The Best in Their Field: What Top Experts Look Like

I was watching a talk by Stephan T. Lavavej (pictured left with his cat) who is one of the many academics whose work I admire, and I was struck by the thought that I would’ve never guessed he was as brilliant as he is if I ran into him on the street and had a brief conversation. I’m not sure what I expected an expert in the field of computer science to look or act like, but somehow I had an expectation of some visual representation of super-human ability.

In reality, the common characteristics of experts seem to be the opposite of dramatic super-human grandiosity:

  • Modesty. Genuine modesty takes many shapes, but to me the most common is a kind of calm confidence in action. It may seen strange to say that modesty requires confidence, but again I’m not talking about the fake kind of boastful confidence, but the internal one that comes from a lifelong pursuit of specialized perfection.
  • Makes everything look easy. Another misleading quality of an expert is it often looks like you can do what they are doing just as well if you “tried”, because they make it all look so damn easy. This is especially the case in many sports.
  • Strange. Getting good at anything requires a singular focus, and so the result of that pursuit (over a period of years) is that some aspects of the person’s behavior (physical and/or mental) becomes “underdeveloped”. A common and obvious example is general social awkwardness. Then again, it could be argued that this may be a contributing cause of brilliance, not its effect.

In sports, the visual footprint of hard training is often clearer due to the muscular body it produces. And yet, even in sports, the very best often look to be in no better shape than the barely-active beer-loving bar dweller. A good example of that is Fedor Emelianenko (pictured right) who is widely considered to be one of the greatest fighters of all time. If you watch video of him before and after fights, you would probably guess that he couldn’t beat up anyone ever.

In general, the pattern in sports is simple: athleticism at the highest levels is often overcome with flawless technique, and flawless technique doesn’t require a flawless physique. So the top athletes in their sport, somehow, often don’t quite look like what our mind would conjure up (probably influenced by the grandiose visions of Hollywood movies).

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