How to Be an Expert

I’ve been thinking lately, what makes someone an "expert" in his or her field? Apparently Lorelle VanFossen has been thinking the same thing, because she recently wrote a post called What Gives You the Right to Tell Me? at The Blog Herald that explores the issue of expertise in some depth.

For me, the question started to percolate through my mind when I was invited to speak at an academic conference on anthropology and counter-insurgency recently. Apparently, I have become an expert on the topic, someone people look to when they want more information.

How did that happen? This is not a topic I studied at school nor the subject of my dissertation; in fact, it wasn’t even really a topic at all until the US Army released their new counterinsurgency field manual last year and started recruiting anthropologists for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Thinking about how I came to be a "go-to" person on this topic has gotten me thinking about how anyone becomes the person to call when you need help, about how people become experts in their field. It’s not so simple, I think, as just learning everything there is to know and hanging out your shingle. In fact, anyone who thinks they have learned everything there is to know about a topic probably isn’t an expert — I’d call them something closer to "rank amateur".


What’s an expert?

While knowledge is obviously an important quality of expertise, it’s only one of several factors that makes someone an expert in their field. I’ve come up with five characteristics of real experts:

  1. Knowledge: Clearly being an expert requires an immense working knowledge of your subject. Part of this is memorized information, and part of it is knowing where to find information you haven’t memorized.
  2. Experience: In addition to knowledge, an expert needs to have significant experience working with that knowledge. S/he needs to be able to apply it in creative ways, to be able to solve problems that have no pre-existing solutions they can look up — and to identify problems that nobody else has noticed yet.
  3. Communication Ability: Expertise without the ability to communicate it is practically pointless. Being the only person in the world who can solve a problem, time after time after time, doesn’t make you an expert, it makes you a slave to the problem. It might make you a living, but it’s not going to give you much time to develop your expertise — meaning sooner or later, someone with knowledge and communication ability is going to figure out your secret (or worse, a better approach), teach it to the world, and leave you to the dustbin of history (with all the UNIX greybeards who are the only ones who can maintain the giant mainframes that nobody uses anymore).
  4. Connectedness: Expertise is, ultimately, social; experts are embedded in a web of other experts who exchange new ideas and approaches to problems, and they are embedded in a wider social web that connects them to people who need their expertise.
  5. Curiosity: Experts are curious about their fields and recognize the limitations of their own understanding of it. They are constantly seeking new answers, new approaches, and new ways of extending their field.

How to become an expert

Sometimes becoming an expert just kind of happens, which is how I became an expert in anthropology and counter-insurgency without really trying. But most of the time, we carefully pursue expertise, whether through schooling, self-education, on-the-job training, or some other avenue.

There’s no "quick and easy" path to expertise. That said, people do become experts every day, in all sorts of fields. You become an expert by focusing on these things:

  • Perpetual learning: Being an expert means being aware, sometimes painfully aware, of the limitations of your current level of knowledge. There simply is no point as which you’re "done" learning your field. Invest yourself in a lifelong learning process. Constantly be on the lookout for ideas and views both within and from outside your own field that cna extend your own understanding.
  • Networking: Build strong connections with other people in your field. Seek out mentors — and make yourself available to the less experienced. Also, learn to promote yourself to the people who need your skills — the only way you’ll gain experience is by getting out and doing.
  • Practice: Not just in the "gain experience" sense but in your the "practice what you preach" sense. you wouldn’t trust a personal organizer who always forgot your appointments, or a search engine optimization expert whose site was listed on the 438th results page in Google, right? Your daily practice needs to reflect your expertise, or people will not trust you as an expert.
  • Presentation skills: Learn to use whatever technologies you need to present your expertise in the best possible way. And by "technologies" I don’t just mean web design and PowerPoint, I mean writing, drawing, public speaking — even the way you dress will determine whether you’re taken for an expert or a know-it-all schmuck.
  • Sharing: 10 years ago, nobody knew they needed expert bloggers on their staff to promote themselves. 5 years ago, nobody knew they needed SEO experts to get attention for their websites. A handful of early experts — experts that, in some cases, didn’t even know what they were experts in — shared enough of what they knew to make people understand why they needed experts. Share your knowledge widely, so that a) people understand why they need an expert, and b) you don’t become a one-trick pony who is the only person who can fix a particular problem.

How to identify an expert

The sad fact is, there are a lot of people out there passing themselves off as experts who aren’t experts at all — who may not even be competent. How can you tell if someone’s putting you on?

It can be hard to tell the fake experts from the real ones; many fakes have a great deal of expertise in the field of coming off as an expert! But here are a few things to look for:

  • Commitment: Experts are enthusiastic about their fields of expertise. It’s the only thing that keeps them growing as an expert. Look for serious, obvious commitment to the field. Experts don’t have to do what they do, they get to.
  • Authenticity: A real expert doesn’t need to scam anyone to sell his/her services. S/he practices what s/he preaches. If you feel that someone is trying to pull one over on you, find someone else.
  • Openness: Expertise speaks for itself. Trade secrets are for people who aren’t confident in their abilities that fear you won’t need them if you know what they’re doing. (This does not apply to magicians, who are special.) If someone is unwilling to explain to you what they’re doing, move onto the next expert.
  • Open-mindedness: Experts are always looking for new approaches to the problems they’re good at solving. They should also understand the mistakes that non-experts make, and why they’re mistakes. If you’re expert is dismissive when you explain what you thought might be the problem, it usually means they think they have all the answers. Real experts know they don’t.
  • Clarity: An expert should be able to explain to you exactly what they’re doing and why. While every field has its own jargon, any real expert can describe their work without using it — jargon is useful within a field as a kind of short-hand for complicated concepts or procedures, but has no place when dealing with people outside the field. If they can’t say what they’re doing in language you understand, there’s a good chance they’re either a) trying to rip you off (think "shady auto mechanics", here) or b) they don’t really understand what they’re doing or why.

I’m sure there are things I’ve left out of this meditation on expertise. What qualities do you think make someone an expert? What would you tell someone setting out to become an expert at something? And how do you tell if someone’s a real expert, or just a snake-oil salesman out for a quick buck — or worse, a total crank?

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