Getting Good by Copying Experts

Getting Good by Copying Experts

Learning to identify the experts around you is a powerful personal growth strategy. It shows you who you should be copying and it reveals the people you should be placing your bets on.

Copying Experts Leads to Expertise

A huge chunk of the skillset required to be an expert in any domain is tacit in nature. These skills can't be explicitly stated or taught, and are better thought of as expert intuition.

This image comes from Cedric Chin's series on tacit knowledge that I highly recommend reading. 

Assuming that much of mastery is tacit in nature, the best way to obtain it is to copy the people with it. The process goes as follows:

  • Initially, we borrow tools, processes and language from the experts around us. We try to copy them and emulate them. We ask how they would approach the situation and try to apply the same reasoning ourselves.
  • As we progress, we begin to form tools and processes of our own. The things we were once blindly copying begin to make more sense. We're able to appreciate where they fit into the bigger picture and begin to identify ways that we can optimise and improve those processes for ourselves.
  • As time goes by, and we wind our way along the path to mastery, we begin to reach areas that are untouched. We ask questions that haven't been asked before, and consider ideas that have yet to be considered. We encounter questions that don't have answers, and use what we've learnt along the way to break new ground.

Reaching the final stage, the point that represents expertise, requires a holistic understanding of the domain and a rich set of skills. Many of these can't be stated or taught, and are instead acquired along the journey in what is best described as osmosis. Listen to the stories of anyone that's reached this point and they'll tell you about an expert that they copied along the way. To copy the experts, you need to be able to identify them.

Betting on Sprinters

The best people to bet on are the people that aren't experts yet, but they will be in future. Linus Lee has a great analogy for this. He says there are two kinds of impressive people in the world. The first is the experts. They're the people that know their way around their craft. They know lots of smart people who’ve done it before, and they can combine their experience and mistakes from the past with their accumulated knowledge to walk confidently into formidable challenges.

The second kind is the sprinters. From a distance, the sprinters look no different from every other beginner trying to figure out what they’re doing. They’re just getting started on their craft and making the same mistakes as everyone else, looking for the same kinds of help as everyone else. But the sprinters' superpower is that they grow and learn faster than everyone else. Sprinters grow and improve at what they do exponentially, because they use every new project, experience and mistake as a way to improve at the next one.

Sprinters are the people you want to bet on. They're going to be the experts of tomorrow. You want to be a part of their team and you want them leading your projects. This is how you build a valuable network, reputation and career – not just by knowing the people who are already successful, but more importantly, by helping the right people before anybody else will. Bet on them early and you can be certain that they'll remember it.

How do you identify sprinters? Look at the language they use. Initially, the language used by sprinters will seem the same as all the other beginners you come across. They might use a lot of jargon and cliches, language that doesn't seem like their own, language that showcases that they're still early on their journey to mastery. The thing you want to keep an eye on is how that language changes with each conversation you have with them. Sprinters will begin to quickly understand the domain and develop the ability to capture it in nuanced and context-rich ways. They're developing an intuition for the problems they're facing, and that's why they're going to be best positioned to solve them a little way down the road.


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