic designer.

Bob and Maria are walking down a city street. Bob, a graphic design novice, pays no attention to the signs and advertisements along the side of the street, even though they are within his field of vision. Maria, an expert, pays full attention to these things. She notes the lack of spatial alignment amongst elements in the dry cleaner’s sign. As she passes a Louis Vuitton ad at the bus stop, she ogles the beautiful ball serifs of the Bauer Bodoni bold italic typeface (incidentally, my favorite font!). Color schemes, geometry, and visual flows all jump out at her as objects onto themselves.

Who do you think has the better marker of expertise? Why?

Bob encounters relevant data, but does not engage it; Maria both encounters and engages relevant data. Hire Maria.

You want to learn how to fundraise.

Cassandra is a quantitative finance expert but a novice at fundraising. Jake is an expert at fundraising. Jake is constantly immersing himself in fundraising case studies, talking to other experts, and meeting with funders. Cassandra, on the other hand, interfaces with sources like mathematical models of markets.

Who do you think has the better marker of expertise? Why?

Cassandra does not interface with relevant enough information sources; Jake does do so. Consult Jake.

You want to improve the effectiveness of your team.

Brian is a Princeton academic who claims to be an expert in team effectiveness. The evidence: He has analyzed 1000 small family businesses and has been published multiple times in Science. Miranda does not claim to be an expert in team effectiveness, but several people have suggested that she might be. The evidence: she is the rare type of venture capitalist who formerly founded a successful startup, ran a large company, and now sits on nonprofits boards and invests in companies of all sizes (and has a winning track record doing so).

Who do you think has the better marker of expertise? Why?

Unless your organization is a small family business, Brian has probably not interfaced with relevant information sources. Miranda, on the other hand, has engaged a wide variety of organizations. There is a good chance that her ideas about team effectiveness might be higher quality, since she will likely have abstracted organization-general lessons from a more diverse sample. This is a more difficult case than the other two, but if faced with a decision between the two, I would consult Miranda instead of Brian.

Ways of assessing

I. Ask questions which will reveal what sorts of information they engage, such as:

a. “Tell me about individual cases in your management experience.” (For a manager you might hire)

b. “What sorts of things do you pay attention to when you’re at an event?” (For an event director)

c. “Roughly how many pieces do you edit in an average month?” (For an editor)

d. “Which papers would you recommend reading to understand the cutting edge in hyperbolic geometry?” (For an expert in hyperbolic geometry)

II. Find out whether they’ve been part of a job, program, or mentorship what would have given them strong samples of relevant information.

Caveat: Many jobs, programs, and mentorships don’t cause expertise-gains, so look for jobs, programs, and mentorships with a good track record of producing talented people.

III. See how fluently they can generate examples of phenomena in the domain. The more examples they can generate, the better.

>> Next post: Feedback with relevant metrics

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