The Four Stages of Expertise (In Your Mind)

If you’ve worked in any particular area for some significant amount of time, you have probably noticed that how much you think you know about a subject has changed over time.  This is nothing earth-shattering, and we’ve all had this realization over the course of our lives; it’s come up a lot lately in the course of my career, so I thought I’d share.

When you learn a new topic, your actual knowledge levels starts at a low point and gradually works its way up until you’re an expert (if you’ve lasted that long).  You start with nothing and learn more and more until you get bored and stop.  If you evaluate how much you know at intervals during the process, you’ll see that your self-assessment is more of wave than the straight(er) line of actual knowledge.

Stage 1 – “I know nothing.”

You know very little or nothing about a subject.  You may have just been introduced to the subject, or, perhaps, you may have read a little bit about it.  In any case, you know in your mind that you know nothing but are willing to learn.

Example:  Let’s think about the first time someone talked to you about a hub.  You probably knew it was how to get your LAN party rolling, but you really didn’t know how it worked.

Stage 2 – “I know everything.”

This is where a lot of people spend most of their time on a particular subject.  You’ve read up on a subject or taken a class, and you assess your knowledge as very high.  The truth, though, is that you’re just starting your learning experience.  The term “knows enough to be dangerous” applies to this stage.

Example:  You now know what a switch is and that it uses MAC addresses to send packets between two hosts on the same network*.

*  Using less specific and/or accurate terms is a sure sign someone is in stage 2.

Stage 3 – “I was very wrong; I know nothing about this subject.”

After spending a while in stage 2, you have a moment of enlightenment where you realize the cosmos is a lot bigger than you are.  Your self-assessment has dropped to a very low level when you finally see all the details that you’ve been missing all these months or years.  When you get around to studying seriously about a subject, you spend most of your time here learning and realizing how much is ahead of you.

Example:  You now know that a switch does a lot more than you thought – trunks, VLANs, STP, CAM tables, backplanes, fabrics, etc.

Stage 4 – “Experts keep telling me I’m an expert.”

You’re self-assessment is still pretty low from stage 3, but you hear that you are a subject matter expert in the eyes of the learned.  I’m talking about people who you know as experts calling on you for help.  As you get more and more accolades from your peers, your self-assessed level grows and grows.  It may be years or decades before you begin this stage, and most of us will never reach this stage.  Of course, you are never finished learning, so this stage lasts into infinity.

Example:  You’ve just been asked to write the next book on mega-super-advanced switching.

Send any lunisolar date calculations questions to me.

Aaron Conaway

I shake my head around sometimes and see what falls out. That's what lands on these pages.

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5 comments for “The Four Stages of Expertise (In Your Mind)

  1. April 19, 2011 at 8:49 pm

    Great write up. I feel like these stages are pretty accurate in describing the transition of a network engineer. They could even apply to almost any career field. I definitely realized in my current CCNP studies that I was wrong and I don’t know anything.

    It seems like everyday I learn a little more about how much I don’t know.

  2. April 19, 2011 at 9:19 pm

    It’d be nice to transition to stage 4 at some point! Guess that’s why I’m reading these blogs and listening to Packet Pushers. One of the things that I really love about networking is that there seems to be no end to what you can learn if you’re really interested.

  3. April 19, 2011 at 10:29 pm

    This is great. I will be emailing this to all my staff, then bundling it into my next round of staff reviews 😉

    Keep up the good work.


  4. dlots
    April 20, 2011 at 5:34 pm

    Hmm I seem to have skipped from 1-3 without ever seeing 2… and now I am sad cause 2 looked fun 🙁

  5. True
    April 25, 2011 at 3:04 pm

    Nice article. I’ve felt this exact thing so many times. You think you know a lot….you dive deeper only to realize you truly don’t know how it all works.

    Good to know other think and feel the same way.

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