expertise |ˌekspərˈtēz; -ˈtēs|
comprehensive and authoritative knowledge of or skills in a particular field.
I was thrown off guard last year at a cocktail party when I got brave enough to admit to a person I had just met that my passion is writing. Saying “My passion is writing,” isn’t exactly like claiming to be a writer. It’s like saying, “Writing is my hobby,” or “I like to write, but I’ve never been paid to do it, except for that $50 I won in a contest once.”
My courage isn’t what threw me, it was the follow-up question (meant to be innocuous) my acquaintance asked next, “What’s your area of expertise?”
“What? Umm. I . . .”
I had never been asked that before. We were standing with my friend who had introduced us moments earlier. He quickly offered a rescue attempt, “—-with your writing.”
I raised my eyebrows, “I . . . ”
My friend continued, “He wants to know what you write about.”
I wish I had made something up. Pop Culture. Currently, I’m working on ideological parallelism and corresponding postmodern stagnation in Simon’s The Wire.
Yeah. I didn’t do that. I said, “Oh. An experteeeeese. I should really work on developing one of those, shouldn’t I? Do you think it’s too late?”
Both men I was speaking to had been tenured professors for well over a decade. They’d found their areas of expertise at an age when I was imploring my college mates to, “Please, sit down when you do whippits!”
The three of us skipped on to a new topic, but the question has remained with me. Since then, I’ve spent hours thinking and writing about what it means to be 42 and unable to answer the question: What is my area of expertise?
Why does “being good at something” feel important? Is it just an ego-driven thing? The questions are too numerous to list here and now . . . so I’ll offer a little story in the meantime.
When I was a girl, I thought that all golfers shot in the low seventies the way my dad did. Occasionally, he’d come home mentioning a score in the high sixties, and I’d attempt to console him, “It’s okay, Dad, you’ll bring that up in no time.” When it finally sank in that lower is better in golf, I thought I had the inside scoop.
The one time I tagged along while Dad played a round, I was in my mid-twenties. We’d been paired up to play with three strangers — one older, well-dressed man, and a couple of buddies in their thirties who looked like they were on a field trip away from the office. It didn’t take more than two or three holes before the younger men began asking Dad for pointers. This is a service Dad got paid well for at the time, but he obliged with a few tips.
The older fellow though, he kept to himself. It seemed as if he had no control over the ball whatsoever — consistently planting it among bushes or trees. Invariably, Dad and the younger two would end up making the shot in a reasonable number of strokes, and then we’d all sit waiting for the older gentleman to continue attempting to get anywhere near the hole.
At first I felt sorry for the guy, but as the afternoon went on, I grew sort of in awe of him. He kept playing without appearing to be irritated or embarrassed. He got a lot of exercise retrieving those wayward hits. When I watched him, I realized that each time he powered on with his best effort, he demonstrated a kind of bravery I’d not witnessed before.
Later, I asked Dad, “How could he continue on knowing that we were all watching?” Dad assured me it was an ordinary situation, “You see that all the time.”
I couldn’t fathom how an ego could stand that type of bruising. It didn’t occur to me that one (particularly an older person) might practice something they’re new at without suffering any insecurity at all. Where did I get the idea that having relatively fewer skills at a task was something to be ashamed of?
TO BE CONTINUED
Previous editions of Masochism, Chess and Expertise can be found here:
- Masochism, Chess and Expertise: Part One
- Masochism, Chess and Expertise: Part Two
- Masochism, Chess and Expertise: Part 2.1
- Masochism, Chess and Expertise: Part 2.2
November — NaBloPoMo — Day Thirty!