Experts don’t know how they do what they do
We all look towards experts to learn new skills or knowledge. Our desire is always followed by asking them how they do what they do. How they create, and build, and fix or explain.
This is where it gets complicated, even odd.
Their answer to our queries may elicit a standard, canned response in terms of the steps they take. Ask a pianist how they play so well, they will likely say practice, but whilst this makes a certain sense it still leaves us unsatisfied.
But here’s the kicker. Deep down, even they don’t know how they do what they do.
It’s a misleading idea to think that experts know how they paint, write or whatever.
Consider too the piano player. How they play has gone beyond conscious effort. No longer do they have to concentrate on the keystrokes in order to play they just do, it’s automatic, mindless.
For painters and writers, it’s the same. Expertise and skill are built brick by brick through diligent practice, but the ultimate aim is not to understand how to play music or paint, it’s to put all the understanding aside.
It’s like me asking you. How do you write? Or how do you walk or read?
Such a question makes no sense because we no longer need to know how. It’s a skill of no thought.
How we do something we’re skilled at is not something we can explain in the conscious, rational way. Our intuition or trained reflex has taken over.
An artist doesn’t think about brush strokes, they stroke the brush, a piano player doesn’t think about the keys he strikes, he strikes the keys.
What’s characterises an expert is there is no separation between the actor and the act. There’s no gap between them where conscious awareness gets in.
The motion between the thinker and the thought has become seamless to the point where the is no difference.
It’s like the Flow process in psychology.
Expertise is about practice. Your brain, mind, habits change. You become what you practice.
Effort disappears to become effortless.
The more you practice the more you become what you practice.
The skill is developed as you change because the skill is you.
We make the mistake of asking the question because we think expertise has to be definable, explainable, knowable. We ask because we want answers, we think skill is a matter of making choices.
Yet such a belief is false. Think of how you live, most of the time you don’t act through choice. Walking, writing your signature, driving, brushing teeth, it requires no thought.
It’s misleading to ask ‘how’ someone does this, it’s all become automatic.
This is what it means to be a master at anything. It’s the same with everyone. Soldiers and their drills. Sportsmen/women and their daily practice.
It’s why I think art never moved far away from practice. Whereas other disciplines became obsessed with study and theory. Becoming an artist is a skill that can’t be developed without practice. Drawing a lifelike still life or nude can only be accomplished by practising those skill in class.
You can only learn how to swim by getting in the water.
When we ask an artist or an expert on how they do what they do we seem to want a simple understandable answer. But it’s impatience and a fear of failure on our part. We seek a shortcut that will somehow avoid all the practice, struggle and work they had to do.
In essence, we ask because we’re trying to cheat, and experts know it’s not possible.
We ask because we think that’s how we become skilled, through knowledge and thinking. But it’s not knowing how to be an artist that we seek, it’s being one.
What we need to accept is that our aim, skill, can’t be defined. That’s, why we find it mysterious, so amazing.
We need to do more than just ‘talk the talk’, we need to ‘walk the walk’.
Practice, ‘walking the walk’ means taking action to embed that knowledge so it transforms into skill. Taking Unconscious Incompetence and making it Unconscious Competence.
Study/Knowledge + Practice = Expertise or Absent minded Skilful action
All this explains why experts don’t know how they do what they do, and why their answers are unsatisfying. Because they don’t know, they don’t need to know, and neither do you.
All they can tell us is how they became so good, and that’s an answer we already know.