Calling Yourself an Expert Doesn’t Make You One

“Not many of you should become teachers… because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.” — James 3:1

Recently, I removed the word “expert” from my Amazon bio page. I don’t know why I wrote that. Wait, yes I do. It was to impress people, to get more speaking gigs, and sell more books.

And it didn’t work.

I thought adding the word “expert” to my list of titles actually made me one.

Turns out, that’s not true.

If everyone is an expert, no one is

These days, it seems, everyone is an expert at, well, everything.

From your neighbor to your best friend to your mother-in-law, everyone you know is now an expert at whatever thing they recently accomplished. Here are some examples:

  • An author self publishes her first book on Amazon and is now considered a “bestselling author” and a “book marketing expert” who is entitled to tell other people how to launch their own bestsellers.
  • An entrepreneur makes a few good decisions and suddenly becomes a “business coach” to an eager audience, ready to make it big.
  • A guy with a “dad bod” drops 20 pounds in a few months, posts his results to Facebook, and—whammo!—he’s another fitness expert accepting applications for coaching clients.

Yes, everyone is an expert these days.

Except that they’re not.

What it means to be an expert

Expertise doesn’t mean you know more than your neighbors about a certain topic. It means you know more than most people about a certain topic.

It means you’ve studied your field, that you’ve spent thousands of hours mastering a craft before even beginning to tell someone else how to do it. It means you’ve done the work.

This doesn’t mean we can’t share our work. It doesn’t mean we can’t practice in public in a way that is both honest and humble and helps other people as we go. It just means we shouldn’t throw around words like “expert” too easily.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not trying to scare you from ever helping anyone with your experience and what you’ve learned from life. We just need to be careful how we position ourselves.

Maybe we should stop calling ourselves experts and start calling ourselves simply students.

Act like an apprentice, not an expert

We don’t need more experts. We need more apprentices.

We need a generation of people who are content to study a craft for ten years before starting a blog telling others how to do it.

We need students, not endless amounts of teachers.

We need more doers, and fewer talkers.

I’m not here to knock the so-called “expert industry.” I’ve made my living off such an industry. But this experience offers insight into this world of so-called expertise and how easy it can be to dupe an audience into believing anyone is an expert.

We need to be careful here.

A person is not an expert just because they say they are.

Expert is a title you earn only when other people see you doing something well over and over again and begin to call it out on your behalf.

Just because you did something once doesn’t make you the authority on that subject. It just means you lived through an experience, which is valid but doesn’t make you an expert.

Help 10 people first

I often tell people considering doing life coaching or career coaching — or any other kind of coaching that doesn’t involve sports — that before they start selling their services, they need to have helped at least ten people achieve their goals.

Far too often, we see the opposite happen:

Someone achieves a modicum of success in a very specific niche doing a very specific thing and suddenly they’re a guru.

Except that they’re not.

Don’t be like that. Start small with no titles or pageantry. Just be you and try to help someone with your advice. If they take it and it works, then do it again. And again until you have a list of at least 10 people you’ve legitimately helped.

Only then can you even consider to don the title “coach” and start selling your services to others. And even the, you’re just a beginner who is still learning the ropes.

After you’ve helped 100, maybe then, if enough people say it for you, you can start playing around with the term expert.

But even then, be cautious.

This is not a mantle to be taken on lightly.

Avoid authority until you can’t

We live in an age of instant expertise when everything is microwaveable, even world class talent, it seems.

Except that it’s not.

It’s really hard to be great at something, and the fact that the internet keeps promising otherwise is really starting to get on my nerves.

This promise that anyone can be an expert is doing more harm than good, because it completely misunderstands the burden of such a term.

We should not take such authority lightly. Many of us, indeed, should not aspire to be teachers, because we will be held to a higher standard, one we better have earned and not merely fallen into.

When Saint Augustine became bishop of Hippo, he wept. This is the exact opposite of the kind of attitude we have today about position and power. Instead of weeping, we rejoice. And rarely does such rejoicing make a great teacher.

Authority is something we should avoid until it’s thrust upon us. We should run away from places of prominence until not doing so would mean shirking our responsibility to society. It is a yoke we should bear with some unease.

It’s not your call

I’ll be blunt here.

You don’t get to call yourself an expert.

It’s a term best used when describing other people, not yourself. It’s a title you should avoid using for as long as possible until not using it would be dishonest.

Only then should you do it — when others are insisting you really are an expert and denying it sounds more like false humility than fact.

* * *

This is part of a 30-day challenge to myself to write a new piece and share it every day. You can learn more here. I️ wrote this during my lunch break at Chipotle then finished it on the couch after dinner.