Daniel W. Drezner

So you want to become an expert…..

So you want to become an expert…..

I received the following e-mail query today: 

What I am wondering is; how did you become an expert in your field? I understand that you obviously went to college and probably got all sorts of degrees but how did you know when you were an expert in your field of knowledge?… So did you get all of your knowledge from your research while in school, or do you just read a large amount of books on whatever interests you?

This is one of those questions that sounds incredibly simplistic and yet is impossible to answer in a pithy manner. 

I mean, sure, I got a few degrees.  And I suppose getting a Ph.D. allows you to call yourself an expert over a very limited domain of knowledge.  In truth, however, I’ve met many, many people with doctorates who are truly quite dim about great many things (important safety tip:  never buy a book from someone who puts “Ph.D.” after their name in a book).   I’m dim about a spectacular number of things.  So even expertise is quite limited in its domain. 

That said, how does one become an expert without going to the Dagobah system?  There’s no one way and there’s no one answer.  Here are ten ways to acquire expertise about world politics (WARNING:  does not necessarily apply to other fields of knowledge):

1)  Go to school.  There are people out there who are self-taught wunderkinds, capable of long, brilliant disquisitions about the intricacies of international relations after reading Thucydides just once.  There’s a 99% chance that you are not one of these people.  For you and almost everyone else, the path to expertise is paved through college and graduate school.  So go forth and take courses on these subjects. 

2)  Read a lot.  I mean, read a whole damn lot.  Don’t just read the books and articles that are assigned to you in class.  Read the stuff that you notice popping up repeatedly in the footnotes and bibliographies of your assigned reading.  Read the classics.  Read cutting edge work.  Read anything that seems of value.  When you get to the point where you think you’re seeing recurring arguments, then you’re approaching the cusp of expertise. 

3)  Read a newspaper every day and a magazine every week.  World politics and current events are intertwined.  The more you read about daily events, the larger your mental database of interesting events that can be used as raw data when considering various puzzles in world politics. 

4)  Hang around smart people.  Anyone who’s been to graduate school knows that the best education comes from your peers.  While the image of the lonely, eccentric, brlliant grad student is a compelling narrative, it’s also much more common in film than in real life.  You can pick up an awful lot from osmosis by hanging around smart people. 

5)  Never be afraid to ask a question that betrays your ignorance.  One of the smartest political scientists I ever met told me that if I didn’t understand a concept or presentation, odds were good that the majority of other people in the room didn’t understand either.  People who don’t ask questions don’t learn anything. 

6)  Walk the earthYou know, like Cain in Kung Fu.  As recent events suggest, there is an appalling lack of knowledge about how politics function in other countries.  If you can develop a good working knowledge of another country’s language/culture/polity, then you can claim a relative amount of expertise. 

7)  Get a job.  There are oceans of knowledge that cannot be acquired via books, coursework, or peers.  Michael Polanyi labeled these kinds of knowledge as “tacit” – they have to be experienced to be learned.  In world politics, sometimes the best way to learn is to do. 

8)  Grow older.   Aging doesn’t have a lot of upside, but one of the benefits is that you’ve probably done a lot more of items 1-7 than those young whippersnappers people younger than you.  Expertise has a relative quality to it, and as you grow older, you’re likely to have more of it than younger generations.  

9)  Recognize your limits.  True experts don’t just know a lot — they are also aware of the vast oceans of knowledge that they don’t know. 

10)  Quit reading blogs.  They rot your brain and give you cooties.