My friend does not have green fingers.  After he’s had a garden for a few years you need a machete to find your way to the shed.  Each time he’s moved house the new owners have had to bring in army units with flame throwers to sort things out.

So he’s a long way from having the level of expertise that another friend of mine encountered – albeit in a completely different area.  He was having problems with his motorbike.  In two weeks of trying to do exactly what the owner’s manual said would sort the problem he went without sleep and lost all his hair.   Then he took the bike to a highly experienced mechanic.  Who studied it for five minutes, listened to it, touched it and fixed it.  Overcome with emotion my friend asked him what he’d been doing wrong in his own attempts.  ‘Nothing at all’, the man replied.  ‘You did everything exactly according to the manual.  But this particular bike doesn’t respond well to what the book says.  It needs a special tweak.  Just… here.’

The engineer’s huge experience made all the difference.  The same friend has met other mechanics who knew just by feel how much pressure an old bolt could take before it would break.

From novice to expert

The process of going from being a complete beginner to having this level of skill is an interesting one.  Two brothers, Stuart and Hubert Dreyfus,  working at the University of California, Berkeley have mapped out the progression.  It looks like this:


They have little or no previous experience.  They have little situational perception or discretionary judgement.  They have a rigid adherence to rules 

Advanced Beginner

They start trying tasks on their own.  They have difficulty troubleshooting.  They want information fast.  They can place some advice in the context required.  They use guidelines but without holistic understanding


They develop conceptual models.  They develop conscious planning and routines.  They troubleshoot on their own and seek out expert advice.  They have standardized and routine procedures. They now see actions at least partially in terms of longer-term plans and goals.


They are guided by maxims but apply them differently to particular situations.  They see situations holistically and see what is most important.  They can see deviations from the normal pattern.  They self-correct and learn from the experience of others.  They make quicker, easier and better decisions.


They no longer rely on rules, guidelines or maxims.  They have an intuitive grasp of situations based on deep understanding.  They only use analytic approaches when they are faced with a novel situation or when problems occur.  They have a vision of what is possible and deliver it

The magic ingredient

In their book,  Mind over Machine:  The Power of Human Intuition and Expertise in the Era of the Computer, the Dreyfus brothers also say about the expert that their skill ‘has become so much a part of them that [they] need be no more aware of it than [they] are of [their] own body … the expert business manager, surgeon, nurse, lawyer or teacher  is totally engaged in skilful performance’.

In other words, if you reach expert level it brings a sort of magic ingredient that means you know more than the sum total of what you know.

Expertise beckons

I talked earlier about the experiences of two friends.  A third has just taken up the trumpet.  She tells me that she’s struggling to learn something completely new, not having done so for twenty years or more.  But maybe all the above can help her or indeed you if you also are currently learning something new.  Imagining yourself down the road with the fluency of an expert may be a really exciting motivation when the going gets tough.