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What exactly is an "expert?"

Updated on March 31, 2015

The Impossibility of Expertise

Expertise is difficult to quantify. Maybe even impossible.

While you can quantify certain benchmarks of expertise—college degrees, books, peer-reviewed publications, years of experience—none of these in themselves or in tandem can give you a pure definition of what it means to actually be an expert. At best, they can serve as a bit of validation.

Expertise is difficult to cleanly define because by its nature it is subjective. You are an expert because someone has recognized you as such. And, to really push the subjectivity button, that "someone" can be you.


Trying to pin down a definition of expertise is enough to make you pull your hair out.
Trying to pin down a definition of expertise is enough to make you pull your hair out. | Source

Autonomous vs Attributed

In her 2008 publication, The Rhetoric of Expertise, E. Johanna Hartelius, PhD, writes—

"All definitions of expertise are the function of particular motives and have different implications. Anyone who offers a definition shapes that definition to serve his/her interests. For example, academics may define expertise as synonymous with knowledge and accreditation. Notably, theoretical knowledge and accreditation are precisely the qualities that characterize academic expertise. In contrast, an artist may place more emphasis on lived experience as constitutive of expertise. This might deemphasize the importance of a certain degree or title. To her colleagues and followers, a body of works attesting to the life of an artist may be more compelling. Additionally, this may work in the artist’s favor. She may be compensating with experience what she lacks in official certification. Whatever the case, any definition of expertise has social, political, and material consequences. It does rhetorical work for the person creating the definition."

SOURCE: The Rhetoric of Expertise, Hartelius, E. Johanna, 2008-05.

This presents us with something of a thorny problem when it comes to teasing out a legitimate and universal definition of expertise or authority. Because, as Hartelius points out, we all create our own definitions for expertise, and those definitions are shaped by our personal agendas, tastes, and perspectives. Some will require a pedigree, while others will place a higher value on demonstrable experience. Even trickier—some will define an expert based entirely on gut instinct, if that's the only resource they have.

And the problem for the linguists among us is that a malleable definition doesn't really do it for us. It drives us crazy. We need something concrete.

In any pursuit of study, when you find ambiguity, it usually means you're dealing with more than one something. And that's definitely the case when it comes to a study of expertise. Because as it turns out, there's actually more than one type of expert.

Referring back to Hartelius—

"One of the most frequently recurring themes in expertise research is that there exists a tension between autonomy and attribution. ... For some, expertise is entirely comprised of a person’s relationship to her subject matter. ... Expertise is the term for superior competence. For others, expertise exists entirely in the signs and symbols of a person’s relationship to her environment and audience. It is an attributed state of being-with-others where one’s performance is evaluated irrespective of so-called 'real knowledge.' When expertise is autonomous, other people’s recognition is irrelevant. A person can possess expert knowledge without the others’ acknowledgment. ... However, when expertise is attributed, it exists only as a symbolic relationship. One can be an expert only in so far as one is recognized as such."

Here we find that expertise can be segmented in autonomous expertise and attributed expertise. And knowing the differences between the two makes things a lot simpler.

An autonomous expert operates entirely from his or her knowledge and experience, without the need of validation from outside. The fruits of their labor prove them out as experts, eventually.

The researcher studying cellular division in viruses or the financial analyst studying fluctuations in the market do not need outside validation of their expertise to continue their work, but they may be regarded as experts when they create something based on their research. When the researcher creates an antiviral medication or the financial analyst gives his clients financially lucrative advice on a stock purchase, both have demonstrated their expertise publicly. They had no need of this public recognition to use their expertise, but they can benefit from the recognition now that it's here.

In contrast, the attributed expert relies entirely on validation from his or her audience. This individual may actually have the same level of expertise in a subject as the researcher or analyst above. But what they produce may not be something directly related to the field. Or they may produce nothing at all, but are merely sought out for their insights and advice simply because their audience perceives them as being an expert.

You probably attribute to expertise to people all the time without realizing it. You have a friend who is your go-to tech support when things go sideways with your computer. You have a cousin whom you turn to when you need advice about what might be wrong with your car. You have a buddy who is your go-to source of stock tips. None of these people may have any official accreditation or certification or even any examples of work in the field—but they know more than you do.

That's the key to attributed expertise, and it's the thing that makes some people apoplectic. Because attributed expertise makes the whole thing subjective and relative. You're an expert because someone says you're an expert. That just doesn't sit well with some people.


Relative and Subjective

Humans have certain lazy tendencies. We like things to fall into a groove. We seek comfort. We want things to stay the same.

Learning and mastering a subject or skill means getting out of that comfort zone, and diverting our time and energy—precious and limited resources—to the pursuit of mastery.

And as Ms. Sweet Brown put it—

"Ain't nobody got time for that!"

We can't know everything. But the danger of not knowing everything is that we miss out on opportunities, or we make critical mistakes that could have been avoided.

To overcome this limitation, we turn to experts. In essence, we outsource our knowledge and skill, and allow someone else to either inform us in our decisions or to flat-out make our decisions for us.

That's where expertise comes in. And it's exactly why attributed expertise exists.

Autonomous experts can operate in a vacuum, if need be. A survivalist doesn't need you to believe he's a survivalist in order for him to use his knowledge, skills, and experience to get through a few weeks in the tundra. But if that survivalist wanted to teach you to survive in the wild, he would need you to attribute expertise to him, even before he's proven himself out.

In other words, the survivalist wouldn't have to teach you first in order for you to think of him as an expert. You would think of him as an expert, and then he would show you.

This is the dynamic that happens all around us, every day. Just as we can't spend the time mastering every skill or knowledge we need, we also can't spend all of our time trying to verify the expertise of someone giving us advice. We need shortcuts, so that we can get the information or help we need and move on with things that may be more important.

That's why certain benchmarks and indicators have evolved, over time. A college degree is an icon of the person's study in a field. A peer-reviewed paper demonstrates that they know what they're talking about at least well enough that other experts agree. A book demonstrates that they were both confident and knowledgeable enough to write at length on the subject. In and of themselves, these "proofs" are just as subjective as a gut feeling, if we aren't spending the time to verify them personally. But they stand in as vouchers for the person's expertise. They're a shortcut to our decision to trust them.

As we outsource our need for expertise, these shortcuts often become more subjective. We may decide to trust someone because they have a blog on the subject, or because their vocabulary on a topic outweighs our own, or simply because they came recommended by a friend we already trust.

The simple fact is, someone is an expert because we decide to think of them that way. Even if that expertise extends only as far as "they know slightly more than we do."

This is unsettling to some, who want their experts to be unchallenged masters of their subject area. But it's an unavoidable and indelible fact of existence that all forms of expertise inevitably come down to pure attribution. Even the autonomous expert is only an expert in contrast to their earlier, less educated selves.

Is expertise subjective?

Which of these statements most closely matches your view of expertise?

See results

How to become an expert

Tim Ferriss, author of The 4-Hour Workweek, wrote that in order to be an "expert" in a given field, you should read the top three bestselling books on the topic. That's it. Read what three of the top experts in the industry have to say, and you're already more knowledgeable about a given topic than the largest portion of the population. Everything else you read or expose your brain to after that is just continuing education.

Malcolm Gladwell, author of books such as Outliers, wrote that achieving expertise takes 10,000 hours of practice. That's not an exact, set-in-stone figure. It's a goal. If you spent just 5 hours a day studying a craft or practicing a skill, you'd achieve complete mastery over it in just under 6 years. But consider—while you're working toward that complete mastery, you're gaining expertise every day.

Five hours a day—if you think about it, that's not much. Maybe you spend two hours in the morning, an hour at lunch, and two hours in the evening. You read, you watch YouTube videos, you listen to podcasts. You write or you practice your skill. You come back to it again and again, and put in the time, working toward that 10K. Chances are, you're probably further ahead than "zero" already, even if you feel like you're just starting. How many books or podcasts or films or lectures have you already been exposed to on this topic?

The important thing to keep in mind here is that we're not talking about a complete mastery of a subject—we're talking about expertise relative to someone else.

If you read three books on brain surgery, are you qualified to perform a surgery? No. You're not that sort of expert. You lack the requisite skills and the practical knowledge and experience to do that work. You lack the required accreditations and certifications, the licenses, and the approval of a governing body.

But could you discuss brain surgery from an informed perspective? Yes. In fact, depending on the books you've read and whatever additional knowledge and experience you have, you may actually be more informed on the topic than some of the authors of those books.

Is that probable? No. Possible? Yes.

The point isn't that you can go read three books on a topic and you're magically an expert. It's that you are magically an expert compared to someone who has studied less than you have, or hasn't had any exposure to the topic at all.

If you need your car repaired, you take it to a mechanic, who is trained in repairing cars. But if you just need to change a headlight or fill the radiator, you may pick up the knowledge to do that just by reading about it. And if your daughter comes to you and asks you about filling the radiator, you are enough of an expert that you can teach her that skill. You are expert relative to your audience—your daughter.

In reality, expertise is a spectrum. The more knowledgeable and experienced you are in relation to zero, the further along you are on this spectrum. Others will be further along still, surpassing your level of expertise and going far right of where you are. But all those who are to your left will look at you as an expert in comparison to their own position on the spectrum. They will attribute expertise to you, because you know more than they do.

Expertise and authority are a spectrum of knowledge and experience. The more we learn, the further to the right we go. Everyone to our left can attribute expertise to us, because we know more about the topic than they do.
Expertise and authority are a spectrum of knowledge and experience. The more we learn, the further to the right we go. Everyone to our left can attribute expertise to us, because we know more about the topic than they do. | Source

How to determine someone else's expertise

As we mentioned earlier, we humans tend to want to outsource our decisions. We don't have the time or energy to put into become experts on every single thing we need to know. Those resources are better allocated to other aspects of our lives—our own expertise.

So it becomes vital that we have a way to suss out an expert on a given subject, so we know to trust them with providing us with what we need.

Some tips for vetting an expert include—

  • Look for verifiable credentials. They aren't always necessary, and they may not always exist, but if they're available, they can be good validation. Look for degrees, certifications, published works, or even just a popular blog on the subject.
  • Look for social proof. Turn to the people you already trust and get them to vouch for your would-be expert. You'll never find a 100% reliable source of reference, because people are biased and fallible. But if enough people in your sphere of influence think a plumber is good, or that a radio host is smart and on the money, you can feel some measure of reassurance in trusting them.
  • Talk to them. Sometimes the best way to determine if someone is full of it is to get them in a conversation for 20 minutes. Ask questions, leverage what you already know on a topic, and see if this expert has anything of value to add. If you know nothing about it, then try to connect it to something you do know. See if the expert can relate their specialized knowledge to something the two of you have in common—if he can demonstrate "transferred knowledge" it means he's pretty proficient in the topic.
  • Identify their mentors. Find out who they study. Who do they turn to for advice? Do they only reference books and blogs, or do they have someone in the real world who can answer questions for them? It will be up to you to decide if their level of intrinsic knowledge is enough to make you comfortable in trusting them. Sometimes, just knowing more than you is good enough.

Don't underestimate your gut reactions in determining if someone is trustworthy as an expert. There are processes going on in the background of your mind that can sometimes make decisions better than you. If you are listening to someone and feel a twinge of doubt, follow that through. Ask questions. Seek verification. Do more than just trust it will all work out.

However, if the consequences of following bad advice aren't life- or career-threatening, feel free to take a chance. Sometimes it's worth it to roll the dice on an expert and see if things improve quickly. You're outsourcing your decisions because you don't want to be an expert yourself, after all. It would be a little incongruous to start digging into every expert you meet to verify they know what they claim to know. Sometimes, it just comes down to a bit of trust in your own, internal expert.

No clear definitions (but the ones you make)

Now that we know there are essentially two types of experts—autonomous and attributed—we're a little closer to a clear definition of expertise. But we're still floating on the river of relativism and subjectivity. Because, in the end, an expert is only an expert in comparison to someone who isn't. Even if that someone happens to be "earlier them."

Ultimate, you can't let yourself get hung up on defining expertise, because it can't be clearly defined. A better use of your time would be to perfect your skill in recognizing your own definition of expertise immediately, so that when you grant authority to someone you'll know they are deserving of it.

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