What Makes an Expert an Expert?

It’s All About Mastery

Have you ever been looking at a webpage or listening to somebody and asked yourself “does this person really know what they’re talking about?” They say they’re an expert, but are they really?

If you’ve read through my work, you’ll see that I talk both about seeking expert help and sneering at “experts”. So what gives?

If you don’t want to read any further, you want an Expert, not an “expert”.

“Oh, I see where you’re going with this, Mike”

An Expert is someone you could say has mastery in some area. An “expert” on the other hand, is someone who claims those things, but quite frankly is full of s***. An Expert can apply their mastery across a nuanced variety of situations. An “expert” is a one-trick pony who only has a hammer so thinks everything is a nail.

An Encounter With Mastery

To this day, I’ll never forget a Muay Thai seminar I took with Surachai Sirisute (isn’t that the sign of a great master – a lesson you never forget?). We were practicing a kneeing technique and he was circling the room observing students. He was making corrections here and there and when he got to me, he had me throw my knee and then he repositioned my hips the tiniest bit to open things up and deliver more speed & power. Then he watched me do it a few times and said (with a pretty thick Thai accent)…

“I show you, you do once. Is mine. I show you, you do ten times. Is mine. I show you, you do it a hundred times. Is still mine. I show you, you do it 10,000 times. Then is yours.”

Isn’t that profound?

It gives me shivers.

That’s mastery.

So What Is Mastery?

Expertise and mastery stem from a nuanced understanding of how to use skill in context – doing a technique in every flavor of possible combinations so that you know when to use it and when not to, when it will be likely to succeed or likely to fail, when it’s the best option and when it’s not.

The thing is, it didn’t hit me so much at the time because I was young and cocky and had no real experience yet. It wasn’t actually until I began to cultivate mastery myself that I started to get it.

It’s more than muscle memory, although that’s a part of it. It’s more than conditioning or habit, although those are part of it too. It’s about doing something so many times, with so many variations, in so many circumstances – different people, settings, time of day, emotional states, levels of tiredness, triggers, openings… that you gain wisdom, the transcendence of knowledge into being.

Going Deep With the Penetrating Divine Illumination

It’s something in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) called the Penetrating Divine Illumination (PDI).

Ooooooooo. Isn’t that poetic?

The PDI is the realization of 3 increasing levels of artistry (i.e. mastery):

  1. Perceiving the whole – No piece can be reduced or isolated out of the whole. While you might think that means putting the pieces together, it is more accurate to say that the totality can’t be reduced to pieces. A car just isn’t a car without wheels or without an engine. Isolate a piece and it ceases to be. The form-function relationship is present here.
  2. The whole is present in any part – While you can’t reduce a thing to parts, you can see the parts in the whole and the whole from any part. At this level of mastery, a person can take a small tidbit of information and see the whole. This requires a far greater amount of skill than #1. Think fractals. It’s like seeing a picture of a finger and immediately understanding that it is a picture of a person – you know there’s a head without it even being in frame.
  3. The immediate, intuitive grasp of the full pattern – This is the Penetrating Divine Illumination . You know it without even being able to describe how you know it.

I told you we were getting deep.

In my clinical practice and also in the classroom, I experienced the PDI and let me tell you it’s a rush.

In all humility, with my level of mastery, I could sense the patterns of dysfunction with very little information (#2) the majority of the time. And I achieved the PDI (#3) often enough that I have a load of “magical” success stories to relate. Now these stories make me look awesome and I don’t mind receiving kudos & recognition (Words of Affirmation is my primary love language), but it’s the end result of cultivated mastery – a beautiful expression of an innate, divine gift in perfect harmony & context.

For example, one time a colleague of mine (a teacher in a different department) came over to ask about some hand pain. Without another hint, without palpating or even pausing to think about it, I pressed into the trigger point in the middle of their shoulder blade (infraspinatus trigger point on their scapula – there’s your anatomy lesson for the day) for maybe 30 seconds. I watched their expression transform from shocked pain to tentative wonder to joyful amazement as the pain dissipated.

They couldn’t stop talking about the miracle. As for me, I’d only seen it literally 10,000 times before.

Mastery.

When Science Fails to See the Bigger Picture

One of the big problems with science is that it often fails to come back around.

Don’t get me wrong. I love science. But it’s often done “wrong” – especially the parts that are picked up by media and preached as gospel. Too many people (often not scientists) think science is simply about gathering data. Then separate decision-makers cherry pick the data to say what they want. That’s an extra level out of context.

Science, like money, isn’t good or bad, it’s just a tool that can be used for good or bad (or just badly used).

A lot of science these days reduces without reintegrating (reductionism). On the levels of mastery above, common applications of science are often stuck at a .5, not even a 1. The assumption is that everything can be reduced to component parts. That you don’t have to think about the whole system. That if you “optimize” a piece, then the whole improves by default. That synergy is the sum or result of the parts.

Hold on there.

Actually synergy is the result of the relationships between the parts and has little to do with the parts themselves. You want to optimize the system, not the part.

If you do reduce things down, something often necessary for understanding, that knowledge does NO GOOD, unless you then reintegrate it and look at it in terms of the whole. The context.

For example, dropping a more powerful engine into a car doesn’t mean it works better – certainly not if it overpowers the frame or the brakes or goes faster than the tires can maintain traction… – whole systems thinking means looking at context.

A good scientist (or healthcare provider) will look at the bigger picture.

Unfortunately, a growing number of people are losing faith in science either because it’s presented in a lack of context so fails to give real answers or that it simply doesn’t tell them what they want to hear.

Experts vs “experts”

An Expert sees the context, seeks the relationships, and addresses the system. An “expert” focuses on one tiny piece and thinks that addresses the whole (or just ignores the whole entirely).

An Expert is open-minded to surprising discoveries, trial-and-error, and seeking patterns – sometimes the best answer lies far from where it was expected. An “expert” thinks they already have all the answers, that one “solution” is always the answer, and that problems should fit into their patterns.

An “expert” looks at a battle with a microscope when binoculars would be more appropriate. An Expert starts at 30,000 feet and then zooms in where they need to before returning to the sky for the big picture. Experts have strategy that informs the tactics while “experts” have a handful of tactics with no strategy.

An “expert” gives you their answer while ignoring/dismissing the possibility of others (or that this individual needs a different answer). An “expert” can’t admit that they don’t know the answer because it threatens their “expertise”.

On the other hand, an Expert partners with you to explore and discover possible answers. An Expert admits when they don’t know and views it as an opportunity for new growth and learning.

How to Spot Mastery

By now, you may have an idea of what to look for, but let’s break it down.

  1. For starters, are you drawn to it? Are they sought out? True mastery is attractive due to the insight it offers. It is sought rather than sold. It does it’s own convincing. If someone is trying to convince you, beware!
  2. Are they open minded? A masterful practitioner understands that the more they learn the less they know. They know they don’t have all the answers. They have a solution that works in a certain context, but they never try to fit a square peg in a round hole.
  3. Do they partner with you? Do they respect your own experience within your body and in your life? Do they help guide you to seek answers or take a my-way-or-the-highway approach?
  4. Do they talk about context, whole systems thinking, or holistic perspective? Does their language reflect mastery or does it seemed like it’s more closed off (this is the only way)?
  5. Do they empower you or reserve all the power for themself? Do they show you the way to a better place and give you the knowledge and tools to do it or do they “service” you by keeping you dependent on them? Masters encourage growth, they don’t stunt it.
  6. Is what they have valuable? Do you feel like you get from them more than what they ask from you? This is a little more deep than the simple “are you getting you money’s worth?” question, but if it’s valuable you’ll be willing to pay for it.
  7. Do they set up a win-win-win scenario? You win, they win, everybody wins is a powerful paradigm. In my experience, masters all reject the idea that the world is a zero-sum game and that a person can only win at the expense of someone else or that there’s only so much to go around.
  8. Do they actively help you seek solutions that don’t result in sales for them? Will they refer you elsewhere or try to keep you locked in to paying them? Do they seem more interested in solving your problem than in collecting ongoing fees?

So now you know. Seek Masters, not Wanna-Be’s and Experts, not “experts”.

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