Expertise and the importance of humility

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Zane Hershey
  • 3rd Airlift Squadron commander

“It is impossible for a man to learn what he thinks he already knows.” — Epictetus

Over my time in the Air Force, I have constantly pursued expertise in various domains (athletics, aviation, leadership, academic endeavors, etc.). There were times when I was behind my peers in gaining mastery of a certain skill (e.g., air refueling!!!). At other times, I achieved levels of expertise ahead of those with more flying hours or years of experience. In that same span of time, I’ve also seen a common misconception that experience equals expertise.

Our expertise is foundational to providing “airpower anytime, anywhere.” Experience does not equal expertise.

Experience, as defined by Merriam-Webster is, a: direct observation of or participation in events as a basis of knowledge, or b: the length of such participation.

Likewise, expertise is defined as elite, peak, or exceptionally high levels of performance on a particular task or within a given domain.

Do not get me wrong, some degree of experience is required to achieve expertise. However, the passage of time does not make an expert. We’ve likely all encountered people in various career fields who have reached a point where their motivation ended, they began to over-assume their abilities and they stopped progressing. Those individuals continued to accrue experience, but failed to turn that experience into true mastery. The biggest difference between experience and expertise is the concept of practice (the actual application or use of an idea, belief, or method, as opposed to theories relating to it).

An individual could spend years on a baseball team sitting on the bench game after game, idling through training, and accumulating experience. This person might gain a great deal of insight about the game of baseball: the rules, the patterns and the strategies. At the same time, without constant and meaningful practice to determine strengths and uncover weaknesses, this same person could still be a terrible baseball player, with zero understanding of their own skillsets and not a single step closer to expertise.

For us, expertise means using each opportunity we get to discover our weaknesses, focus our energy and take meaningful steps toward mastery. As Airmen, expertise is the expectation. We are sculpted toward mastery in a career field the moment we enter the Air Force…but expertise is not guaranteed or permanent. Gaining and maintaining mastery requires diligence and, most importantly, humility. We all gain our skills in a certain context or environment, but we will not operate in the dated context of yesterday in this ever-changing world. If we buy into our own hype, we’ll start to lose focus and over-assume the relevancy of our (potentially) once-great skills...or we’ll stop well short of expertise thinking we’ve already arrived.

Humility is the enemy of complacency. A humble mind is considerably more open and malleable, more capable of maintaining the razor-sharp edge that our demanding missions require. Humility helps us admit that we, and our little slice of the overall mission, can always improve. Humility prevents us from saying “I’ve been doing this for 3 (or 15 or 20) years, and this is the way it’s always been done.”

Are you simply accruing hours of “experience” letting the clock tick by in an ego-insulated comfort-zone or are you maintaining self-awareness through humility and pushing yourself and those around you toward true “expertise”?