What Makes an Expert? Thoughts From a Memory Champion

Joshua Foer, author of Moonwalking With Einstein, speaks about what it means to be unusually good at a very specific skill


Since the dawn of Freakonomics, authors have been studying radical expertise, and author Joshua Foer's book Moonwalking with Einstein is another such paean to practice. But his speech on what makes an "expert" was an odd exercise for the audience at the 99 Percent Conference today, since we had been treated to a succession of them over the last two days. They seem normal enough.

If you imagine Foer's book as one of those info-tablets you'd find on a railing at a zoo, it's tempting to want the hard specs about this species of "expert" human for comparison. A cheetah can run 60 MPH; dolphins can stay submerged for 10 minutes. The expert-expert Foer, it turns out, can memorize the order of a 52-card deck in around a minute and 40 seconds.

For a crowd so invested in methodology, you might expect awe at Foer's memorization feat—especially considering the year of practicing he endured with a mental gymnastics club here in New York, and the Memory Champion title he won while writing his book. But as it turns out, Foer has a handicap: He's American. Elsewhere in the world, where memorization is apparently considered less lame of a hobby, mental gymnasts routinely memorize the same 52-card deck in about one-third the time. Most Americans have trouble breaking a minute.

The reward for vanquishing a mental barrier, it seems, is a mean case of hindsight, more competitors, and new, taller barriers. Foer cites Roger Baninster's four-minute mile on this day in 1954, and the scores of runners who've achieved it since. Once people get over their mental blocks, he says, "What seems like an impenetrable barrier often becomes a floodgate."

Back in the zoo, this was not auspicious news. Consider the following example. Every expert who appeared on stage at the conference has an indefatigable online presence: hundreds of followers, thousands of tweets, scores of blog posts and online portfolios. But it's hard to learn much of anything from their example, except to say that some people are far better at the Internet than you and I. (Did they become experts before their following, or are they considered experts because of it?)

Sadly, as new benchmarks are forged for online influence and Ashton Kutcher's Twitter followership tops 6.6 million, there is no rising tide bringing the rest of us up to speed. The speed of it tends to diminish the enthusiasm of newcomers, many of whom came to the 99 Percent Conference to figure out how to channel their creativity into an online venue where people will listen. Later in the day, social media expert Soraya Darabi summarized it nicely: "We know we're supposed to be out there," she said. Clicking, tweeting, liking, reblogging. But why, regardless of age or education, do some of us need to be taught all this? And why do others dive right in?

According to Foer, the medium is not the message. "Experts have one thing in common," he said in closing. "They all crave feedback."

Image: Andy Welsher/flickr