Using Language To Identify Expertise

Using Language To Identify Expertise

I started working earlier this year and suddenly found myself surrounded by experts. They're scientists, engineers and product leaders, and I've spent a lot of time observing them, usually saying to myself, "They have something I want (expertise), how do I get it?" I then observe their behaviour to try and understand how they do what they do.

An interesting trend I've noticed is that when people reach a certain level of expertise they begin to create a language of their own. It's littered with nuance and coloured with context and caveats. They frequently recount past experiences and mistakes made, and warn about a host of potential gotcha's. The beginner might use the same jargon, clichés and language that the expert uses, but it doesn't feel like their own. It doesn't have the personal anecdotes and subtle caveats that the expert throws in. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, simply an indication that they're earlier on their journey to mastery.

The language someone uses to capture and communicate their situation is a strong indication of where they sit on the mastery scale. 

Why does this happen?

The expert is specific about the language they use because they understand that small differences in a team's understanding create long-term implications. This is particularly true for building software, where your understanding of the domain and the problems in it determine how good your solutions are.

The aim is to create a mental model that accurately represents reality, and then get everybody aligned with that model. When you do this well, individuals understand the problem and teams collaborate toward a solution. The way these mental models are formed in people's minds is through language. The words, phrases and metaphors you use are like LEGO bricks. While one brick might look similar to another, they're not the same. It's possible to force the incorrect brick into place, but it only weakens your model, which will eventually collapse. When the bricks fit together as they should, the model is incredibly strong and durable. Experts know this because they've felt the effects of getting this wrong. Failed products, missed deadlines, and incorrect solutions almost always stem from misaligned mental models. The expert develops a language of their own because it's the best way to get everyone's models in alignment.

Secondly, much of the expert's knowledge is tacit knowledge. Tacit knowledge is knowledge that can't be captured through words alone. You're not going to find it neatly explained in the paragraph of a book or in your companies Notion graph. The expert doesn't know what they know because a textbook told them so, but because the wins and losses over the years have given them an intuition for it. The expert develops a language of their own because there's simply no other way to capture the nuance of their knowledge.

The language you encounter in everyday conversations is easy to overlook, but don't. It's one of the clearest indicators of where a person is on their journey to mastery. If you want to build truly great teams and companies, learning to identify and cultivate expert talent is a crucial skill.

Language, metaphors, and ubiquitous terms matter because they communicate intent. Our understanding of the world is determined by the language used to describe it. Terms get stuck in people's minds and influence the way they understand products and features. This leads us to 2 conclusions:

  1. Be overly clear about these things because it'll affect the way your team communicates, and ultimately, the quality of the product you build.
  2. The people around you that are able to capture the situation with the most clarity and comprehensiveness (this will often involve a language of their own) are experts, and they're the people you want to be learning from.  
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