An expert is someone who knows more about something than you do. They also have more experience with it. For example, your local auto mechanic is an expert at fixing cars. Likewise, your plumber, tailor, driver, and your electrician are experts in their respective fields.
An expert is someone who possesses special knowledge/expertise/skills, which is why we hire them in the first place. They know what works and what doesn’t because they have spent more time learning about their area of interest. Experts have expertise in a few things; they go an inch wide and a mile deep. In other words, they try to know something about everything (generalist) and everything about something (specialist).
Here are some examples of experts I hire. One might not think of all of them traditionally as experts, but that’s precisely what they are:
- graphic designer
- website designer and developer
- insurance provider
- driver, electrician, plumber
- family physician
Now that we know what an expert is, there are a couple of things that come to mind that don’t automatically make you an expert. For example, having an endless set of initials next to your name doesn’t make you an expert. Credentials also don’t make you an expert. A book doesn’t make you an expert. Don’t confuse authorship or having credentials with expertise.
Another example, if you can’t speak extemporaneously before a group on your topic or write about it, you’re not an expert. You are also not an expert if you feel you have to provide a source or support for your advice.
There are a few reasons why we need experts.
We don’t (can’t) know everything, which is why we hire those who specialize: experts. We hire experts because they know about their “content”, so to speak. We need experts to assist us in solving our challenges because they know more about their problem domain than we do. Plus, we don’t have the time or the inclination to do it since we are busy doing things we specialize in and delegate things that are best done by others (experts). For instance, when we want to improve our physical health, we hire a wellness expert.
We need experts to do something we can’t do by ourselves. We need experts who have skills, knowledge, and tools that we don’t have. We hire experts to see things we can’t see. It is not always easy to see oneself from the outside objectively. In other words, we hire experts because they help us see things in a way that we can’t see.
Experts are focused on results. It’s not so much about what they do (input) as opposed to the results/outcomes (output) they help you get. We call upon experts to seek their advice to get our work done. And there is value in that advice. That is what we pay them for. We get value with expertise. If you’re not prepared to spend, then you won’t get the value you seek.
Experts identify the gap between what their clients want and what is actually needed (and is in their best interest). This is what is known as the value distance. They are not afraid to tell their prospects what’s truly needed without subjecting them to an endless interrogation of needs.
By the way, don’t confuse leadership with expertise. Leaders are not supposed to be experts. Their job is to lead and inspire others who are experts. An expert is proficient in their job. While leaders interpret and synthesize information and create knowledge based on the data gathered by machines, experts create meaning and wisdom. In other words, good leaders create knowledge, while experts are the ones who create meaning. Most people search for meaning.
We hire experts so they can do their jobs. We don’t hire them to do everything. We hire them to work on one thing they are good at. Experts are trusted. People trust experts and their expertise. They don’t doubt them because they have proven themselves time and time again.
For instance, my editor is an expert. None of my writing on this weblog is published without him having worked on it. I focus on the writing, and he does the editing.
Experts do four things on a regular basis — they cite facts; they interpret; they predict; they opine. They are confident, fearless, and don’t back down. Experts give opinions and make predictions while trying to be provocative, not worrying if they’re always “right”. They are not afraid to be wrong, although if they are wrong all the time, they are not an expert.
Experts change their mind often because they’re constantly looking at new things (and evolving their thinking in the process from the learning). They are not fixated or stuck in their ideas. On the contrary — they believe in their ideas and are open to change at the same time. They adapt and learn when conditions require, and only those who are willing to learn can change.
Becoming an expert takes time and deliberate practice. You can’t be an expert a couple of years out of school. As Ira Glass said (and I paraphrase), we need to do a large volume of work over the course of our careers in order to close the gap between our talent and our taste.
We become experts through years of applied learning and work experience. Find out what you are interested in becoming an expert on. Then, learn as much as possible about your field of interest; seek out relevant sources. Continue to learn about your field and gain expertise from practical experience.
At the same time, avoid thinking like an expert. Have a beginner’s mind. Only when your mind is empty is it ready for anything. The key about being an expert is knowing that you don’t know everything. Only when you understand and internalize this are you free to know anything. Only then are you not limited by what you know.
We become an expert by choosing to act like one. If you don’t think of yourself as an expert, others won’t either. Start by referring to yourself as “an expert”. Then, work on becoming “THE expert”.
How do you know you are an expert? That depends on what you get asked. What do people consult you for? What advice do they seek? What are things that you are good at, things you have an interest in, and things that you will get paid to do? It is the intersection of those things that you need to work on becoming an expert.
We become an expert by teaching (and sharing) what we know. That is how we build expertise. We might have all the knowledge in the world, but if we don’t share it or apply it, it won’t amount to much.
Chef Jiro is a great example of an expert sushi craftsman who, after working for 50+ years at his restaurant, still considers himself a student of making sushi as an art form.
The “brand” of experts is their name and not what they do. They are known by their names. Experts are not hard to find since they share their ideas by writing and/or speaking publicly. Experts are also acknowledged by other experts as they use a comparative standard and cite it (what would “insert name of expert here” do). Peter Drucker died years ago and here we are still citing him.
Identify your real expertise. Here are some examples that come to mind:
- Drucker with strategy
- Godin with marketing
- Goldsmith with coaching
- Buffett with investing
- Ramsay with food
Experts are artists, and like all artists, they deal with a couple of issues: low self-esteem and the impostor syndrome. When becoming an expert, you have to acknowledge and curtail these side effects.
Low self-esteem is a lack of self-worth. Self-worth is not about walking on hot coals. It is about tangible, pragmatic skills, not about crazy self-affirmations. We control the skills that we can acquire, and we control our attire, our language, and our demeanor. We all have those doubts. It is a problem for all of us. We have to work on it because it can make all the difference. And, it doesn’t cost money.
The second issue that experts run into often is the imposter syndrome. According to Carl Richards, finding ways to increase your value while doing the things you love may be the most important thing you do. And while doing these things, we will run into fears, self-doubt, anxiety, etc. We will doubt our ability to do things well. The voice inside our head will ask cynical questions like, “Who gave you permission to do that”, or “What makes you an expert”. We fear that the world will expose us as a “fraud” from the work we do and that we will eventually be “found out”. The fact is that no matter who you are or how long you’ve been in the game, the imposter syndrome never really goes away. All we can do is acknowledge it when it shows up in our head, and then do the work anyway.
We all need experts in our lives. We can’t do everything by ourselves. If we could, we wouldn’t need experts. They help us save our time and attention by doing things they are good at, which saves us time for doing things we are good at. It’s a win-win, so get out there and be in charge. Make stuff for others. Do what you are good at, and don’t forget to get paid for your services. That is true expertise.