The Death of Expertise



I wrote about my perspective on expertise in my first post on this site.

The Death of ExpertiseAnd then I ran across The Death of Expertise by Tom Nichols. While I’m not quite done with the book, it’s an eye-opener. If you’re in the business of teaching people how to do things—whether as an educator or entrepreneur—you’ve got to read it.

It’s helping me appreciate why we run into so many conflicts online these days. We don’t appreciate what it means to be an expert.

While it doesn’t change my opinion on how we define the term ‘expert,’ it adds depth to the term and has helped me appreciate what I should expect to encounter if I want to claim expertise in anything.

Early on in the book, Nichols works out his definition of expertise:

“True expertise, the kind of knowledge on which others rely, is an intangible but recognizable combination of education, talent, experience, and peer affirmation…

“Formal training or education is the most obvious mark of expert status, and the easiest to identify, but it is only a start…”

And a bit later:

“Experts stay engaged in their field, continually improve their skills, learn from their mistakes, and have visible track records…

“Another mark of true experts is their acceptance of evaluation and correction by other experts.”

Are you a real expert in something?

If you’re an expert, prepare to be pushed on that, says Nichols. That’s the premise of his book.

While I know of dozens of people who have mastered skills and packaged them with their talents and experience to translate them into businesses, Nichols sees a more challenging world than that.

He’s frustrated by how often public commentary and debate, especially on important subjects the nation hinges on, put the expert on par with the novice—and put us all at-risk.

“Americans now agree that having equal rights in a political system is also means that each person’s opinion about anything must be accepted as equal to anyone else’s.”

A few important action items for experts

As I mentioned, I stand by what I’ve said about whether you can claim expert status in something. Nichols emphasizes credentials in his book as one leading factor, though it’s not available in every line of work.

But his well-researched book on the topic has given me a few takeaways to share with you experts out there. And it doesn’t matter to me whether you’re an expert in HVAC, calligraphy, irrigation installation, social media, website design, cooking, or parenting.

1. Share your background with others

The more you can share with people about how you arrived at your expert status, the better. Transparency is important. What formal education did you receive and by whom? Where did you train? If your training is more informal, that’s not a deal-killer, but again, the more you share the better.

Did you study under the leadership or mentoring of an established, recognized expert? That’s worthy to be added to your own bio. Certification? Include it? Years of experience? Of course.

2. Share your past results with others

If you’ve achieved tangible results that can be validated through others’ testimonials or endorsements, those should be a part of your story. We want to know that the people we follow have actually done the work, they’re not just philosophizing about it.

Now, my theory is that we all have a limit to what we want to hear about even experts’ achievements. Too much and it can come across as overly self-promotional. But if you can prove it, share it.

3. Keep learning and refining your expertise

Stay humble enough to acknowledge that you don’t know it all. Be willing to accept that there are other experts in your field. Let new information influence your expertise, as long as it’s from credible sources. Be open-minded to your craft evolving.

You’re either progressing or regressing when it comes to skills and expertise.

4. Share what you know

Amongst the world of online marketers, there’s one school of thought that says you give away the what you know, and sell the how to implement it. There’s another that says to give away 95% of what you know, and sell the 5%. However you think of it for marketing purposes, you can make a good argument that expertise unshared is subject to questioning, right?

To spin Stephen R. Covey’s popular quote: To know a thing and not to share it, is really not to know it.

5. Be willing to challenge uninformed perspectives

This is probably the hardest one on the list. But if you want to avoid having your expertise relegated to just one opinion on a subject, as equal as someone who’s merely interested in the subject, then you’ve got to be willing to stir the pot a bit.

It doesn’t mean you have to be ruthless or mean or sarcastic or confrontational. But it’s perfectly acceptable, and even important, to stand for something. And standing for something often means standing against other things. Including opinions and perspectives.

Helping you stand your ground with your expertise

One last excerpt from Nichols’s book is worth sharing:

“The deeper issue here is that Internet is actually changing the way we read, the way we reason, even the way we think, and all for the worse. We expect information instantly. We want it broken down, presented in a way that is pleasing to our eye—no more of those small-type, fragile textbooks, thank you —and we want it to say what we want it to say…

Whether you agree fully with what he says or not, the fact is that the way we seek out and vet experts in a pretty cursory way these days. Depending on the issue or the task at hand, we generally look for people who seem to know more than we do about the subject.

Say, for instance, you want to get your car repaired. You’ll generally trust that any auto repair shop can get the job done. But you’re most likely to trust the honesty of the work when you’re given a recommendation by a friend—in other words you’ll skirt right over actual qualifications of expertise.

The message here, then, is to be mindful how you position yourself as an expert. How transparent you are about why you’re an expert (and maybe why others aren’t) can go far in helping you gain the trust, credibility, and business of your target audience.

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