Improving How One Learns From Others

Thursday, October 08, 2020

Image by Rita Morais, via Unsplash, license.
A recent installment of Alex Epstein's Human Flourishing Project advises listeners to learn from master practitioner-teachers: that is, from people who have achieved success in their domain and are actively interested in passing along their knowledge. Epstein gives a couple of specific examples, Creativity, Inc., by Pixar co-founder Ed Catmull and Amy Hastings; and the new best-seller, No Rules Rules, by Netflix CEO Reed Hastings and Erin Meyer.

This is outstanding advice and helps me further, through its name, to essentialize something I was already doing -- although implicitly and not always as well as I might, going forward. (If this sounds familiar, it's because I recently saw Jason Crawford make a similar type of identification regarding a common problem that directly impacts cultural activism.)

The rest here is me thinking out loud, for as long as I had time this morning...

One of my better examples of doing this has been to follow Alison Green's excellent Ask a Manager blog and use it as a resource when I have questions on such matters as workplace-type interactions, norms of professional behavior, or how certain things usually get done in business settings. (I once aced an interview for a longshot, but interesting position, thanks to her advice. I got the interview in the first place due to a clerical error on their part. But they called me later for a related position thanks to the first interview.)

Another time, I found a blog by a respected attorney in a niche field when considering an idea I had for a small business. His explanations were very clear, made sense, and helped me build my knowledge about his subject matter. When a past Client From Hell caused me legal problems in that very area, I was already very confident he could help me, and hired him. Legal problem solved.

On a lesser level, I frequently take advantage of online forums like Stack Overflow to solve problems with the mostly open-source software that I use. Since other practitioners are critiquing (and testing!) the advice, I have been able to rapidly solve problems that would cause most users at my level to throw up their hands and say That's above my pay grade. (I am not speaking of learning deeply from a master teacher-practitioner here, but bring this up as an example of the broader applicability of the approach of gaining confidence in advice from the track record of the person offering it.)

In addition to Epstein identifying a way to improve one's ability to gain knowledge, he caused me to ask myself why it is that I choose certain people or sources for knowledge or advice. In my words, Epstein's big-picture advice is: Find a reality-tested expert who can communicate clearly. Most of us can tell when someone is communicating clearly or not: It's determining whether someone is an expert that can be difficult.

Interestingly, although expertise doesn't always translate into clear communication, clear communication is often one of my screens for whether someone is an expert. This is because having clarity is a prerequisite for clear communication. You may sometimes need to consult an expert whose communication is as clear as mud, but, if you are an active thinker, clarity can be a useful initial screen for expertise.

The last sentence ties in directly with something I always do when attempting to judge expertise: I find something the person addresses that I know enough about to be able to see whether (and how and why) something this person says fits in (or not) with what I already know; or I run something that person has to say by other(s) with more knowledge, and whose opinion I respect. (This never stops: One should also develop a habit of being aware of a need to consider what other experts think: Experts can and often do disagree with one another.)

Epstein's examples come from business, which is a two-edged sword. The good: Since commercial success in unregulated parts of the economy is generally a good indicator of whether a businessman generally knows what he's doing ... (1) this is a field where it can be relatively easy to judge practical success; thus (2) the clean example makes it easy to conceptualize master practitioner. The bad, so to speak: One has to have a clear, objective idea of what constitutes mastery in most other fields. For example, the notorious quack, Dr. Oz, is a wild success by some measures, but it will be a cold day in Hell before I consider any of his medical advice. (I am not familiar enough with him to know if I would regard him as a clear communicator, but that is only an initial and provisional screen for expertise, anyway.)

Fortunately, there are other ways of measuring practical success. Here are some examples: (1) In addition to having had a managerial career, Alison Green regularly posts updates from readers who have tried her advice, often with enough detail to judge why it did or did not work. (2) Computer forums, product reviews, and the like often offer overall ratings and multiple perspectives in addition to there often being opportunities to trial the advice. (3) One can always seek out experts one is already familiar with or learn about some from intelligent, active-minded friends.

And that's it for now on this very interesting and important, but complicated subject...

-- CAV

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