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How to Be an Expert (and Find One if You’re Not)

How to Be an Expert (and Find One if You’re Not)
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.

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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".

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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:

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  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:

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  • 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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The Gentle Art of Saying No

The Gentle Art of Saying No

No!

It’s a simple fact that you can never be productive if you take on too many commitments — you simply spread yourself too thin and will not be able to get anything done, at least not well or on time.

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But requests for your time are coming in all the time — through phone, email, IM or in person. To stay productive, and minimize stress, you have to learn the Gentle Art of Saying No — an art that many people have problems with.

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What’s so hard about saying no? Well, to start with, it can hurt, anger or disappoint the person you’re saying “no” to, and that’s not usually a fun task. Second, if you hope to work with that person in the future, you’ll want to continue to have a good relationship with that person, and saying “no” in the wrong way can jeopardize that.

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But it doesn’t have to be difficult or hard on your relationship. Here are the Top 10 tips for learning the Gentle Art of Saying No:

  1. Value your time. Know your commitments, and how valuable your precious time is. Then, when someone asks you to dedicate some of your time to a new commitment, you’ll know that you simply cannot do it. And tell them that: “I just can’t right now … my plate is overloaded as it is.”
  2. Know your priorities. Even if you do have some extra time (which for many of us is rare), is this new commitment really the way you want to spend that time? For myself, I know that more commitments means less time with my wife and kids, who are more important to me than anything.
  3. Practice saying no. Practice makes perfect. Saying “no” as often as you can is a great way to get better at it and more comfortable with saying the word. And sometimes, repeating the word is the only way to get a message through to extremely persistent people. When they keep insisting, just keep saying no. Eventually, they’ll get the message.
  4. Don’t apologize. A common way to start out is “I’m sorry but …” as people think that it sounds more polite. While politeness is important, apologizing just makes it sound weaker. You need to be firm, and unapologetic about guarding your time.
  5. Stop being nice. Again, it’s important to be polite, but being nice by saying yes all the time only hurts you. When you make it easy for people to grab your time (or money), they will continue to do it. But if you erect a wall, they will look for easier targets. Show them that your time is well guarded by being firm and turning down as many requests (that are not on your top priority list) as possible.
  6. Say no to your boss. Sometimes we feel that we have to say yes to our boss — they’re our boss, right? And if we say “no” then we look like we can’t handle the work — at least, that’s the common reasoning. But in fact, it’s the opposite — explain to your boss that by taking on too many commitments, you are weakening your productivity and jeopardizing your existing commitments. If your boss insists that you take on the project, go over your project or task list and ask him/her to re-prioritize, explaining that there’s only so much you can take on at one time.
  7. Pre-empting. It’s often much easier to pre-empt requests than to say “no” to them after the request has been made. If you know that requests are likely to be made, perhaps in a meeting, just say to everyone as soon as you come into the meeting, “Look guys, just to let you know, my week is booked full with some urgent projects and I won’t be able to take on any new requests.”
  8. Get back to you. Instead of providing an answer then and there, it’s often better to tell the person you’ll give their request some thought and get back to them. This will allow you to give it some consideration, and check your commitments and priorities. Then, if you can’t take on the request, simply tell them: “After giving this some thought, and checking my commitments, I won’t be able to accommodate the request at this time.” At least you gave it some consideration.
  9. Maybe later. If this is an option that you’d like to keep open, instead of just shutting the door on the person, it’s often better to just say, “This sounds like an interesting opportunity, but I just don’t have the time at the moment. Perhaps you could check back with me in [give a time frame].” Next time, when they check back with you, you might have some free time on your hands.
  10. It’s not you, it’s me. This classic dating rejection can work in other situations. Don’t be insincere about it, though. Often the person or project is a good one, but it’s just not right for you, at least not at this time. Simply say so — you can compliment the idea, the project, the person, the organization … but say that it’s not the right fit, or it’s not what you’re looking for at this time. Only say this if it’s true — people can sense insincerity.

Featured photo credit: Pexels via pexels.com

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