Micro Experts

“The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.” – Socrates

It feels like everybody is an expert these days — actually, more like what I call a “micro expert” because their “expertise” usually only covers a niche within a niche.

I was reminded of this recently while reading a piece in the New York Times. In an online conversation between two Times writers who have recently left San Francisco after many years of living there, one of them recalled a colleague walking out of a popular coffee shop because:

“I was just standing in line behind two entrepreneurs that couldn’t be more than 19 years old and they were giving each other advice on how to fire people and run a company…”

I’ve overheard many similar conversations recently. Maybe we were always surrounded by “micro experts,” “growth hackers,” “talent hackers,” and the like. It could be that social media has just amplified the phenomena or maybe social media actually helped create it. Regardless, it is interesting to see the surge during this period in my life, especially since I personally am moving in the opposite direction: as I’ve accumulated more experience (AKA grown older), I realize each day how little I know.

I’ve been fortunate to work on projects about which I am passionate, and to spend my time learning new things on a regular basis. Originally, that meant writing software; more recently I have continued in creating products, starting companies, and, most importantly, helping to build and develop great teams and leaders who embody the principles of servant leadership.

It’s taken me five startups and many years to finally see my own pattern of when I start, and later leave, companies. Looking back, I always started a company when I was obsessed about learning how to solve a market problem, and I always left when I felt that I had stopped learning. It’s so clear now but it wasn’t during all those startups. I figured my timing was random. It wasn’t. All my decisions were based around learning opportunities. They still are.

Continuous learning has always been my main focus — the kind of learning you can’t get from just ingesting information on Twitter or from reading blogs (including this one). True learning is acquired through constant practice and reflection over a long period of time.

I guess that’s why the idea of so many “micro-experts” irks me. The idea that you could become an expert in anything overnight, or even over a year or two, just doesn’t exist in my world. More specifically, the idea that someone would think they could become an expert misses the whole point. Becoming an expert shouldn’t be the goal; always learning and practicing should be.