Becoming an expert

How do you define an expert? A couple of hundred years ago, an expert was called a Master: a Master Mason, a Master Thatcher, a Master Weaver.  They got this designation by spending years apprenticing, as a journeyman finding their place in a guild, and then finally by reaching a level of expertise that was recognized by their peers.  A Master had privileges.  A Master had prestige. People trusted the opinion of the Master, because their opinion was well informed and well practiced.  Their key role, though, was teaching the future masters, their apprentices the tools and techniques of the trade.  Today though, we have no guilds.  We have no Masters. How do we know who to trust and most importantly, how do we learn the skills we need to succeed?

Lets take for example two very different industries dear to my heart: triathlon coaching and web app development.  When I think of a Master in the triathlon world, the first name that comes to mind is Joe Friel.  He is a triathlete, a coach and an author.  His coaching programs and his performance measuring app, TrainingPeaks, are the gold standard of the industry.  At least the amateur industry.  His programs got me to Ironman Finisher twice.  They’re the classic plans of periodization, with high intensity workouts mixed with long endurance workouts in a ratio best suited for your distance.  Many would call Joe a Master.  Ben Greenfield is another internet personality that sells triathlon coaching programs. His training programs are very different, apparently based on advances in training science.  Many of his ideas align well with those of Mr. Friel but many would be considered heretical.  And his sales methods often have him labelled a snake oil salesman.  From that description, one would certainly not call him a Master, but one wonders if perhaps the Mason cast from his guild for suggesting the flying buttress was thought of the same way.

Web app development is similar.  There aren’t many that one could consider a Master, partly because the technology changes so fast it’s impossible to develop the longevity required.  But there are a few which have come to be recognized as experts.  Take John Resig as a master of JavaScript. Take Scott Hanselman as a master of .Net technologies (among other things).  Take Eric Meyer a pioneer and master of CSS.  Or David Heinemeier Hansson as a master of RoR. All of these people are opinionated, prolific and talented individuals who have done their life’s work defining the modern internet.  And they teach.  All of them.  And all of these folks have proposed or taught things that before they came along would be considered heretical.  They fit the bill for a Master of old, but again, with no certifying body, it is difficult to know who is and who isn’t a Master.  There are many many other snake oil salesmen on the internet and it is easy to get lost.

It seems that today expertise is a much more personal thing. We need to find someone who has more knowledge than we do, that we can learn to like and trust. We need to start a conversation with that person where both benefit.  We need to grow the knowledge base together.  In this respect I love the approach that the team at Ghost is taking with the development of their JS based blogging platform. They are open.  They are having conversations.  They are learning and teaching at the same time.  If I had to pick my candidate for the next Master for my list, I think I’d pick Hannah Wolfe.  Check her and the team out.  I think you’ll like what you see.


Jon Holt

A coach, an entrepreneur, and a no-bull advisor in growing small businesses through the use of practical strategy, light-weight governance and sitting back and thinking about running your business, regardless of what you do.

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