What Does it Mean to Be an Expert?

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I’ve been working with experts on their books and content marketing, interviewing experts, and making a study of expertise for at least a few years now. So what have I learned?

  • Few experts I’ve encountered wholeheartedly embrace the “expert” label or naturally describe themselves as such.
  • Expertise is best described as a process, not an end-result.
  • Experts ask thought-provoking questions and give reflective answers.
  • Every expert has a self-awareness practice, even if they wouldn’t call it such.
  • “Boredom” is not in the expert’s vocabulary.

Despite these useful lessons, coming up with a quick and concise definition of an expert is not easy. Yes, others have attempted simple definitions, which work in certain contexts. 

You are probably familiar with the 10,000-hour rule. I’ve discussed it here before and the concept is simple: if you spend 10,000 hours practicing your craft (roughly 20 hours per week for a decade), then you’re an expert. However, there’s more to mastering a craft than time spent. Perhaps the formula is something closer to time + focused effort directed toward mastery + achievement of some level of success.

Still, looking for a formula seems to move away from the spirit of nailing down the real core of expertise. Besides, if I’m right that expertise is better described as a process than an end-result, then no traditional formula will do. 

Long before anyone came up with the 10,000-hour rule, Socrates was looking for his own definition of expertise. He wandered around Athens questioning all of the smartest people, especially those who brazenly and confidently called themselves experts — the politicians, the orators, the poets. And in the end, he concluded that none of them were experts because they all claimed to know things, which they did not in fact know.

Coincidentally, the Oracle at Delphi told Socrates he was the wisest person in Athens. Why? Because he didn’t claim to know what he didn’t know.

I’m not going to wade into the heady debate about whether Socrates was actually an expert. But I do think there’s some truth to the claim that while we often think of experts as people who know a lot and can rattle off a lot of facts about a particular subject, experts may be better described as knowing which questions to ask and recognizing the nuances hidden below the surface of what they do know.

I haven’t yet settled on a good definition of an expert. This is an ongoing study and a work in progress. But here are a couple of items, which I believe stand at the core of expertise:

  • Being able to look at something you’ve done a hundred or a thousand times before with a beginner’s mind.
  • Being able to find something interesting, new, and different in each moment.

Experts do not get complacent. They are constantly asking, “how can I improve upon this process?” and “how do I know this is right?” They are curious to their very core and often stubbornly unable to rest when they have an unanswered question.

These two gems make up the heart of expertise and as I continue to roll these ideas around in my mind, I’ll continue to test them out on the experts I encounter because I do think I recognize expertise when I encounter it even if I can’t describe exactly what I’m looking for…yet.

Do you have a definition of expertise you’d like to share? I’ll add it to the hopper and we’ll see what comes out. 

And if you resonate with my analysis-in-progress of expertise and have a great business book idea or want to learn how you can share your expertise on LinkedIn, let’s talk!

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