How to become an expert

How do you feel when so-called “experts” say things that just don’t match your experience?
Is their academic learning superior to your practical experience?
Does the input of the “expert” leave you feeling more, or less confident than you were before? 

Personally I would recommend that practical experience and academic learning should ideally go hand in hand – the one neither replacing nor outbalancing the other.

But it’s helpful to consider how the right balance between the two is best achieved, because different temperaments tend to be drawn more to one or the other. Western society as a whole perhaps needs to redress that balance and listen more carefully to voices of experience.

The Daoist (Taoist) Path

Perhaps more than most other philosophical or spiritual systems, Daoism is rooted in scientific and systematic enquiry as much as it is in indigenous tradition. It has always celebrated the acquisition of skills and understanding. But in common with most other traditions, Daoism highlights the difference between academic expertise and a deeper wisdom – and it particularly equates the latter with experience.

Author Deng Ming-Dao writes about Dao – the Path – thus:

“When we are in touch with Dao, it is not our academic learning that is speaking, but the spirit of Dao itself. The old texts are very specific about this. That is why there is such a vast difference between the words of scholars and the words of a practitioner, just as the words of academics differ from the words of poets.”

Let’s consider one of those “old texts”, a classic of Daoism. According to the Huainanzi (a Han Dynasty text compiled between 206 BCE and 22 CE, translated by Eva Wong 2015):

“Some people fail to catch fish even though they are skilled at fishing. Others only have to drop a net into the water and the fish will swim toward it.
Novices succeed when the experts fail because experts often rely on technical know-how and abandon intuition. In contrast, novices are more likely to be in tune with the workings of Dao because they are not blinded by the “tricks of the trade”.
As a result, they succeed where the experts fail.”

The reality of “beginner’s luck” through intuition suggests that neither academic learning nor practice/experience can fully account for the development of expertise, pointing to more hidden qualities beyond the scope of this article (but which I hope to return to!).

The Path of Humility

Let’s take a few moments to consider how recognising the benefits of both academic learning and practical experience, seeking balance between the two, might support our development as musicians and teachers.

The practitioner: 

However experienced we are in any walk of life, we can still enhance our practical experience through academic study. This “path of humility” can include attending courses, learning from mentors and colleagues, reading helpful material, looking at the latest research, and absorbing information through any other form of media.

To put it simply, developing expertise comes more easily to practitioners who are willing to reflect deeply on their experience, reinforcing it with understanding gained from additional sources of learning and the support of others.

The academic:

Most of us will at some point have met the learned academic who tries to put their knowledge into action, only to appear painfully inept to an experienced observer. Having all of the right (or the latest fashionable) ideas does not always lead to confidence or competence in putting those concepts to work in the real world.

While some academics hide behind their collection of certificates and honours, the “path of humility” here involves seeking the input of successful practitioners, recognising that academic knowledge ultimately has to be tested in the furnace of real experience. And that can’t be done simply by conducting market research or asking loaded questions; real engagement is needed, fuelled by mutual respect.

To put it simply, developing expertise comes more easily to the academic who is willing to allow experienced practitioners to demonstrate how to successfully apply their learning.

The Pianist:

The experienced performer can always benefit from the insights of the academic who can inform them about context, historical background, technical and musical theory.

The academic expert can comment all they like on other performers, but will never be able to play with confidence themselves until they are willing to take on board the teachings of an experienced player. Playing the piano cannot in the end be effectively learnt from a book, because it relies on transmission of musical language.

The Teacher:

The experienced teacher can always benefit from the insights of the academic who can inform them about teaching and learning theory, child development, psychology, repertoire and historical information.

The academic may understand all the pedagogic theory, but is unlikely to succeed as a teacher without the feedback and observations of a more experienced mentor, and has much to learn from their practical advice about developing a teaching career.

Concluding thoughts

Returning to our opening questions, how we “feel” about the input of the “expert” is probably a distraction. We must develop emotional detachment from the opinions of others – real or imagined – if we are to walk the “path of humility”, commit to learning, and so develop wisdom and expertise. This is easier said than done of course, especially if our physical chemistry is out of balance, and in this respect exercise, diet, acupuncture, qigong and meditation can all help restore balance.

We all have so much to learn from one another, and it’s a pity when we fail or are unwilling to do so – whether because we believe our own experience outweighs ongoing learning from others, or because our academic pride blinds us to insights that can ultimately only be realised through practical engagement.

We must all caution ourselves (and I include myself in this) to take more time to listen and learn rather than too quickly assuming the role of “expert”, whether we do so on the basis of our experience or academic knowledge.

Published by

Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is a pianist, writer and teacher based in Milton Keynes UK. He runs a successful independent teaching studio and music education business, Keyquest Music.

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