NOTE: This post is Part 6 in my month-long deep dive into exploring "expertise and authority." Get the whole series (as it progresses) here.

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I learned to play chess on a small cedar travel board that used tiny little pieces with pegs to hold them in place between moves. That came in handy, because my "classroom" was the back seat of a 1983 Ford LTD that belonged to my Granny. And my instructor was my friend Jason, who had tagged along with us on a trip to New Braunfels, Texas. It was a three-hour drive to and from the Schlitterbahn Water Park where we would spend a week in the water and sun. Learning to play chess seemed a good way to pass the time.

I liked the game well enough. I knew, even then, that it was the game "smart people" played. I'd seen movies and TV shows where geniuses hovered over boards, moving pieces, calling out cryptic plays that sounded like the kind of code you'd use to initiate a missile launch. I wanted to be a genius, so chess had to factor in at some point. 

After that, I can't say that I was "obsessed" with chess, but I did enjoy it. I bought an electronic chess board so that I could play on my own, and I got very good at beating the digital pants off of it. I also continued to play friends and family, and I was pretty good at beating them, too. So I had a high level of confidence about my skills.

Which led me to enter the tournament. 

It was being hosted at bookstore that I frequented, usually as a stopover on my way home from class. i was getting my undergrad at Houston Baptist University at that point, but I had moved back to my old stomping grounds in Wild Peach to cut down on expenses. This was when gas prices were still low enough that driving 150 miles round trip every day was still cheaper than paying rent on an apartment. Oh those beloved days.

I had seen the signs for this tournament taped to surfaces all over the book store, and had decided I wanted to test my mettle. So I signed up, and on that Saturday morning I made the 75-mile drive one more time that week. I was excited. I was pumped. I was ready for the challenge!

I was out after the first game. 

The guy I played in that first match actually went on to win the entire tournament. So I don't feel all that bad about losing to him. It's just ... the first game? Couldn't I have taken out a few folks myself before retiring to the sidelines to play pick-up games with other match losers? Did I really have to be the very first person out?

Someone had to be.

The thing is, the guy who beat me wasn't just good at chess. He was an expert. At least, more of an expert than I was. He knew all the terminology. He kept a little notebook for each game, and jotted down the moves he and his opponent had made from memory. He talked to others about the strategies he used, calling out this defense or that maneuver by name. 

I didn't stand a chance.

My chess prowess was considerable,  if I was playing against my cousins or my buddies. We were hacks, muddling through the board with no idea that there were patterns that had special names. To us, it was just this game we liked to play—like Poker or Monopoly or Risk. 

But to chess experts, this is more than a game. It's strategy and three-dimensional thinking. It's history. It's combat. It's a complex and living organism that the chess master alone can tame.

And that, I think, is a key difference between amateurs and experts. The amateur may have some level of knowledge about their subject—they may even be more of an authority than other people, the same way I was better at chess than my family and friends—but an expert is moving toward mastery. They have a larger vocabulary.

In 1989, chess and expertise were the subjects explored by authors K. Anders Ericsson, University of Colorado at Boulder, and James J. Staszewski, University of South Carolina. In their paper tilted Skilled memory and expertise: Mechanisms of exceptional performance, Ericsson and Staszewski looked at how chess experts encode their huge vocabulary of chess moves and strategies and terminology so that it can be instantly retrieved.

What they found was that the experts were encoding information in chunks, and these chunks contained interconnected bits and pieces that formed the web of overall knowledge the expert could tap into.

Experts aren't the only ones who process information this way, of course. The study revealed that everyone—even chess novices who are overconfident in their abilities—essentially encodes and stores information the same way. On average, all human beings can store approximately the same number of chunks on a topic, and can retrieve information from those chunks just as rapidly as the experts. But where things begin to diverge between novice and expert is in the volume of information grouped into the chunks.

The size of the chunk—that quantity of stored information—varies with the amount of previous knowledge and experience of the individual. The study found that experts had chunks that were jammed with more individual pieces of data than the chunks of novices. Chunk superiority. 

And that's key to understanding not only expertise, but the very nature of memory and learning. 

Brain symphonies 

Whenever we are learning something new, there's a veritable symphony of activity going on in our brains. Each new bit of information we encode into memory forms new neurons and pathways in our brains, and those tendrils reach outward in fractal patterns, trying their best to grow big and bright. But they don't form spontaneously in random, unused parts of the brain. They're branches, not trees. Everything we learn starts from what we already know.

We connect new information to old information—the stuff we've already encoded and which has well-worn neural paths in our brains. We create understanding by using the framework of what we already know. Memory is an additive process.

Experts, then, are people who have created more pathways and connections on a given topic than someone else. They have connected a bunch of dots, and a picture is emerging for them.

The process experts use, as they both encode and retrieve their wealth of chess moves (or whatever else their expertise includes) is referred to by Ericsson and Staszewski as "Skilled memory." It enables the experts to quickly encode and retrieve new information in their field of expertise, which gives them a greater capacity for making intuitive leaps and strategic decisions than an amateur in that field. Even better, experts can encode and retrieve new information faster than the amateurs. Which, in the grand scheme of learning, seems a bit unfair. It would be nice if we, the lowly amateur, could encode quickly, so that we could reach expertise as fast as possible.

But there is hope, albeit from a somewhat mundane source. 

Practice makes expert

How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Fly to Manhattan and get an Uber ride to 881 7th Ave. 

But if you want to be an expert pianist who has been asked to perform at Carnegie Hall, that's all about the practice, practice, practice. 

Aside from completely dismantling and over-analyzing a classic joke, the point here is that practice and exposure and intentional growth are the keys to improving your skilled memory. The more you do something, the more proficient you become at making connections between new and existing knowledge. You make better connections, and you make them faster. 

So experts have a leg up when it comes to learning something new within their domain of expertise. The amateur or novice has to struggle harder to encode the new information, because their chunks contain less of the framework needed for making intuitive leaps.

Interestingly, and not all that surprising, experts in a specific field aren't quite so capable of this rapid learning outside of that silo of expertise. A chess master can learn new strategies and maneuvers quickly on the chess board, and can remember play-by-play every move in a match without aid, but they may completely lack the ability to remember what they're supposed to buy at the grocery store, or to rapidly learn how to play Bridge. They possess tremendous skill in high-speed learning within their own field, but it isn't necessarily transferrable.

Unless, of course, they can learn to encode that information in terms of their expertise.

Experts in becoming experts

Diagnosticians and forensic experts are good at transferring their encoded knowledge to solve problems. This is largely due to the nature of their expertise. These fields, by their nature, involve an expertise in making connections. Each uses a specific expertise, such as medical diagnostics or forensic science, as the framework for making connections intuitive leaps using available evidence. In other words, these are experts in the field of observing and evaluating data and identifying patterns within.

This can happen in other fields of expertise, of course. A chess player, for example, may have a fantastic memory for lists and processes, if he or she can encode that information as chess moves—or, in some way, connect the information in the same way he or she connects their chess knowledge. They may have fantastic pattern memory, because they think in terms of patterns frequently.

In the book Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, author Joshua Foer explores a concept known as the "memory palace," or sometimes called the "memory house." This is "place memory." It was referred to as early as 55 BC by Cicero in his work De Oratore.

The basics of this technique are that we can remember complex lists of information if we are able to encode them within a mental landscape, such as the layout of a house. 

The quickest, easiest way to test this is to do the following experiment:

  1. Imagine your house, or maybe the house you grew up in. It needs to be a layout that is so familiar you can picture it without effort.
  2. Make list of 20 random objects. It can be a grocery list, for example.
  3. Starting from the front door of your house, mentally place items in the front entryway, in the hall, in the living room, the kitchen, your bedroom, etc. Tour your house from room to room, and place the objects as you go.
  4. This works best if you picture the most absurd things you can think of. If milk is on your list, picture your bathtub filled with milk. If bread is on the list, maybe picture little sailboats made from bread slices. In your bedroom, maybe you place a giant egg, and the shell has cracked, allowing the yolk to ooze out and ruin your carpet. The more graphic (and, frankly, the more disgusting) the images, the more readily you'll remember them.
  5. Go grocery shopping, and as you push your cart along, take the mental tour of your house, and recall the items within. See if you can do the whole list without referencing anything in writing.

Our place memory is one of those quirks of evolution that served a specific purpose in the wild, but now amounts to sort of party trick in the modern world. A useful party trick, to be sure. But what it tells us about memory and expertise is more valuable than the way it helps us remember to get milk, bread, and eggs.

In essence, our ability to create and innovate is a function of our ability to connect ideas. Experts become renown as thought leaders when they can present information in new ways, and they become masters of their field when they can create something entirely new from the webwork of their expertise. 

As Foer put it:

“If the essence of creativity is linking disparate facts and ideas, then the more facility you have making associations, and the more facts and ideas you have at your disposal, the better you'll be at coming up with new ideas. As Buzan likes to point out, Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory, was the mother of the Muses.” 

Experts will be better at making high-level connections between new ideas and disparate facts because they already have a vast framework to draw upon. Likewise, novices may make all sorts of intuitive leaps as they explore a new area of study if they are able to encode the information in terms of what they already know.

So the secret to learning something fast? Figure out how to connect it to your existing area of expertise. Connect quantum physics to chess, or auto mechanics to music. Find a way to integrate the new patterns with your existing patterns, and your learning and comprehension will increase exponentially.

Of all the topics we've explored so far, this one, to me, says more about the nature of expertise and authority than the others. It adds a dimension of quantity to the siloed knowledge of the expert, though that quantity is still vague and subjective. 

We can say that experts have more information. That's a given. We can also say that experts make quicker connections, which is something new. It indicates that a potential measure of expertise could be "how fast can you encode new information?" The more existing connections you have, the faster you can encode new data, and so the highest level expert is going to be he or she who encodes the fastest.

Still looking for that definition

But we haven't been looking for the means of quantifying the levels of expertise. We've been on the hunt for a pure definition—a binary 1 or 0 that will tell us when someone is and expert and when they are not. And to that point, so far, we are still at our original premise.

An expert is still someone who has demonstrated authority and proficient knowledge of a subject, relative to his or her audience. It's still subjective. It's still in the eye of the beholder. Expertise is still that "know it when we see it" quality that refuses to be quantified. 

But we're going to keep trying.


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Kevin Tumlinson is the author of numerous novels, novellas, and non-fiction books, and the host of the Wordslinger Podcast. Try three of his best books for free when you download his starter library at kevintumlinson.com/starterlibrary.
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