The Winter Olympics are on! We’re in the first week of watching athletes who’ve spent years honing their skills and now get to amaze us with their spins, speed, and grace. Sports are a fantastic domain for researching and talking about expertise, with the direct observation of expert performance, the long history of deliberate practice, and the sheer excellence people can demonstrate.
That’s not what this post is about.
Instead, I want to talk about expertise in much more ordinary activities. That’s partly because I’m currently reading Thought in Action, Barbara Gail Montero’s book arguing against mindlessness in expert action; in it, she explicitly excludes expertise in quotidian activities like shoe-tying from her analysis.
Fernand Gobet, on the other hand, includes the possibility of people having exceptional expertise in activities as common as breathing (pointing to hatha yoga practitioners (2015))
So, which is it? Are virtuoso shoe-tying performances possible, or is the question non-sensical?
A short answer: yes, it’s possible to develop exceptional expertise in common, everyday activities. I think that the reason this is surprising is bound up in a couple of practical concerns and a more general question, though.
What does world-class expertise in breathing or shoe-tying look like? This is a question of goals — or, as I’ve put it before, a question of what it means to perform well when breathing or tying your shoes. These are everyday activities that people are pretty much good enough at already, it’s hard to envision what the best possible performance would even be.
So, let’s dig in on that. The goal of tying your shoes is securing your shoes to your feet — so the best possible version of that is probably some combination of how long it takes to tie, how secure the tie is, and how applicable it is to different contexts.
For the most part, we all tie our shoes with the same knot we learned as children, but different lace materials might make that knot too easily undone. Running shoes might benefit from a different lacing pattern than your business shoes. An injury might make a knot tieable one-handed the best option. Someone who has mastered the possible knots and lacing patterns and knows when to use them has greater shoe-tying expertise than most people — so thinking of them provides a stepping stone to imagining truly exceptional shoe-tying performances.
As for breathing, I present you with the Guinness record for holding your breath— just over 24 minutes, set a couple of years ago by a professional freediver. (Or, for less extreme examples, you can go back to Gobet’s hatha yoga example) If the goal of breathing is getting enough oxygen to survive, then there are clearly techniques that indicate more or less expertise, so it makes sense to at least imagine world-class performances of breathing.
The other factor that makes it challenging to imagine expertise in everyday activities is just that we don’t need much of it — or at least, not much more expertise than we already have. For the most part, the knots we tie and the ways we breathe are good enough, and we’re not motivated to seek out new techniques and practice them. Part of that is surely that examples of great expertise are rare and mostly unheralded, but part of it also that — for a lot of things — the return on investment of time just isn’t there.
Really, the only time you’re motivated to increase your expertise at one of these common activities is when something’s gone wrong. Maybe you broke your arm and need to learn those one-handed knots, or you’ve developed exercise-induced asthma and have to practice better breathing techniques. Either way, those are external motivators; you just don’t see kids coming up to their parents and saying they want to be the best shoe-tiers in the world, like you do with figure skaters or snowboarders.
Relational and objective expertise
And finally, I think the fact that the vast majority of people develop the least amount of expertise that gives them good-enough performances means that we run into the question of whether “the highest level of expertise” is essentially relational or objective.
That is, if everyone had the exact same level of expertise, could it be “the highest level,” or can you only recognize that level if there are differences in what people achieve? If every person who had ever played chess disappeared from the planet in some chess-related Rapture, would there then be newly-minted chess “experts” (the people among the remnants who at least knew the rules) among those left behind? Or would the almost total lack of chess expertise mean that no one is a world-class chess player anymore?
Anders Ericsson’s research is built on the relational idea of expertise — he and Charness (1994) explicitly identify “experts” as people who perform two standard deviations above the mean in whatever task is being studied. It would seem a bit odd to be promoted to “expert” status based on other people dying or forgetting things, though — or being demoted from that same status when enough poor performers disappeared.
If we instead look at expertise independently of others’ accomplishments, we get a better model for looking at everyday activities. It’s akin to saying “the best runners can run a 4 minute mile,” instead of “the best runners are the fastest.”
Anyway, back to everyday stuff: my position is that these activities can be improved — we just don’t know what to shoot for in most cases, and even when we do we’re disinclined to put in the time and effort to build that expertise.