What experts do: Curse of the intermediate

A framework for what separates those whose skills continue to build and those who stall out no matter how much they try.

We all know the Curse of Expertise — that thing that makes most experts awful at imagining what it’s like to be a novice. The Curse of Expertise makes tech editors weep and readers seethe. “Where’s the empathy?!” we say, as if the expert had a conscious choice. But they mostly don’t. The Curse of Expertise is not a problem for which MOAR EMPATHY is the solution. Experts don’t lack empathy; they lack the security clearance to the part of their brain where their cognitive biases live. Subconscious cognitive biases. And those biases don’t just make us (experts) fail at predicting the struggle of novices, they can also make us less likely to see novel solutions to well-worn problems.

But given a choice to suddenly be an expert or a novice, we’d pick Curse of the Sucks-To-Be-Me Expert over Curse of the I-Suck-At-This Novice. There’s a third curse, though. The mastery curve is, of course, not binary, but a continuum from first-time to Jiro-Dreams-Of-Sushi. And there in the middle? The Curse of the Intermediate. The Curse of the Intermediate is the worst because it’s the place where hopes and dreams of expertise go to die. The place where even the most patient practicer eventually believes they just don’t have what it takes.

We expect beginners to struggle. We have resources for newbies. We hold their hands. We have special books, courses, tools, quick-start guides, code playgrounds. We work hard to be welcoming and inclusive. Yes, in the tech world, we’ve gotten far better at helping people with those first nano-steps.

And then we push them off a cliff with a cheerful, “print yourself some 3D wings on the way down!”

Experts, on the other hand, don’t need much help from us.

But what happens in the middle — in that vast space between novice and expert — determines most of what matters to us and our users, students, kids, and employees. The Curse of the Intermediate is where we get stuck. The Curse of the Intermediate is the plateau of slow, steady, ultimately soul-crushing frustration. If we want to develop our own skills to a high level, or help our users keep getting better, we must learn how experts actually break past the Curse of the Intermediate (also known as “The Intermediate Blues”). And what experts do is typically the opposite of what most of us do when building our own skills or helping our users build theirs.

Those who develop deep expert skills do a few things differently than what most of us do. My recent book Badass: Making Users Awesome looks at all of those differences. But this excerpt looks at only one of them; it’s the one that helps free us from the Intermediate Blues.

This excerpt is the first part of a section on What Experts Do. Later chapters detail other aspects of how expertise develops, including some surprisingly counterintuitive unconscious pattern acquisition. But this excerpt defines the framework for what separates those whose skills continue to build and those who stall out no matter how much they keep trying to improve.

If you’ve ever wondered why someone you worked or played with kept getting better at [X] while you worked just as hard but stalled out, the science of expertise has a huge chunk of the answer. And it’s one we can all apply — for ourselves and our users — starting now.

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