Do experts have to be right?

Some of them should be.

(Audio version of this email:

When I rode a small bus from Creel to Batopilas at the bottom of the Copper Canyon in Mexico, the bus driver crossed himself before the scary turns. Most of the turns were scary switchback hairpin turns. (These videos will give you a sense of it: and

In a similar way, I say a small prayer to the expertise of those who have designed crazy bridges before I cross them. The Golden Gate. The Huey Long bridge. Those experts need to have been right in a really objective, serious way.

However, there are other ways that experts can be right. There’s not one universal context in which expertise can be applied, and as a result there are different criteria for what counts as “right”.

Depending on the context, being “right” as an expert could be:

1: Asking the right questions.

2: Generating relative improvement through being right in general about a better way of doing things.

3: Being exactly right about a diagnosis, but sorta-right about the prescription. Or diagnosing well, and having useful first steps for the self-applied prescription.

4: Being right about the direction to move in, but fuzzy about how to get all the way there.

5: Serving as a “tour guide” but not a navigator — having a rich and nuanced understanding of a domain but not prescribing an exact path through that domain.

6: Providing a useful method or framework for navigating complexity.

This might be a sort of “big tent” view of expertise and rightness.

The archetypical story of the value of expertise, according to the delightful Quote Investigator site, comes from this 1908 story in “The Journal of the Society of Estate Clerks of Works” of Winchester, England:



He was the best machinist in the district, and it was for that reason that the manager had overlooked his private delinquencies. But at last even his patience was exhausted, and he was told to go, and another man reigned in his stead at the end of the room.

And then the machine, as though in protest, refused to budge an inch, and all the factory hands were idle. Everyone who knew the difference between a machine and a turnip tried his hand at the inert mass of iron. But the machine, metaphorically speaking, laughed at them, and the manager sent for the discharged employee. And he left the comfort of the “Bull” parlour and came.

He looked at the machine for some moments, and talked to it as a man talks to a horse, and then climbed into its vitals and called for a hammer. There was the sound of a “tap-tap-tap,” and in a moment the wheels were spinning, and the man was returning to the “Bull” parlour.

And in the course of time the mill-owner had a bill:–“To mending machine, £10. 10s.” And the owner of the works, being as owners go, a poor man, sent a polite note to the man, in which he asked him if he thought tapping a machine with a hammer worth ten guineas. And then he had another bill:—“To tapping machine with hammer, 10s.; to knowing where to tap it, £10; total, £10. 10s.”

And the man was reinstated in his position, and was so grateful that he turned teetotaller and lived a great and virtuous old age. And the moral is that a little knowledge is worth a deal of labour.


I love this story and its more condensed descendants. I think we all do.

But it depicts expertise in an unrealistic context.

Sure, there are simple machines out there that respond positively to a few taps with the metaphorical or physical hammer. And the expertise that guides those hammer taps has real value!

But most situations are far more complex than a cranky old machine on a factory floor. Expertise still has value within the context of these complex systems, but expecting “hammer-tap results” from expertise in this context is unrealistic.

I’m not trying to lower the bar on what expertise is, but I am seeking a better understanding of the role and function of expertise within complex systems.

At this point, I’m sure that the “hammer-tap” model of expertise is inadequate. And I’m sure that judging all forms of expertise using the hammer-tap model is unfair.


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REMINDER: The first step towards valuable expertise is specialization. I’m running an 8-week online workshop on specialization, starting May 15. The price is $700 per seat, and attendance is capped at 20 (4 seats are available on a reduced price scholarship basis). My workshops teach you what you need to know, and then push you to take action. Most of the learning comes from the action you take in those 8 weeks and beyond: