The 5 Stages of Expertise


Niels Bohr
Niels Bohr

It was more than 20 years ago when, in college, for the first time, I heard this

An expert is a man who has made all the mistakes which can be made, in a narrow field.
                                                                                          Niels Bohr (Physicist 1885 – 1962)

Initially I didn’t understand it, but it fascinated me, with time I learned to appreciate it.

Let me demonstrate it for you.

I smoke cigarettes that i roll up by myself and in the years I screwed up in likely every possible way while rolling one, and learned a lot about how to make a cigarette even in the most adverse weather conditions like gale force winds and pouring rain. I never rolled during an earthquake but if I can do it easily while driving a non automatic car in the city traffic, I can infer I can do it if the earth shakes a little so I can exclude this edge case. I can proudly claim to be an expert in the narrow field of “Rolling up cigarettes”

How about domains more complex than rolling up cigarettes?

When we talk about a complex domain, like software testing for example, what is an expert? If we want to go by Bohr’s definition we could assert that an expert in software testing doesn’t exist because it is physically impossible for any human being to make all the possible mistakes in such complex domain in one single life. I tend to think that Bohr’s quote is still valid for complex domains and real experts in such domains don’t exist.

These are what I imagine the 5 stages of expertise to be

The 5 stages of expertise
The 5 stages of expertise

As in stage 4, learning is an infinite activity, obviously there will be a wide range of expertise within the same stage and the closer you get to infinity the more you become an expert. Is infinity relative to time? Amount of books read? Number of experiments run? Maybe all of it.

This stupid model has been imagined by me, a person that believes that, in relation to software testing, he is is in stage 4 “Perpetual Learner”.

The reason why you don’t see the 5th stage is thatI haven’t reached it, in fact I don’t even know if such stage exists or not.

On the other hand, if the 5th stage existed, it would invalidate my own very model, in fact the model states that “Learning is an infinite activity” that contradicts the existence of a 5th stage. So should I exclude the existence of a 5th stage, so that my model works? Not really, I’d rather search for the reason that invalidates my model than defend it. Why? Because I learn more when I make mistakes than when I am right, how about you?

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5 thoughts on “The 5 Stages of Expertise

  1. Very true representation, many people get blocked at 4.

    However, I’d argue that we vary between those levels depending on the subject. You might get blocked in certain respects only, which is pretty easy to do, since work in general is very much about repeating predictable tasks (which excludes learning ofc because they wouldn’t be so predictable then, would they?) and very little about learning, in many cases.

    Other than that, I personally have a theory of reset: getting a fresh perspective on a subject you’re very experienced with could basically mean a Reset. Start learning from scratch. It does in no way contradict the continuous learning stuff, but rather it nuances it. Sometimes you learn more about something, other times you just forget everything you thought you knew and start afresh, with basically discards your expertise and sets you back to level 1.

    It’s a cycle really. Also, stuff you learn and how you interpret it is very context dependent, so learning the same subject withing a 5-10 year gap will be something radically different.

    Maybe it’s not the fact that the whole isn’t always there, but more about our learning/processing pipeline being so limited and influenced by context.

  2. correction, many get blocked and #3

    Also, the fifth would be forgetting and repeating the stages, which is very necessary. It’s not that you actually deliberately *forget* what you already know, it’s more like ignoring that and building from scratch, which will gradually see the information pass to you subconscious and you’ll sooner or later end up using it.

    Speaking of levels of conscience, it’s a bit limiting to just do some stages about conscious learning.

    Basically, you consciously learn, then part you forget, part you get to subconscious and later use when consciously learning. On a longer term, part gets to the unconscious from the subconscious. Interestingly enough, the unconscious gets passed on, so what ends up in there can also be used by your great great grandchildren under the right circumstances.

    Fear at any first occurrence, for instance, has a lot to do with unconscious, subconscious and conscious relationship.

    This, in my opinion, is more important than just managing the conscious.

    • Thanks for your feedback ardieu.
      I like your concept of forget and relearn and in particular I am intrigued by your idea around conscious and subconscious learning. Would you suggest any reading for me to understand that better?

  3. Hello Augusto, i was a biologist once(ecology=System Theory, Cybernetics, Evolutionary GameTheory, Neural Networks. .). I recommend to take a look at Prof. Manfred Spitzer. He is writing popular books on brain science of learning.
    Another interesting field is “Evolutionary Epistemology” eg Karl Popper, Rupert Riedl(my prof) :
    What true insights can we achieve within the constaints of a our cognitive aparatus, which was and is subject to evolutionary processes?
    There are thousands of filters and data transformations going on before infomation is represented at conscious level.
    These mechanisms evolved, if they led to spreading corresponding genes in the population AND NOT because they led to a deeper understanding of an objective truth! Evolution of biological systems is purest BLACK box control.(achieve “desired” results without any understanding of the internal workings).

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