One of my favorite new podcasts is Top Scallops with Merlin Mann (“Hi! Can I axe you a question?”) and Max Temkin (one of the creators of Cards Against Humanity). Ostensibly, it’s about the reality show Top Chef. As with any podcast that Merlin is on, however, it’s not necessarily just about the titular topic at hand. To say it can go a bit tangent-y at times is being rather generous. But hey, that’s why I like the show so much!
In their most recent episode (It Snogged Out), they came around to talking about expertise. It was based on a scene in the most recent episode where this week’s celebrity chef Hubert Keller was describing his process for formulating a new idea for a new dish. According to Max’s notes from the show (I’ve never seen it, so I have no firsthand knowledge), Keller sits down once the restaurant is closed and empty with glass of wine and considers the current menu. He thinks about which dish he would like to change, as well as what dish he would like to replace it with. He then draws the dish he wants to create. On paper. Where the bone goes, where the sauce goes, and even the texture of the plated dish for the consumer.
To be honest, I had never thought of a chef drawing a dish he was trying to conceive. I do this all the time with screen design, but had never considered it for a chef.
Building off of this story, Merlin and Max delve into a discussion that, to me, really gets to the heart of what makes an expert an expert. I found this very interesting because I’ve been thinking a lot about it myself. As I’ve grown in my role at my job, I’ve noticed that there are now others who look to me for expertise. Even when I don’t consider myself one in my own mind (see a future post about Imposter Syndrome coming soon).
The idea of expertise really boils down to details. The details that only an expert in their field will appreciate. Because only the expert knows which questions to ask. They know how to lay it out in their own mind; how exactly this piece fits with that piece or this piece of information will fit into the larger puzzle to create the solution that is sought from all parties involved. This exactly explains Keller sitting down and planning his dish. Down to the very specific detail of where to place the bone on the plate itself. He knows the details of how to get this dish from idea to reality.
In recent years, Max attended an Edward Tufte course. Something Tufte said (in almost a throw-away comment), Max can still quote today:
A question you can ask in almost every situation to bring clarity to what you’re doing is to ask someone, and to ask yourself, ‘how do you know that?’
That struck me. Take that with Merlin’s earlier discussion on “And then what?” and you arrive at the starting point of how to look at a problem with expert eyes. And from an expert frame of mind.
Everyone likes to be an idea guy. It’s a quick win in a meeting, a high five from the group, and possible serious credit down the line when the idea is implemented into a successful, tangible thing. I get it. I’ve even been the idea guy from time to time. I know how tempting it can be to brush off the details with a quick “It can’t be that hard. We’ll figure it out later.” But what we (all seemingly) miss is that the expert’s job is to come in and take the idea (presumably from the idea guy) and create something real from it. The expert’s job is to “figure it out”. That’s where the questions start. The “And then what?” questions. Followed by “How do you know that?”.
While it can certainly come across as confrontational, most of the time, the expert is simply trying to suss out where the idea needs to go and (even more) how to get it there. How much it is perceived as confrontational really depends on the expert’s personality/people skills and the nature of the relationship between the idea guy and the expert. It can be a very rewarding and thought-provoking experience if done and approached correctly.
I’ve been told that I frustrate people when they bring ideas to me and ask me to implement them. I do exactly what I’ve described above. I ask them “and then what?” or “how do you know that?”. Or even “what happens when it doesn’t happen?”. These are the questions nobody wants to think about because it’s too granular. Too “in the weeds”. Too “time consuming” for the discussion at hand. What they don’t understand is that’s the world I live in, and the world my team and I have to live in to be successful in implementing these ideas. It’s also a pretty good metric to judge if we are (collectively) good at our jobs.
We ask these questions, and maybe even spoil the serotonin high of a great idea, because we want to see the idea succeed. And we care enough to help the idea, and whoever came up with the idea, to see it through.
No one ever said being an expert was going to be easy!