Are you an expert or an explorer?
One of the distinctions I make in my course on How-To Writing, I talk about the difference between being an expert and an explorer. An expert is someone who is writing from the perspective of what they know, and an explorer is someone who is — well literally — exploring a topic.
I make the distinction because I see my students and clients put off doing something because they think they “don’t kow enough”. And, in writing, it’s often those journeys of discovery that make the most compelling books. The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin, The Julie/Julia Project that became a hit movie. Those authors weren’t ‘experts’ before they started; they simply documented their journey.
But can I be both?
The distinction is pretty easy to understand I think — you already know a lot and you’re writing about it, or you don’t know and you’re exploring.
But a student asked me how can she do both? How can she take both the expert AND the explorer perspective and bring them into her writing? What I proposed she think about is whether she could also be teaching as she is learning. As she’s exploring her topic, can she write a second piece integrating that into a piece of teaching around her topic — perhaps bringing a new context, or some specific new actions to her writing.
Because, in reality, this is how we become an ‘expert’. There’s no magic formula: we simply apply what we learn and continue to add layers of depth and understanding to that knowledge and experience.
Of course, this isn’t something that applies only to writing. I find that in order to teach something, I have to understand it better than I think I do — and the teaching, or explaining, often exposes holes in my knowledge or understanding of the idea. And so I go back to the learning.
Now, let me ask you: is there somewhere that you can apply this concept to your work life? And not necessarily in the context of writing; it could easily apply to anything you do. It’s a lot of fun to be an explorer, but I know it can be even more valuable if we choose to pass on our learning to others. I’d love you to comment and let me know!