What do the world’s foremost tank commanders, chess grandmasters, and SaaS entrepreneurs have in common?
What are the shared attributes of people who have achieved mastery across different domains? How to become an expert in your field?
Likely you’ve heard the cliched advice: work hard, work smart, be passionate, etc.
Here’s one you probably haven’t heard that’s actually more important: Fingerspitzengefuhl.
Fingerspitzengefuhl is a German word that translates literally to “finger tips feeling,” but it’s probably easier to understand as “intuitive feel” or “having one’s finger on the pulse”
Here’s a recording of five people saying it that you can listen to (the first two are actually German!). Whenever I say it I sound like an illiterate version of that blonde SS officer from Inglorious Bastards.
The easiest and most literal example of finger tip feeling is the finicky lock on my apartment door. When I first moved in, it would sometimes take me four or five minutes to get it locked or unlocked. Now, I have a sort of intuitive feel for what the lock needs and can usually get it open or closed in a few seconds.
It applies to more scenarios than just opening a fussy lock though.
Fingerspitzengefuhl was considered the key attribute that led to the early success of German tank commanders in World War II. In the North African campaign, the British soldiers ascribed an almost god-like quality to the German tank commander Erwin Rommel. Rommel, known as the Desert Fox, seemed to always know what the British were going to do and was one step ahead of them.
A Universal Idea
Fingerspitzengefuhl is not something the Germans invented. Researchers have found that the same concept has been discovered independently by different cultures all over the world.
In Medieval Japan, samurai practiced with their swords until the weapon became “an extension of their arm.” Once the fight began, if you stopped to think, you were dead. You had to be able to feel how the fight was going.
Zen and other Eastern philosophies talk about a similar “intuitive knowledge,” stressing that it comes through years of experience and self-discipline.1
The Greeks called it mētis.2 Odysseus, the protagonists of Homer’s Odyssey, was praised for his mētis. Odysseus not only knew how to deceive Circe, the Cyclops, and Polyphemus, but also knew when to drive his men harder and when to pull back.
Fingerspitzengefuhl is an essential skill for people who deal with complex situations: entrepreneurs, investors, and scientists among many others.
Disaster response professionals such as Red Adair are a perfect example. Before the Gulf War of 1990, Adair led the only team in the world that had experience capping wellhead fires on oil rigs. Each fire presented new problems which required a mix of experience and improvisation. Hundreds of factors from the political climate to the wind to the chemical makeup of that particular oil well all played into how to deal with the fire. There was no handbook you could use to train someone to sense what Adair understood intuitively.
A role which requires almost no Fingerspitzengefuhl might be a desk clerk who deals with a routine set of tasks everyday. His environment and tasks can be ordered down to the smallest detail.
Adair can’t simplify each well fire to apply a cookie-cutter solution. He needs fingerspitzengefuhl acquired by both deep study and extensive experience. As a result, he named his price. Fingerspitzengefuhl is hard to acquire, making it scarce, and scarcity commands a premium. If you have a deep intuitive feel for a situation, it’s not unreasonable that could be worth one hundred times more than someone just getting started.
If you go into the upper echelons of any complex domain: diplomacy, politics, business, or sports you’ll find high-levels of fingerspitzengefuhl.
What Dutch Car Shoppers Can Teach Us About Mastery
It’s an important concept precisely because it’s counterintuitive to how we are trained to make decisions.
Traditional wisdom would suggest that when faced with a big decision, we should engage our conscious minds and carefully, logically reflect using tools like pro/con lists. However, research has begun to reveal that unconscious intuitive feel, Fingerspitzengefuhl, is more reliable in complex situations like choosing a partner, changing professions, or launching a new product line.
A Dutch researcher, Ap Dijksterhuis published a paper in Science in 2006 on his experiment with Dutch car shoppers. Dijksterhuis took a group of car shoppers and divided them into two groups.
Each group was shown four different used cars.
Group 1, the simple group, was given four basic attributes for each car for a total of sixteen pieces of information. So Car 1 might get good gas mileage, have air conditioning and ride smoothly but have a bad sound system. Car 2 might get good gas mileage and have air conditioning but ride poorly and have a band sound system.
Group 2, the complex group, received more information about the cars. Each car was rated on twelve different attributes, which resulted in a total of 48 different pieces of information.
After being shown the cars and their ratings, participants in each group were asked to either (1) sit down and think about which car they wanted to choose or (2) solve word puzzles, a way to distract them from consciously thinking about the cars.
For the simple group with sixteen basic pieces of information, being able to actively think about it resulted in better choices. More than 50% of conscious thinkers picked the best car.
Makes sense—think about something and you make a better decision.
For the complex group with 48 pieces information, the opposite was the case. Subjects who thought about the choice in a rational manner instead of doing word puzzles chose the best car less than 25% of the time. That’s worse than random chance.
Subjects who were distracted by a word puzzle found the best car nearly 60% of the time in the complex scenario.
This fits with our current understanding of neuroscience. The conscious part of our brains is relatively young (in evolutionary terms) and has a relatively low capacity, that is it can only handle a few pieces of information, popularly cited at 7 plus or minus 2.
The Unconscious part of our brains is much older and larger. It has a higher capacity. So if you’re dealing with a decision which has significantly more than 7 factors, you should rely on your intuitive feeling.3
The complex scenario is the one which more accurately mirrors real life. Making an investment decision, deciding to move cities or switch jobs are all decisions which have way more than 48 different factors. In such cases, you’re better off relying on your gut feeling, or fingerspitzengefuhl.4
When asked about the secret behind their work, many Nobel Prize winners, famous artists, and entrepreneurs use the word “incubation.” That is they gain an understanding of all the factors and data involved and then let it rest on their unconscious mind.
How to Become an Expert in Your Field: Think Big, Act Small.
The catch with Dijksterhuis’s experiment is that in order for us to be able to rely on our intuitive feeling, we have to have experience in the specific domain. Everyone already has some inherent knowledge of cars: what we like and don’t like and how much weight we give to certain factors. For example, my first car, a red Ford F-150 with a 2” lift and a flowmaster exhaust,5 is clearly the epitome of cool and made everyone like me more.
If we’re entering a new field though, how do we get our finger on the pulse? How do we acquire Fingerspitzengefuhl?
We start by learning in situations of sufficient but reduced complexity. This process is encapsulated by the saying “think big, act small.”
Take chess as an example.
Josh Waitzkin—the chess prodigy of Searching for Bobby Fischer fame—teaches chess according to this principle. With a new student, he starts with just a pawn and a king against a king. With three pieces on the board, it’s complex enough to teach the essential principles of chess, but not so complex as to be overwhelming.
If you start by studying complicated chess openings with all the pieces on the board, it’s difficult to focus on the principles because you are overwhelmed by how much is happening on the board. So while his student’s ambition may be to become the greatest chess player in the world, they start with just three pieces on the board.
Waitzkin calls this strategy “making smaller circles.”
Here’s an entrepreneurial example.
Rob Walling has spent over a decade in software and has helped hundreds of other software entrepreneurs. What he realized was that individuals who started with highly complex models like recurring-revenue, cross-platform SaaS businesses tended to fail over and over.
Those who started with less complex software businesses like single-sale WordPress or Chrome browser plugins had much better long term success rates.
For someone with no entrepreneurial Fingerspitzengefuhl, starting with SaaS is like a new figure skater trying to start with the triple axel. While the end goal might be the triple axel, he should start with gliding, turning and skating backwards first and work his way up.
Rob himself started with duck boat ebooks and drop shipping then worked his way up to smaller software products and eventually a larger SaaS product. He calls this approach Stair stepping. Start with a one-time sale product marketed through a single channel, then gradually build your way up to more complex, durable business models.
This approach has paid off for Rob. A modest beginning has grown over time. His most recent success—the sale of his email automation company Drip to Leadpages—was the result of over a decade building up his Fingerspitzengefuhl in the small business marketing automation space.
Even among the uber-successful, I’ve yet to find someone who didn’t develop their entrepreneurial Fingerspitzengefuhl over years if not decades. Elon Musk built and sold a video game when he was 9. By the time he co-founded Paypal he was 15 years in the game. Gary Vaynerchuk was selling baseball cards at 8. Peter Diamandis of the X Prize started learning about space by organizing a small student group at his local university.
Think big, but start small.
6 Key Takeaways on How To Become an Expert in Your Field
1. Fingerspitzengefuhl is “domain dependent.”
Having a high level of Fingerspitzengefuhl as a chess player doesn’t mean you’ll be good at running a business or coaching football. If you’re trying to develop mastery in a domain, think big, but act small. You can develop Fingerspitzengefuhl losing $100 on a business or an investment or you can develop it losing $100,000.
When your intuitive sense is still developing, pick a small amount and gradually stair step your way up, making bigger circles as you develop a track record of success.
I worked with an eCommerce company a few years that had a successful brand in the Hospitality industry selling parking equipment. We rolled out another brand, also in the hospitality industry, selling portable bars. (I know it doesn’t make sense. We also sold cat furniture, better not to ask how we picked product lines).
The companies had an identical overlap in terms of manufacturing, distribution and customer service. We assumed we could simply throw money at the new product line and scale it up much faster, but our intuitions were wrong. A slightly different customer base was enough of a difference that it took us almost two years to get a good intuitive feel.
For someone that has a high level of Fingerspitzengefuhl in one domain, over-confidence is the biggest danger. Warren Buffett wouldn’t be Warren Buffett if he had decided to go from value investing to Venture Capital twenty years ago. His strategy has worked because he has extremely deep competence in a highly local domain.
2. The Tarzan Principle
Don’t let go of one vine until you have a firm grasp on the one you’re swinging to.
Because Fingerspitzengefuhl is highly domain dependent, if you swing into something completely different from where you’re competent, you’ll face a much steeper learning curve. If you move into something adjacent, you’ll still have a learning curve, but a much shorter one.
Even though it took us longer than we initially expected to get the portable bar brand rolling, it still ramped up about twice as fast than it had for the company’s first product line, so there was a meaningful amount of transfer.
3. Scratch Your Own Itch
If you’re not sure which domains you have a high level of Fingerspitzengefuhl, a good rule of thumb is to focus on scratching your own itch: solving problems you’re dealing with. Rob built Drip because it solved a problem he was dealing with: I need a more robust email marketing automation solution than Mailchimp, but something simpler and cheaper than the $1000/month enterprise solutions.
4. Hire (or invest in) people who have done things
They have Fingerspitzengefuhl. Investing in Ev Williams (Twitter, Blogger, Medium) next project in digital publishing is a complete no brainer at this point. He’s clearly got his finger on the pulse. The success rate of second time entrepreneurs in a field they’ve already had some success in is astronomically higher than first time entrepreneurs.
This also explains why so many entrepreneurs are so horrible at explaining their success. They really don’t consciously understand it, but that doesn’t mean they got lucky or couldn’t do it again.
5. The 10,000 Hour Rule
It’s essential that you develop fingerspitzengefuhl over time if you ever want to become an expert in your field. While the 10,000 Hour Rule, that it takes 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to become a master, may not be a perfect heuristic, its central lesson remains true: it takes a tremendous investment of time and energy to achieve a high level of proficiency in a given domain.
As Red Adair discovered, it can also be immensely profitable.
6. Rip, Pivot, Jam
In the short term, taking ideas from people that already have Fingerspitzengefuhl in a given domain also works. If there is something doing well in the marketplace, copy it, pivot enough to be meaningfully differentiated and hustle on that. You’ll absorb of the lessons they learned instead of having to start from scratch.
The idea for my book, The End of Jobs, wasn’t actually mine. It was given to me by two people who had been in the space for almost a decade. They were simply too busy to do it themselves. If you’re working on a $10 million idea, you’re happy to give away $1 million ideas.