Skills vs Expertise


Copyright 2002 by Jon Bondy, All Rights Reserved.

You may send copies of this to individual friends, but you may not publish this work without permission

Jon Bondy,


As I grow older, I seem to acquire more and more skills. I am a passable art and nature photographer, and a semi-professional sports photographer; I played volleyball for perhaps ten years, with more enthusiasm than skill, but I know the game quite well, and I even refereed for a while; I acquired the tooling for a machine shop fairly late in life, and now can mill, drill, tap, face and square metal; I have built a 12 foot canoe that weighs only 12 pounds, and it is quite functional; I have had a salt water reef tank for years, and have had an octopus in residence for almost a year; I have written more software than I can enumerate, including physics simulations, heat engine simulations, encryption/decryption, and image processing; and I have played guitar almost all of my adult life, both finger-picking folk and rock lead guitar. Some say I have a modest talent for written expression.

Some people react to my list of skills with a bit more awe than I think is due. After all, what one can do seems simple: it's what others can do that seems mysterious and difficult. Some have even accused me of being a Renaissance Man, a description which seems absurd, given my lack of interest in The Arts (theater, classical music, opera, history, etc). But, no matter how diverse and seemingly unrelated my interests are, they seem to have one common thread. I seem able to, and content to, learn enough to impress others, but not enough to really qualify as an expert.

This struck me first when I was playing volleyball, almost a decade ago. My talents as an athlete are almost immeasurable, but I enjoyed playing (and watching, and photographing) volleyball to the point of obsession. I would play 5 nights a week, and would not hesitate to drive 4 hours to photograph a volleyball tournament. I'm not sure I can explain what excited me so about the sport.

But, being athletically challenged, I had to work at acquiring the physical skills to play. I watched others surpass my level of play in a year or so, while I was putting in my fifth year. It was frustrating, but I enjoyed the game so much that I was more puzzled and surprised at this than annoyed.

It was only after a while that I began to understand that there was another level to the game that I was not experiencing. In fact, it was the “game” itself. I was so stuck on acquiring the skills, that I never was able to start working on strategy or tactics. While others would cheat left and then jump right, to catch their opponents off guard, I just stood in one place and then jumped straight up. While others would block on one side, to force the opponent to hit in a desired direction, I just stood in front of the hitter and jumped.

It slowly dawned on me that, as much as I enjoyed “playing” volleyball, I was not in fact “playing” it at all. I was going through the motions, but I was so un-skilled that I was not able to plan the game and play it at the same time. As strange as it may sound, this came as something of a surprise to me. I was so wrapped up in the physical acts of the game that I never thought about the parts I was not doing.

And this holds true in almost all of my other endeavors.

I have taken many art photographs, but I've only sold 3 in my life. Perhaps I am afraid to put myself out there, for fear that I would be rejected by 6 billion people. It is so much easier to have a hobby than to have a job or a career.

I've used 35 mm B/W and color film cameras (as well as digital cameras, recently), but I've not had much experience with medium-format or large-format cameras; nor with slide film; nor with a large variety of films or chemistries or papers. That is, I'm no expert.

Similarly, while I have sold hundreds or thousands of sports photographs, I sold most of them at $1 per picture, so it would be fair to say that I never made a profit at this. Does making a profit define one? I don't know: I'm not an IRS agent.

I know so much more about metal working than I did a few years ago, and I've spent thousands of dollars on tooling, but I doubt that I could actually build anything but the simplest of devices. Still, most people with a table saw and a cordless drill are astonished at my machine shop, and I do know how to use all of the tools.

I've designed and built a stove-top heat (Stirling) engine, as well as a series of computer simulations of heat engines. This is more than most people do, but I've never built a useful (i.e., powerful) heat engine.

I've had my reef tank for years, and while it looks cleaner than my mentor's tank, things still happen in it that I can neither control nor explain. I could tell you that this is “part of the fun”, but watching animals die is not actually the kind of fun I signed up for. I've given talks about my tank that were described as “better than watching a PBS special”, but I still wonder if I know anything.

And the guitars. I know enough to dazzle people for 30 minutes, but after 45 minutes, I start to repeat, and then become bored. What is novel to the listener, at least at first, is all to familiar to me; I seem to thrive on novelty and drop my lids when things begin to repeat. And I only use one tuning on my guitar, while many “serious” guitarists use a variety of tunings. Being a “rock performer”, even on a small scale, involves so much more than simply “playing guitar”. One must not only play music: one must put on a show. Or, as my father once said, one must get to the point where one can play so easily that one can then take the time to make it look as if the playing is difficult, or inspired, or exciting. One must haul equipment, tolerate smoky bars, and acquiesce to the over-stimulated, late night, drug-filled life that almost inevitably ensues. And the groupies: let's not forget the groupies. Simply enjoying playing guitar does not even begin to get you to the status of “rock performer”.

An old friend of mine, Al, told me the story of an accomplished pianist. After giving a concert, some of the attendees approached the pianist, to congratulate him. One of them said “I've always wanted to be a pianist, like you”, to which the pianist replied “No, you haven't”. There is a world of difference between mere desire and the dogged perseverance that is required to actually achieve mastery of such an instrument. And a pinch of talent does not hinder.

Another friend observed that, at least in athletic events, the difference between a typical, unremarkable performance, and a world-class performance, is about a factor of two. That is, many people can run an 8 minute mile, but almost no one can run a 4 minute mile. Similarly for jumping distances.

When I was in college, an acquaintance of mine asked me to help him set up his hi-fi system. As I messed with the cables and plugs, he asked, enthusiastically, and with apparent sincerity, “What does it feel like to be an electrical genius?” I was struck by how small a glimmer of a clue he possessed.

When I played guitar in college, I had no use for people who said “you are a great guitarist.” Having come from a high-school which was at least twice as large as my college, I knew that my “greatness” was mostly a consequence of my being in a small pond, so I had no use for such praise. On the other hand, people who said “I really enjoyed listening to your music”, now they made my heart sing!

Another friend from college surprised me, a few decades later, by complaining about the number of women I had slept with during my sophomore year. This was puzzling to me, because I had not slept with any women during that year, that I could recall. It turns out that my friend had early morning classes, and consequently went to bed fairly early, say around 11:00. It is true that I had a number of female back-rub pals, who arrived at 10 and often stayed until midnight, but hugs and kisses were the limit of my rewards. So, an accident of timing convinced him that I was a ladies man, while, in face, I was nothing of the sort. Illusion vs reality.

How we perceive ourselves, and how others perceive us, is full of this kind of silliness. It's hard to imagine a time when my accomplishments would make me feel “great”. I suppose that this is a problem of mine, but is it a problem accepting my greatness, or a problem accepting that accomplishments amount to more than a small hill of beans?

So. Anyway. Can you tell me? Were I to tell you that "I play volleyball": what would that mean?