The world is full of problems--big problems, such as global warming, epidemics, and poverty. We are encountering new problems, such as personal privacy compromise, crypto-currency mal-mining, and industrial system insecurity. We are interacting with systems that are getting more complex--Artificial Intelligence, Autonomous Vehicles, and the Internet of Things. So how do we solve big, new, and complex problems? Who is going to solve them?
We cannot solve new problems in old ways. Solving these problems requires extensive experience and in-depth knowledge. It requires the ability to identify features and patterns that have since been unnoticed. It requires creative thinking and clever solutions. Solving these and similar problems is going to require experts.
What do we mean by "expert"? First, let us describe what an expert is not. The term "expert" is not a title or a certification. It is not a degree hanging on the wall. It is not something given to you, nor is it something you earn. "Expert" is not a status claimed by those seeking glory or those wanting a higher salary. "Expert" is a mindset.
The expert is characterized by the way they learn, comprehend, and organize information. They are intensely curious, mindful, and methodical. They have spent a great deal of time working in a particular subject area--mastering the fundamentals, solving problems, and sharing their expertise. Perhaps, even contributing to the discipline itself. So, how does one adopt the "expert" mindset.
In some fields, the expert mindset is adopted through formalized training. For example, electricians begin their careers as Apprentices, during which they develop their skills and learn about building codes. Then as Journeyman, their experience allows them to apply for licenses and work more independently. Finally, they are recognized as Master Electricians, earning them the privilege to teach and mentor others. Unfortunately, not all fields have this formal progression from novice to expert. In these cases, individuals may acquire the expert mindset through academic study, such as completion of graduate school or a PhD. Others may do it through extensive work experience, such as having multiple jobs, working in different fields, or working for a long time at one company. Apprenticeship, academics, and experience are all ways by which an individual may acquire the expert mindset. But, there is a way by which you can embrace the expert's mindset--regardless of your job, experience, or academic accomplishments.
Know the What
Be brilliant on the basics. Before you can embrace the expert mindset, you must master the fundamentals of whatever it is that you are interested in. The novice woodworker must know that a hammer is the appropriate tool to drive in a nail. They may even know that there are many different types of hammers, each designed for a specific use--such as ball peen hammers for shaping metal, rubber mallets for hammering finished-surfaces without causing damage, and sledge hammers for demolition. An understanding of all the simple things leads to a high level of proficiency.
Understand the How
Knowing how something works is key to embracing the expert mindset. The competent woodworker understands the mechanics of hammering in a nail. They know that driving a 16-penny nail into a 2-by-4 is best done with a 22oz framing hammer, held by the end of the handle, and swung from the elbow, while focusing on striking the nail head at a 90 degree angle. Understanding the technology, the technique, and the methodology behind how things work will enable you to ask questions.
Answer the Why
Equipped with fundamental knowledge, an individual can begin to embrace the expert mindset by Answering the "Why". Why are nails measured in pennies? Why are the dimensions of a 2-by-4 wood board actually 1.5 inches by 3.5 inches? The expert woodworker endeavors to discover the answers. It is the search for answers and the motivation to learn that cultivates the expert mindset.
Anyone can embrace the expert's mindset and endeavor to become an expert in anything. Whether it is a job, a career, or a hobby--find something that fascinates you and chase it down a rabbit hole. First, master the basics and learn everything you can about it. Then, begin asking Why and searching for answers. When you find the answers, share your expertise with others--tell a friend, write a blog, or give a talk. That is how the world's problems are going to be solved.
The world needs experts now more than ever--individuals who are innovating and sharing their knowledge. It is impossible to be an expert at everything, but you can be an expert at one component of something you do. Find and embrace the expert's mindset. Because it is your skills, your individual contribution to your team, community, and society, your expertise that will be essential to solving the world's biggest and most complex problems.