What Is an Expert?
“Despite all the propaganda for population control, the experts keep proliferating like rabbits.”
That quote is from Roger Golde's 1974 book “Muddling Through.” The book may be nearly thirty years old, but the experts Golde referred to continue to proliferate. For example, consider the arcane field of bedbug locomotion. Clearly, the biologist cited in this article is an expert, someone who knows more about bedbuggery than almost everyone—maybe even including her fellow bedbug locomotion colleagues.
This raises an interesting question. What is an expert? Wikipedia describes an expert as someone “widely recognized as a reliable source of technique or skill whose faculty for judging or deciding rightly, justly, or wisely is accorded authority and status by their peers or the public in a specific well-distinguished domain.” So you might view someone as an expert when that person wouldn’t consider himself an expert.
Conversely, some people believe they’re experts when others might not agree. As of late 2009, a search of bios on Twitter profiles found 15,740 people who presented themselves as “social media experts.” By now, there are almost certainly more. Can they all really be experts?
The problem is that it’s easy to be misled or deceived into seeing expertise where it doesn’t exist. After all, academic degrees, certifications, and a list of companies on a résumé are no guarantee of expertise. And someone can be well-regarded or well-spoken and still lack expertise in an area in which he or she is seen to be an expert.
Of course, there is also the view that there’s no such thing as an expert in a particular domain, the reason being that the term suggests there’s nothing left to learn and there’s no one anywhere who knows more. I find this view unsatisfying; one can be an expert and still have lots to learn.
In any case, it seems to me the label of expert carries some responsibility to share that expertise, whether with one’s peers, customers, the public, or anyone else, as the bedbug expert has done. Accumulating knowledge and experience in a particular area may be a worthy achievement, but expertise seems to call for knowledge combined with application.
If you’re an expert in your domain, be aware of the risks. Laura Brandenburg, a specialist in business analysis, emphasizes that there is a certain lure to being the expert, but if you do too good a job, you risk getting trapped in your area of expertise. As Laura points out,
There’s more value in being able to facilitate a smart group of people solving a problem than to jump in and solve it yourself. You can solve much bigger problems this way. But first, you’ve got to let go of your expectations that you can be (and should be) the expert.