Experts and Craftsmen

Our house is heated with a six-zone, oil-fired hot water heating system. This summer it was time to replace the system. If you visited our furnace room before the replacement, you would have noticed an incomprehensible Rube Goldberg jumble of pipes that somehow got the job done. If our old system needed servicing, it took a technician considerable time just to trace which pipe was going where.

After considering alternatives, we decided on a System 2000 oil boiler because it seemed to promise the most energy savings. When we signed the contract, our salesman told us that he wanted to schedule Pierre to do our job. Pierre had much experience, the salesman explained, and he’d do great work.

On the install day, Pierre and his assistant arrived at 7 AM; they worked steadily to almost 8 PM in the evening so that they could complete the job in one day.

When they were finished, it was clear we had a superior job. Every zone was clearly visible; and where before we had had a jumble of pipes, every pipe was now carefully laid out in parallel lines.

We have had other work done in our house in the past few months, and other craftsmen from other companies have admired Pierre’s work. “You don’t see quality work like this often,” a gas company technician remarked last week.

Pierre’s Genius

Pierre must be in his 50s; he’s accumulated many years of tacit knowledge. Tacit knowledge is different from expert knowledge. Expert knowledge is the kind of knowledge that Pierre would receive in a training class for System 2000 boilers. Tacit knowledge is not easily transferred to others. How do you teach somebody to ride a bike, for instance? Tacit knowledge is only gained through your experience in the world. Tacit knowledge is most rapidly gained by those who are dedicated to practicing their craft.

My wife, Deborah, was lamenting the other day. Thinking aloud, she asked, “Where will the next generation of industrial craftsmen, like Pierre, come from? We no longer seem to value and honor the industrial crafts. We seem to value more those who claim to be experts.”

“Craftsmen like Pierre go to work to add value to others” she explained. “Experts think they are the value.”

Why do we worship self-proclaimed experts? For example, in truth, does President Obama know anything useful? He knows how to win elections. But what craft has he cultivated?  Does he have any particular expertise that would make us want to give him decision-making power on vital areas of our lives? Why would we want to give him power to make decisions for us, decisions that we would not voluntarily make ourselves?

Typically, experts are short on humility. If an expert is one who thinks that he or she is the value, the definition seems to fit President Obama perfectly. The expert who is the value is not likely to consider or learn anything new. They have contempt for anything that they don’t currently believe. They fail to understand the limits of their own mind. In a world of constant change, there is really no such thing as an expert. A good worker in any field of endeavor is really one who is constantly practicing and improving their chosen craft.

It is the Pierres of the world that add value to my life. We had a lot of work done at our house this past summer; I had conversations with many craftsmen. I learned much from them and enjoyed the interactions.

Many years ago, friends of mine had a cousin who worked in the in the administration of President Bush, the elder. My friends were invited to a White House dinner. They declined the invitation. When I asked him why, they replied that they had no interest in going through the trouble to interact with a president who, in their eyes, was a boring and uninteresting person.

I agree. Not that I’m expecting an invitation, but I would have no interest in interacting with President Obama, the expert. President Obama doesn’t value his sworn job to be a steward of the Constitution, and then he interferes with the private concerns of others. Like most politicians, he lacks principles; and thus, he curries favor with special interests while he collects taxes and intrudes on the liberty of others.

I would rather interact with Pierre the craftsmen. Pierre is an authentic man who everyday adds value to others. He does his job, and then minds his own business. Who helps America progress: the expert or the craftsman? For me, the answer is clear.

2 Responses to Experts and Craftsmen

  1. In a fashion, this is like the difference between local knowledge and scientific knowledge. The former is (often) generations of experience, and the latter is theoretical/expert/book learning. I seem to remember an example (I think it was in one of Thomas Sowell’s books) about peanut farmers somewhere in Africa that were given horrible farming advice by outsiders. (I can’t remember whether the advice caused crop failures, or was ignored, or, most likely, a combination of the two.) In any event, I have made that mistake myself, trying to leverage book learning into a job for which hands-on experience would have served me better. Although I didn’t have the option of the years that would have required, it was still hubris on my part.

    • Barry Brownstein says:

      Thanks, Chris. I meet my own hubris almost every day when I think I have an answer and don’t listen with an open mind.

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