The Origins of Expertise
5 min read

The Origins of Expertise

What makes an expert?  Are there specific genes that grant superpowers that allow you to naturally dominate?  Or do experts spend “ten thousand hours” developing skill sets?  

Did Michael Jordan dominate because he had tremendous athleticism or because of his cut-throat competitiveness?  Tiger Woods, Michael Phelps, and all other world-class athletes have gone under the same microscope.  Plenty of people have both untapped potential and strong work ethics, but they don't excel in their field.  There’s an additional ingredient to expertise.

Aside from genetics and hard work, someone can get to the front edge of their field with creativity - by breaking the rules, inventing a new technique, or stretching the boundaries.

The advantage of innovation is powerful - under the right circumstances, even a novice can defeat a traditional master.  But the advantage isn’t sustainable.  By looking into the stories of Amarillo Slim, Dick Fosbury, and Shaun White, who each had varying degrees of natural ability and work ethic, we can understand what it takes to stay at the front edge of your domain.

Breaking the Rules

Amarillo Slim was an infamous proposition gambler, willing to bet on himself in any endeavor.  “Prop” bets are the kind of bets you make with your friends - I bet I can eat more eggs than you, or I bet I can dunk a basketball after three shots of tequila.  Since Slim challenged experts in their own domains, he was always a heavy underdog.  His genius was in slipping innocuous rules into his bets that didn’t raise red flags, even to domain experts.

By redefining the game, Slim caught the experts off guard.

One of his most famous bets was in ping pong.  Slim bet Bobby Riggs, the champion tennis player, that he could beat him in ping pong.

The one condition was that Slim could choose the paddles.

Bobby Riggs, while not an expert ping pong player, was a world class athlete.  He didn't think the type of paddle would matter, as long as they were both playing with the same paddle.  But Riggs didn’t think Amarillo Slim would show up with cast iron skillets.  Amarillo Slim had spent months mastering the skillets.  By the time Riggs figured out how to hit the ball squarely, the game was over, 21-8.

An old gambling pal of Slim’s heard about the match against Riggs and wanted to hustle Slim.  Once again, Slim made the condition that he chose the paddles.  This time Slim did face an expert - a Taiwanese Ping Pong World Champion.  Moreover, the champion had been training with skillets for months.  Of course, this time Slim didn’t pull out a pair of skillets - he pulled out a pair of coke bottles.  Once again, Amarillo Slim had broken the rules and beaten the expert.

Competitors can easily copy innovation.  If either Riggs or the Taiwanese world champion knew the paddle beforehand, they would have practiced with them and won easily.  But Amarillo Slim changed the context and was able to create his own game where he was the (momentary) expert.

Stretching the Rules

In 1963, Dick Fosbury was an unremarkable 10th-grade high jumper who had no idea he would become a Silicon Valley meme.  He struggled with the straddle method, the standard high jumping technique.  Although he was one of the worst members of the team, he was a hard worker.  Instead of dropping the sport or accepting his place as a below average participant, Fosbury innovated.

He experimented with different approaches.  He realized the only rule was to jump off of one foot.  Newer padding equipment made falling less painful, which gave him the space to try out non-conventional techniques.  He realized if he jumped with his back to the ground instead of face down, he could jump higher.  He immediately started setting personal records, and then winning high school competitions.  The technique was mocked at first, earning its own name, the "Fosbury Flop".  The Olympic committee even held an additional tryout after the Olympic Trials because they thought he was a fluke.  But just five years after that difficult sophomore season, he won a gold medal in the Olympics.  By combining his new technique with his work ethic, he not only became an expert, he was the best in the world.

The Fosbury Flop became a meme in Silicon Valley, representing innovation and thinking outside the box.  However, Fosbury’s dominance in the field was short-lived.  He only won one gold medal.  He didn’t even qualify for the 1972 Olympics.  But 28 out of 40 competitors there used his technique and the "Fosbury Flop" is still the standard high jumping technique today.  Once more physically gifted athletes started using his technique, they quickly caught up and surpassed him.  They even innovated on his innovation, adding a fist pump to increase momentum.  While inventing a new technique allowed Fosbury to momentarily climb to the top, his lack of genetics prevented him from sustaining his edge at high jumping.

Pushing the Limits

Shaun White started snowboarding when he was six.  His genetic gifts were apparent as he got his first sponsorship when he was seven.  His work ethic is equally impressive, he spent months at a training retreat at a private halfpipe Red Bull built for him in preparation for the Olympics.  White won Olympic gold medals in the halfpipe in 2006, 2010, and 2018.  He won a medal in every Winter X Game from 2000-2013, including 13 golds.  How?  Was his physical ability and training capacity so much better than his competitors?

In the halfpipe, every year, every competition, the bar gets raised.  More rotations, flips, grabs, and other variations make room for infinite combinations.  Shaun White has innovated continuously.  He's had to stretch the boundaries of the discipline to stay ahead of his competition.  In 2006, for his first gold, his final run consisted of double 1080s (three rotations) followed by double 900s.  In 2010, his run featured a “Double McTwist 1260”, three and a half rotations - plus two vertical flips.  Finally, in 2018, his gold medal run had double 1440s (four rotations) followed by double 1260s.

Every four years there’s a clear increase in the level of skill needed to win a gold medal, and White is continuously on the front edge.  What won a gold in the last Olympics is questionable to even qualify for the next one.  Physical ability and training aren't enough to stay at the forefront.  Only by including continuous innovation did Shaun White win three gold medals over twelve years.

The Red Queen Effect

In biology, there’s a term called the Red Queen effect.  Named after the Red Queen in “Through the Looking Glass,” species must continuously adapt in order to survive against other species that are also continuously adapting.  Likewise, to remain an expert, you need to keep improving by either innovating within the rules or by redefining the rules.

This pattern of continuous improvement plays out in other areas besides athletics.  In the 1940s, the concept of “kaizen” or continuous improvement started in Japanese manufacturing.  Silicon Valley has the “innovation mindset”, exemplified by Apple’s slogan “Think Different.”  Steve Jobs had a string of innovative products, the Mac, iPhone, iPad, making Apple the dominant consumer technology company.

The threshold of expertise is fluid.  An expert today can be a washout tomorrow.  Superior genes and work ethic can help but won’t guarantee expertise.  The lessons we take from Amarillo Slim, Dick Fosbury, and Shaun White show that expertise in any domain comes from innovation.  The innovation mindset consists of breaking the rules, stretching the rules, and pushing the limits - and those can be approaches that we bring to any problems we face, large or small.