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DI-Why? Sometimes, A Task Is Best Left To The Experts

A trip to the automotive garage taught Alva Noe something about expertise.

We haven't been too lucky with our new car. How else to characterize the experience of buying a spanking new Volkswagen diesel two weeks before word broke that VW had been cheating regulators. And then, Sunday morning, my partner, running late, backed up before I had a chance to shut the passenger door. I could hear the door squeal on its hinges as we reversed into the tree in front of our house.

I filed a claim — and it was with a heavy heart that I brought the car to the body shop to estimate the damages. What happened next impressed me greatly.

I'd inspected the door myself, you see. It closed. The locking mechanism was fine. And the power windows and side-mirror mounted signals seemed to be working. But the top corner of the window frame was twisted like a potato chip and rain and light had free access to our car's untarnished interior. It needed to be fixed, and it was going to be costly. Our deductible is $1K.

The estimator at the shop, a strong silent man named Ben, examined the door with great care. He checked the window. Saw that it opened and closed. Then he carefully placed his knee against the door's interior and with the precision of a jujitsu grappler, he squeezed my door back into shape. He closed it to check it. Re-estimated. Opened it again and reengaged the door with his full body. Releasing the door from his powerful grip, he shut it. Smoothing away an invisible dust speck along its now perfect seal, he asked me whether I was satisfied. No claim need be filed. Service gratis. Have a nice day.

Yes, indeed!

Now, I know, and I expect Mr. Ben knew, too, that if he'd solemnly delivered the news that the door's structural integrity had been compromised, that it was an accident waiting to happen, and that only a new door would restore the car's value (or what was left of it after VW's lies and market flop), I would have nodded grimly and written my check for the full amount of the deductible. But instead he demonstrated that it was nothing, merely superficial; he fixed it for free and sent me on my happy way.

It was not his honesty that impressed me — although, when you think about it, that is impressive. And it's good business, too, as my dad commented to me when I told him what happened later. After all, I know where I'm taking my business the next time I have real body damage.

No, what impressed me, and why I thought this is a fitting subject for 13.7, is Ben's knowledge and my utter lack of it. I could have done what Ben did if I had known to do it, if I had understood that this was an adequate fix, if I had possessed the confidence to take matters, quite literally, into my own hands. I expect that some of you, dear readers, do have the knowledge and experience to do what I could not. I'm happy to admit to being quite shockingly incapable.

What interests me in this story is not Ben and his honesty, but rather the beautiful, both humble and humbling, phenomenon of expertise.

It is expertise that turned my huge problem into his easy fix. Expertise can be acquired in different ways — in school, on the job, etc. But, in the end, expertise is always the fruit of experience, the result of actual engagement with problems and variables in a particular domain. You can learn about the correct pronunciation or declension of a word from a grammar book, but it is only practice that can let you put that knowledge expertly to work in real time with real people.

Expertise may require knowledge of principles and access to facts but, at its most fundamental, it comes down to judgment, to that nose for the solution. And that deepest, most important knowledge — the knowledge of the excellent judge — is something one can only earn by actual hard work over the course of a lifetime.

Next time I have a bent car door, I may be tempted to try to fix it myself. But, I think I'll take it to Ben.

Alva Noë is a philosopher at the University of California, Berkeley, where he writes and teaches about perception, consciousness and art. He is the author of several books, including his latest, Strange Tools: Art and Human Nature (Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2015). You can keep up with more of what Alva is thinking on Facebook and on Twitter: @alvanoe

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Alva Noë is a contributor to the NPR blog 13.7: Cosmos and Culture. He is writer and a philosopher who works on the nature of mind and human experience.

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