Expertise is more than meets the eye

Posted: - Modified: | research

Last Wednesday, I shared this amazing anecdote from a research paper
on expert levels of performance (Ericsson, 1998) about the Italian
violinist, Paganini:

According to my father’s account, during one of his
concerts Paganini experienced a problem—one of the strings on his
violin broke; after a brief pause, he continued playing the music on
the remaining string. A little later another string broke but he still
resumed playing. Yet another strong broke, and Paganini finished
playing the concert on a single string while producing the most
beautiful music. Such a demonstration of an immediate unexpected
reorganization of one’s music performance is mind-boggling.

So what’s the explanation for this amazing feat of genius? Ericsson
went on to explain that in the 19th century, performers generally
composed their own music. Paganini set himself the creative challenge
of composing musical pieces that could be played on only one string,
developing new techniques along the way.

The audience didn’t know that, of course! Paganini started off by
playing the pieces on all strings. Easy enough if you’re used to
playing them on one string! Ever the showman, Paganini would sometimes
intentionally snap the other strings in the course of his performance,
finishing—to great applause—on the single string that he’d planned
all along.

So what seems like a miraculous gift is really more about lots and
lots of practice and preparation, with a little bit of trickery thrown

Now I have a sneaky suspicion that I’ve seen this trick before. Not
only that, but I completly fell for it too! I was in Tokyo watching a
shamisen performance. In the middle of a frenzied passage, the
plectrum a blur over the instrument’s three strings, snap! went one of
the strings. Not a problem! He adjusted the tuning peg and kept on
playing! I was *so* impressed. But now I’m onto you, Mr. Shamisen
Player. You probably break strings all the time while practicing. You
might have even been playing a one-string piece and had snapped your
strings intentionally to impress us. Hah!

Do we have anything like that in IT? What’s our one-string piece with
which we can astound other people?

Ericksson, K. A. (1998) “The scientific study of expert levels of
performnance: general implications for optimal learning and
creativity.” High Ability Studies, 9(1), pp75—100

Random Emacs symbol: comint-within-quotes – Function: Return t if the number of quotes between BEG and END is odd.

Follow up: JM Ibanez

and from Paul Lussier:

Practice can’t account for all of it, actual, real life experience
handling catastrophes and routing around unforseen problems on the fly
helps a lot :)

Paganini obviously knows his music and his instrument to such a level
that he’s able to pull this type of thing off. But anyone so versed
in music could do the same thing. Ever listen to extemporaneous “jam
sessions” from the likes of Eric Clapton, BB King, Jimi Hendrix, Joe
Satriani, Pat Methany? They’re all unbelievable guitarists who can
make the guitar do things you never even dreamed possible.

My manager, at 2:00am, faced with a dual drive failure in a mirrored
system running an ancient, monolithic, non-moduler Linux kernel
specially compiled with certain drivers long since lost, pulled off an
unbelievable feat of grafting a very recent, very moduler 2.6 kernel
from a Knoppix CD onto this system and was able to get it back up and
serving NFS long enough to move the entire terabyte array to a new

It’s the same thing. Years of practice and familiarity coupled with
knowing *what’s* possible, then working around catastrophe using this
knowledge and experience!

Someday you’re going to pull off the impossible too, but it won’t seem
so hard to you. It will just be “the natural thing to do” given the
circumstances at the time. To everyone else, it’ll be a miracle :)

Remember what Arthur C. Clark said:

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinquishable from magic.”

Where “sufficiently advanced technology” can be defined as any area in
which you are more expert than the average person :)

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