Bowling with your fingers in the ball

A few of us have been challenging ourselves on whether or not we’re “bowling with our fingers in the ball.” It’s a catchphrase representing the pursuit of learning from others to advance towards professional competency - instead of plateauing in the beginner stages of a skill.

This idea was introduced in “The Expert Beginner” by Erik Dietrich. In it, he uses the analogy of bowling to describe a trap that people can fall into in their journey to master a skill.

Modified Dreyfus model

The analogy in short: Imagine you go bowling by yourself, but you don’t put your fingers in the ball. At first, you don’t do very well. But if you're athletic and with some luck, you quickly get better. In fact, you get so good that you consistently bowl around 160. And if there's no one around you to tell you how to do otherwise, no one around you bowling better than you, you might mistakenly believe that's the best anyone can bowl. Without learning from others, the Beginner progresses into the purgatory state of Expert Beginner (instead of Expert). In their mind, 160 isn't just good, it's the best.

Identifying Expert Beginners

Find people who:

  • think they are really good at something
  • and have stopped learning from others

Maintaining Expertise

Even if you once were the best of the best, the rest of the world keeps improving; and if you stand still, they will pass you by. This is okay for hobby skills, or things you do for fun, but not for skills needed for your profession or passion.

Avoiding Purgatory

To borrow from Lean Startup, the solution to avoid or escape purgatory is to Get Out of The Building! Go to conferences, go to training. Better yet, present at a local conference. Run an experiment with your team on a new practice. The options are endless, but most of them involve getting out and learning what other experts are doing.