From Novice to Expert and Back Again

It was about six years ago. My daughter was about to leave for college on the West Coast. We were at a goodbye dinner with my college friend, Claire and her daughter Rachel hosted by Marie, Claire’s mom and my former boss. As the meal wound down, Marie invited us into the living room. There she began to what only can be described as “hold forth.”

You’re about to start a great adventure, she ostensibly told my daughter, but her tone included all of us. You are leaving high school. Right now you are an expert in high school. You know all the people, all the rules, all the ways to get around and get by. You know these things so well, you don’t even know you know them.

When you get to your new school, you will be a novice. You won’t know anyone. You won’t know where to go or what the rules are. You will make mistakes. The simplest things will seem hard. You will get frustrated. You’ll get scared. You’ll be angry with yourself. Things will feel wrong. You’ll worry this is a sign you made the wrong choice. You’ll think you chose the wrong school or you shouldn’t have moved so far away.

It’s not true.

It’s just new.

It feels great to be an expert. Life is easy and you are confident and comfortable. You feel powerful. But it can get dull and eventually, you begin to stagnate.

It feels awful to be a novice. You feel stupid, vulnerable and awkward. It’s hard. It can be exhausting. That’s just the way it is. But eventually, as you get more familiar with things you become more comfortable and soon you are an expert again, only in this new thing.

The sooner you recognize that process – from expert through the discomfort of novice back to expert – the better off you will be. Because it never ends. You’re always be a novice at something.*

And with that, she shooed us all – Veronica about to move to college, me about to become an empty-nester, Rachel facing high school, Claire starting a new job – out the door. I don’t know what their drive back home was like, but Veronica and I were a bit stunned by the depth and simplicity of what we’d just heard.

That little speech has stuck with me. It has been a huge help as I have moved through many changes over the years. I remember it with a smile when I suddenly can’t remember how to work a mouse at my new job. I remind my daughter of it when she moves to a new apartment in a new city and the thrill and adrenaline have worn off.

I’ve been starting new, scary things and dropping old, familiar things lately. Again.  I’m in leadership roles, both formal and informal, in organizations going through big changes. Again. People I am close to are moving on and up and out. Like always. More and more I find myself emotionally and mentally stepping back and watching how people – me included – are dealing with those changes.

Change has always been with humanity; we have always had to move from novice to expert to novice again. And we have always railed against it. But I wonder if the cycle has shortened. Or maybe gotten messier.

Certainly the internet has changed what it means to be an expert. Being an expert used to mean having special, secret knowledge, knowledge you could give or withhold as you deemed the novice worthy. Think apprenticeships. It’s pretty much the basis of most educational, religious and medical institutions.

We are now used to the idea of being “life-long learners.” Just going to college in your 20s isn’t enough anymore. Adults go back to school for advanced degrees. Professionals need CEUs to stay current on the newest thinking and latest research. People take college and community education classes for fun and profit.

We are used to being both novices and experts. As much as we may know, there is almost always someone out there who may know more, someone we can learn from. Thanks to the internet, knowledge is freely available, to both expert and novice. Thanks to social media, novice and expert can now theoretically talk to each other.

But we still love our hierarchies. I may need to learn from him, but you need to learn from me.

Now experts need to do more than just pass knowledge on. They need to curate and interpret knowledge. They need to combine this knowledge with that knowledge, with this situation and most importantly with their own experience. Which means that in any given situation, I might be both expert and novice.

That upsets our hierarchies.

When my daughter was very young, she was in and out of the hospital – intensive care to be specific – a lot. One day, a young doctor and I got into a disagreement. She was trying to tell me what my 18 month needed me to do at home. I knew would not work with this 18 month old. The doctor was adamant it was protocol and needed to be done. I honestly don’t remember what it was now, but I do remember each of us getting very frustrated with the other. An older doctor joined us and asked me what I thought would work. “The mother is always the expert on the child,” he told us both. I may not have had medical knowledge, but I had Veronica knowledge, and we needed both to solve the problem.

Being expert and novice simultaneously is hard. You have to be comfortable and confident in what you know, but willing to risk feeling stupid, uncomfortable and vulnerable when faced with what you don’t know. We need to be expert enough at being ourselves that we can move from one position to the other with ease. The sooner we can do that, the better off we’ll be, because it never ends.


* Not direct quote.

One thought on “From Novice to Expert and Back Again

  1. I do believe, Miss Beth, you have just changed my thinking! Thank you for sharing Marie’s amazing wisdom, she never ceases to amaze me. And you, for putting life into a nutshell for me, life will never be the same!

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