Expertise Beyond Validation

I was walking in Rome a few weeks ago. This idea that less educated people with less resources and money built such beautiful buildings was so fascinating to me. Even the most ordinary-looking buildings are constructed with care. They have fantastic arches, curved ceilings. They are a work of art.

We see this pattern everywhere. My favorite writers like Derek Sivers, Paul Graham, and Scott Alexander are not full time authors. The writers who truly changed my perspective and showed me new ways were not just writers, but thinkers. They write, it’s in form of blogs mostly. Each blog post gives a message, and it’s interesting that you don’t need a whole book to convey a message. And there are tons of authors who write books full time but not as good. They can write more being able writing more is not the guarantee to quality.

The same phenomenon happens in software. Programmers outperform full time corporate software engineers. Somehow Excalidraw manages to be faster and more good-looking than Miro, and be open source and free. Of course, I’m not saying the people who build this superior software are not employees of these companies. A lot of these people work there or worked there. The important part is why they can build a better product without having resources these companies can provide?

So there’s definitely something that helps some individuals without validations outperform so-called experts in a topic. I’m calling it validations because in Today’s world it’s more than only certifications. People used to be impressed by university degrees only, now by your employer. While it’s not a common thing that causes this, I think it’s worth to dig deeper.


Pursuing mastery and perfection requires strong motivation. It’s either (a) an external force, as with ancient builders who constructed for the king, or (b) intrinsic motivation. Both of these forces are really strong. The first one sounds very cruel, but this is the same thing that pushes a startup to succeed. They don’t want to die.

Now which motivation is better? Motivated by money or fear and joy? I think the latter is better. Also, money by itself can be a poor motivation sometimes. Money is a proxy to showing value. Building a product is the value. Whenever there’s a chance to go for the real thing, proxies are worthless. Also, most of the time you don’t get paid based on the quality. This decreases the quality in paid work.

This advantage helps the expert tribe to care more about the work. Caring means they make it perfect, not because of the money but because they have unlimited source of motivation. That’s why these projects worth doing, money is not the ultimate goal. It’s the satisfaction.


People coming without any background to a topic to do something don’t know the rules and frameworks. They are there to build something. It’s not about following best practices or showing off your theoretical knowledge. They are flexible to use any technique that works.

This is especially true in software. A lot of companies are just slowed down due to following industry best practices. If you focus on am I using the right pattern instead of is my product good your will be slow. Practices are tools to be used, not the ultimate end goal. Companies can be successful and not follow all the practices. There are a lot of rules, you don’t need all of them. And also there are a lot of things that is not in the industry, but you need it. When you are too focused on what you can do and cannot do you loose the option to invent new techniques. Sometime inventing a new technique is just borrowing from other fields.

So focusing on practical stuff matters. Doing whatever is needed in order to succeed matters. AirBnb founder did the photography of their hosts at the beginning. If they were too rigid about what practices they should follow they would not do this. That’s why it’s so odd to hear this. Other professionals rarely do this.


People working on their own ideas are flexible. They can focus on what they like to do, and can choose to change what they want to do.

The reason writing blog posts is more flexible than writing a book is that you can discover what you want to write as you write. You are free to jump from topic to topic. Even write new topics that discards previous ideas. With a book you need to start with what you want to write.

There’s also the problem of a deadline. For example a software project with a deadline needs to finish on time. When it’s not finished the project manager needs to explain why to their bosses. So they get some more time and push for the project to finish. It’s obvious that a lot of corners are cut here to meet the deadline. But there are also a lot of corners cut in startups. Then why they are different? In startups, it’s so easy to discard previous code and write another version. Reddit did this, they even changed the programming language from Lisp to Python. This requires a lot of sign off and meetings in companies. So if you end up with a half ass work at a company it will be there for a long time. But in a startup, sure no problem just rewrite it next week. Make it better, and have fun.

Fear of Failure

Certified people in a topic tend to fear more from failure. When failure happens it’s like as if their certifications were not valid, which takes away the credibility. Outsiders have nothing to lose. They either have skill and it’s in the result or don’t. If they realize they are not skilled enough is not a bad thing, they practice more. What are you going to do about certifications? Get another one?