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Expertise in the Age of YouTube

date Nov 11, 2019
authors Ed Bradon
reading time 5 mins
category blog

Online communities are getting better at being an expert

online communities have started unlocking the secrets for getting good, fast. With the advent of Beauty YouTube, viewers by their million have mastered techniques which used to be the preserve of professionals

Deliberate structured practice

Anders Ericsson, for example, studied master violinists and concluded that what matters is not just the volume of practice, but its quality. The best sort is “deliberate”: structured, effortful, with a purpose. A violinist who attacks the hardest parts of their pieces over and over again will learn much faster than one that pleasantly breezes through the easy bits, even if the latter puts in a lot more time. Better still is a coach to guide you

High validity environments

In 2009, Gary Klein and Daniel Kahneman argued that true expertise can only be inculcated in “high-validity” environments—that is, environments where the relationship between contextual cues, actions, and outcomes is stable enough to be learned. Low-validity environments such as financial markets or politics don’t afford the same opportunities for learning. Expertise built on their shifting sands is liable to collapse (although that doesn’t stop stock pickers and political pundits accruing all of its trappings in money, status, and (over)confidence).

Growth mindset

Other researchers have explored the internal conditions for expertise: What makes someone stick around for the grinding hours of effortful practice? Carol Dweck has shown that the mindset you approach this practice with makes a big difference… By contrast, a growth mindset understands ability as the product of effort. As well as being closer to the mark vis-à-vis the facts, this mindset keeps you motivated in a way that transforms learning and performance over the long term. Relatedly, Angela Duckworth has famously made the case that character can matter just as much as raw talent in cultivating expertise. Some combination of resilience, conscientiousness, and grit seems to be essential.


The first step towards greatness is realizing that, right now, you’re perhaps not very good at all.

Mediocrity or excellence?

when examples of real expertise are rare, mediocrity begins to look like excellence. This “judgment creep” can inate our perceptions of our own skill and put a brake on progress.

Facing tougher talents around you

A rite of passage for rising talents is having these illusions about your present abilities (repeatedly) punctured as you encounter better peers and tougher competitors. You need some blue dots to benchmark yourself to.

High validity environments online

But it’s enough to observe that likes, shares, and comments provide their own form of the rapid and quantified feedback found “high-validity” environments.

How online learning works on YouTube, Reddit or Instagram

There will be multiple YouTube channels with step-by-step tutorials, surprisingly constructive comments sections, and rapidly improving production values. They will all be free. There will be Reddit communities with tips, war stories, and memes. If you post a question, or a report on your progress, dozens of strangers will offer you personalized advice and encouragement. Most of them will be polite. And there will be Twitter and Instagram feeds full of inspirational examples, suggestions, and reminders.

How it starts and then progresses

All of these will be connected to each other. A glancing encounter with one is enough; the familiar magic of cross-promotion, algorithmic recommendations, and “like, comment, and subscribe” will do the rest. Before long, you can be consuming your own personalized curriculum in convenient, tweet-sized chunks. And if you get really into it, you can start contributing your own stories, advice, and YouTube instructionals. Friendships, career opportunities, and monetizable content await.

Personal coaching is still valuable

One of the few remaining bottlenecks to getting really good, one which has not yet had its marginal costs driven to zero, is personal coaching. While we can learn a lot through our own study, it is hard to substitute for an experienced mentor who can watch what we’re doing and tell us exactly where we’re going wrong. This matters particularly if you want to break into the higher echelons: an undiagnosed bad habit can put a ceiling on your performance, however hard you work.

What is the potential?

First is the emerging truth that we can, by putting a few basic elements in place, move large groups of people quickly up the learning curve of almost anything. The potential here is mostly untapped. Many well-paid professionals spend their days in meetings, but receive less feedback on how well they’re doing in them in a year than they might get from playing a video game for an hour after work. Most of us would struggle to say what sort of deliberate practice we do to get better at our jobs

What next after potential?

The second reason for optimism is less instrumental, and more about what increasing the quantity of mastery in the world does for us in itself. Human flourishing rests not just on money, or pleasure, but on possessing status, dignity, and autonomy.

Pursuit of excellence for the sake of it is futile

The pursuit of excellence for its own sake gives us a way off the merry-go- round. There doesn’t appear to be a ceiling on the number or specificity of domains of human skill around which communities can form, skills can be sharpened, and progress shared