The Three Types of Expert on Japan (why 30 years of experience doesn’t equal 30 years of expertise)

3 Japanese kids

Photo courtesy of OMF International

It’s taken a couple of weeks, but I have finally conceded defeat. I give in, it’s true. I have turned 30. It happened and I can’t undo it.

I am however a bit disappointed. I don’t feel 30. To be sure, I don’t exactly know what 30 is meant to feel like. But 30 sounds like an age where you should have a bit of wisdom on your side. At the very least surely I should have more wisdom than I did at the age of 20. In fact I should have 10 years worth more wisdom. But even in an objective sense I don’t think that I do.

Why? Well it’s simple isn’t it, we don’t gain wisdom by merely getting older. Growing old, does not equate to growing up. If it did, then the education system would be pointless. Expertise isn’t gained by osmosis. We have to work hard to grow in wisdom.

I was once told that there are two types of expert when it comes to China: the expert who has lived there for a year, and the expert who has lived there for 30 years. Assuming it’s fair to apply that universally, I’m currently a ‘1 year expert’ on Japan. Assuming I live till retirement age, I’ll one day attain the status of ’30 year expert.’

Or I might not. You see, I’ve discovered there’s a third type of expert.

I once met a guy in Japan who bought this truth home to me quite shockingly. He was an English teacher who had lived in Japan for over 10 years. When I heard this I blurted out, “Wow, your Japanese must be amazing!” He told me no.

Fair enough, you say, he was being modest, or he was maybe pointing out that ‘amazing’ language skills are for native speakers. Except he didn’t mean that he wasn’t amazing at Japanese he meant he was apathetic to Japanese. He knew almost nothing: just a few key phrases to get the essentials done. He had a decade’s worth of experience in Japan, but he was far from a ’10 year expert’ on Japan.

He was what I’ll call ‘the third type of expert’ – where years of experience have no impact on the level of expertise.

But before I start calling down burning sulphur onto this guy I should assess whether I’ve used my past 10 years of live as well as I think he should have spent his 10 years in Japan (and as I mentioned, I think the answer is no).

So I need to work hard to ensure that my next 10 years in Japan becomes a decade when I don’t just grow old, but when I also grow up. Assuming I have them, I want my next 30 years of experience to add up to 30 years of expertise. I don’t want to become the third type of expert.

I’m happy to say that I have met many more folk who have lived for 10, 20, 30 years in Japan who have spent their time well. They have struggled with the language, engaged with the culture and poured their hearts into the lives of the people they have met. They are full of experience and expertise. And through their expertise they have blessed me abundantly. When I grow up, I want to be like them. Rather I should say, if I grow up, I want to be like them.

So I guess the critical question is how do I ensure that these 30 years of experience turns into 30 years worth of expertise? And what can folk like you do to help? I’ve got a few thoughts rattling around this ageing head of mine, but I’d be keen to hear yours. As I was recently reminded, “all of us is smarter than any of us.”

So, what do you think?


One thought on “The Three Types of Expert on Japan (why 30 years of experience doesn’t equal 30 years of expertise)

  1. Pingback: New Year: Resolutions, Shrine Visits, and the Gospel of Grace | Reversed Thunder

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