What’s The Sweet Spot of Expertise?

Photo by Malcolm Lightbody on Unsplash

When people think about knowledge, they generally think in two ways. People can either be specialists, primarily concentrating on one area of expertise/study, and being highly skilled in that division. To understand the specialist outlook, consider this quote by Plato: “Each man is capable of doing one thing well. If he attempts several, he will fail to achieve distinction in any.” Think of the “10,000 hours” rule , which emphasizes deliberate, intense practice to reach a point of true expertise in a particular field for 10,000 hours.

People can also be generalists, with a wide array of knowledge on a variety of subjects, with interests spanning multiple areas, as opposed to the single strong point of the specialist. Here’s a generalist quote by Robert Heinlein: “A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.”

There’s another way to think about expertise. Some people may be familiar with the Pareto principle, also called the 80/20, which states that for many outcomes, roughly 80% of consequences come from 20% of causes. It’s popular in business circles, where it is applied to employee productivity and efficiency as a way of getting more out of workers. Adjacent to the 80/20 concept, there’s a useful tool for understanding how to be an expert, the concept of Pareto optimality.

Pareto optimality can be best understood as a framework for thinking about tradeoffs. Imagine you’re making a decision about what type of food to buy, and you have two options, A and B. The cost per unit is the same at 1 dollar per unit, and you have 10 dollars to spend. You could choose to spend all your money on A, which is sweet but unhealthy in large quantities, and suffer the consequences.

You could spend all your money on B, which isn’t quite as sweet but is healthy.

Here’s what both food choices look like side by side:

There is an obvious loss if you choose any of the two extremes. A sweet but healthy midpoint exists which takes both food choices into account.

That midpoint is Pareto optimal, which is “a situation where no individual or preference criterion can be better off without making at least one individual or preference criterion worse off or without any loss”, . Essentially, 5 units of A and 5 units of B is Pareto optimal because no alternative state exists that will make A/B better without making the other worse.

The most famous version of this concept is the Production Possibility Curve in economics, but it has value in other areas, such as engineering, political science, and biology. There’s an added concept of the Pareto Frontier, which is the set of all Pareto optimal solutions, like buying 6 units of A and 4 units of B (and vice versa).

How does this relate to knowledge?

There has been an increase in “wicked problems”, difficult to solve due to their complexity and interconnectedness. For example, how do you stop terrorism (a militaristic question) while making sure that the conditions that created the terrorists do not arise again (a social engineering, economic, and political question)? There is someone sufficiently skilled at military strategy and arms control but knows very little about complex social problems, and there is someone that knows a lot about social problems but is a complete novice at military strategy. A Pareto optimal strategy would be being knowledgeable enough about military strategy and social engineering that no one else is better at both subjects simultaneously.

There could be an excellent communicator who knows nothing about science and an excellent scientist who cannot communicate her findings properly, but you can stake out that space where you are proficient on both dimensions to be unmatched. On the Pareto frontier, there might be one person who knows more about military strategy than social engineering, and another who knows more social engineering than military strategy, but you exist at the combination of their blind spots, and have some space to yourself.

There can be more than one dimension: for example, you want to be able to speak engagingly, in an intuitive manner, and you also want to be rigorous and factual in what you say. You don’t have to be 100% in any area, just good enough if all dimensions are taken into account.

Improving Decision Making: Life on the Frontier

Thinking in Pareto optimal terms can improve decision making. You want to read about the history of dinosaurs. You want a detailed book, contains engaging descriptions of dinosaur life, and has nice pictures. Some books will be heavy on detail but poorly written and with very few pictures. Other books will be detailed and filled with interesting pictures, but there are no descriptions of dinosaur life that you can bring to life with your imagination. What you want is a book that is good on all three criteria, so that limits your choice pool to a small number. Then you can split the broad categories into subcategories because nothing is ever that simple. Do I want my ideal dinosaur book to encompass all dinosaur history or just the moments leading up to extinction? Pictures of flora and fauna or pictures of the dinosaurs alone? Books above 350 pages or below/equal to 350 pages? Gradually, you can whittle down the choices, bit by bit, to figure out the best choice for you?

In a different scenario, you’re a tech writer looking to figure out your area of specialization. The tech space has a lot of people writing about crypto and DeFi, a lot of people are writing about fintech, a lot of people are writing about government policy, but there’s no one writing about how government policy is affecting the fintech industry and how decentralized finance and cryptocurrency are offering avenues to reduce dependency on official policy in non-technical, popular language. That’s an area no one has eked out for themselves, and it’s a subject that draws on many fields and is important in the long run, so it’s worth creating a space and establishing yourself as a pioneer.

Final Thoughts

This was supposed to be about generalists versus specialists, and it’s pretty clear which side of that debate I am on, although I arrive at my conclusions in different ways. Most problems in today’s world require some form of multidimensional thinking. The average number of authors per scientific paper is increasing and . This century has seen it’s getting harder and harder to make scientific breakthroughs , an increase in wicked problems , and all for the best. There’s a potentially limitless number of fields and areas to become expert-level or near-expert level at, and the sheer number of possible field combinations may stop people from taking advantage of the fantastic opportunity that is interdisciplinary innovation. Maybe people prefer being specialists to generalists. increasing the returns to interdisciplinary thinking

The best thing about Pareto optimality is that it removes the need for perfectionism. It’s not necessary to be 100% at every level. It might be ineffective, since due to blindspots, you might be moving in a direction that pulls you out of that zone of optimality, leaning too far to the extreme of whatever subject you’re trying to be perfect at. You just have to be good enough on enough of your dimensions that nothing is better at everything simultaneously than you.

Originally published at http://docs.google.com.

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The Armchair Nigerian

20. Avid Reader. Nigerian. Interested in literature, psychology, economics, biology, finance, computer science, and football (soccer). Passive comics fan.