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Expertise in the Wild

When I was in Laos and could afford things like books, I imported several hundred books. It cost twenty or thirty dollars a book for shipping, but I was buying first editions of important books on blues and music history. I had amassed quite a library. So much so, in fact, that when I was working on a specific project related to the blues and needed to reference something I was able to go to my bookshelf, pick up a book, and check the reference. I had a library on the subject at my fingertips and could access the information whenever I wanted. It was an exciting experience and ever since I've lost that library--due to insects--I've longed to repeat it.

Related, I've known for several years about a concept called career capital. I don't know if Cal Newport coined it, but in his book So Good They Can't Ignore You, he discusses the idea that the way we become experts and get ahead in our careers is by becoming experts and developing our human capital through experience and increased sectoral knowledge. Then, with increasing skills we are able to leverage better wages, positions, titles, etc. in exchange for our previously developed human capital. Our career capital.

Knowing about this idea, and even thinking it was a good one, has left me with a lingering feeling that I wanted something like it. I had seen expertise in college, professors who could talk about a given period of history or the way that light and sound could be manipulated by specific rules to seemingly form art at random, but I had never seen this thing called expertise outside of academia. My experiences with mental illness and employment had left me with little exposure to anyone who actually knew what they were talking about or who was capable of displaying the expertise that Newport was talking about.

But this week, everything changed.

We have a client who we are working with to review a transactional structure. We initially worked through one structure and thought that would work, but the client changed some of the underlying information and our team decided to change the recommended structure. My boss hadn't followed every step of the process but realized that we had changed the structure we were recommending. He called a meeting to discuss why we changed the structure and what it meant.

On Friday morning we went into the conference room, which is always about five degrees colder than the rest of the office, and we began to discuss the issue. The discussion wasn't intended for me--as my boss knows my knowledge of Vietnamese law was limited--but for the other members of the team who had developed the new structure. As such, the conversation was in Vietnamese. I wasn't able to follow every nuance but I got enough that I was able to recognize that I was witnessing something I'd never seen before: expertise in the wild.

I imagine it's somewhat the way a wildlife photographer feels when they find and film an elusive white tiger or some other mythical animal. A sudden recognition, a rush of excitement, almost a feeling of adrenaline in your veins. Like you've just seen something that very few people have ever witnessed and that you were suddenly a different person because of it.

As the discussion progressed, my boss pulled out of thin air the requirements for several different types of contracts, agency, sale and purchase, etc., and applied them to the situation we were currently in, working through all of the repercussions and implications of each in relation to the facts of our client's situation. Not really involved with the conversation, I was able to wonder at what I was seeing. My boss actually knew what he was talking about. He didn't just come across a new situation and look up the law, he knew the law. He knew it so well he could pick things apart and apply it without hesitation. He was an expert.

It was my blues library in his brain. He had the ability to walk to the bookshelf in his brain and pick up the relevant book and look up the information he needed without having to order new books or look up information online. He could do it all in an instant. He understood everything related to the issues and he knew what he was talking about with absolute certainty. He possessed something that I suddenly felt I wanted. He had the career capital that Newport talked about, and he had it in spades.

The meeting ended and I went about my business. Later in the day, we had an inquiry about something I had developed a small expertise in by writing blog posts on the issue. I was capable to respond in fifteen minutes with a detailed and in-depth five or six-paragraph email that covered the issues and the developments with minimal reference to source documents. It was my own expertise, and though it was a small area, it was something I could do and could do well. It was a microcosm of what my boss had demonstrated earlier in the day.

What if I could expand that expertise? What if I could know the law the way my boss knew the law and could respond as easily to any question or inquiry related to the issues I worked on in the same way he could? What if I developed my own career capital and became a self-fulfilled expert in the wild?

It was a new vision of possibilities. A trait in someone I looked up to that I wanted to emulate. I can't remember the last time that happened. Probably back when I was still in the church and obsessed with becoming the best Mormon I could be. But even then, the heroes were distant, prophets and historical figures, not someone I saw every day and interacted with regularly. Not only was this a new experience, a new discovery, but a new future lay before me.

I had been contemplating applying to graduate school, going to get advanced degrees in creative writing. It would be an opportunity to work on things I enjoyed--writing and reading--and find a way to supply myself with an eventual income. It was an idea I had developed during depression, however, and I had subsequently found my enthusiasm for the idea waning. Six years of school, living off minimal amounts of money when I can already write and I'm actively working towards the goal of publication already. Yes, I might become a better writer, and yes, I might meet some people who know some people who know publishers, but was six years investment worth that possibility? Especially when, now, I saw a path towards something that I know I wanted that could happen in less time and with a greater income?

Other factors came into my contemplation, mental health, relationships, my changing attitude towards my current country of residence. When I'm depressed, I want to leave Vietnam. When I feel good, I want to stay. The same is true of everywhere I've lived. Leaving Vietnam is not going to change the way I react when I'm depressed. I have to assume that I'm going to be depressed less than I'm going to feel good and commit to the place I'm in because the same thing is going to happen no matter where I live. Other things, too. All of them came together as I thought through this. For committing to expertise--something I doubt I would truly obtain by getting a Ph.D. in creative writing--would mean committing to a certain life and a certain place.

I thought about this, discussed it with a friend, and am now convinced that this is the life I want. I want to have expertise. I want what my boss has. To do that will take a great deal of effort. Learning and memorizing and incorporating the law into my heart, practice with clients, effort that I haven't exerted since I was in law school. But it is something that I want. I want it more than I've wanted most anything in my life. Perhaps it's a testimony to the power of mentorship, but it's something that is deeper and more compelling than even my desire to get published. It is a light, a fire underneath me, and it has the ability to drive me to heights of purpose and direction I haven't ever experienced before.

So, in a day or two when I confirm some things with my mental health, I'm going to commit to this. I'm going to commit to Vietnam and to the life of expertise that I have long thought I wanted but only now understood what it meant. I'm going to put in the effort and the work necessary to become an expert and to be able to opine on relevant matters with ease and relish. I'm going to become an expert in the wild.

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