What is an expert, anyway?

I went to a workshop recently where we were instructed to fill the blanks in this sentence: “I am an expert in __ because __.”

I couldn’t do it, and I’ve been mulling over why.

First, I think the term “expert” is ambiguous. To try and motivate myself to complete the exercise, I looked up both its definition and etymology, and saw that it comes from experience, as in, “wise from experience.” But how much experience? Is it the 10,000 hours of experience that Malcolm Gladwell cites as necessary for mastery in a field? Is it a certain type of experience, like writing a book or holding a job title? Is it a degree or certificate? I think one could argue for any of those, but I suspect that we wouldn’t all agree on any particular one.

I try not to go around attaching ambiguous labels to myself, because I don’t want to introduce more confusion into the world. I would rather describe the facts about myself, and let others attach their own labels. Honestly, I don’t really even want others to attach their own labels, like when I get introduced as a “frontend rock star” at a conference, because that may imply its a label that I myself am owning, but I’ll live with the desire of humans to simplify things into snappy statements.

Second, even if we could agree on some definition of what constitutes an expert, I don’t think that I am personally an expert in any area and I don’t know that I particularly want to be. I decided a long time ago that I am generally happier pursuing a variety of skills and figuring out how to combine them, versus pursuing a very particular skill and focusing on that for years. That’s one reason why I didn’t do a Ph.D., which is arguably one possible path of expert-formation. Instead, I’ve held a few different jobs in the tech industry (developer relations at Google, frontend development at Coursera, teaching/coding at Khan Academy) and have happily learned a spectrum of skills in those roles.

Have I become an “expert” on any one thing, through my experience in those roles? Well, I’ve probably had 10,000 hours of practice with JavaScript at this point, so I could argue for that. But actually, there’s a lot of new stuff happening in JavaScript land, with ES5 and ES6 coming out, and I’ve barely scratched the surface of those, so I wouldn’t feel comfortable attaching an “expert” title there. I might have 2 years ago, but not today. That’s the thing about web development technologies— they change so much and so quickly that the only way to stay an expert is to be using a technology day in and day out.

What else have I gained experience in? Well, I’ve done a lot of teaching, both in the real world and online, so maybe I could argue for that, but I feel like “expert” implies that there’s not much that you don’t know, and I know I have so much more to learn.

What is the point of claiming to be an “expert,” anyway? To convince people to listen to you? To feel good about yourself? If so, I’m not sure it will work.

See, as soon as I hear that someone is an “expert” in something, my doubt-machine-wheels start going. I start contemplating the entire meaning of expertise, and debating where their expertise falls in that spectrum.

I think the “because” is the much more interesting and informational part, and the part that’s harder to doubt. Oh, you wrote a book? Awesome! You spent 2 years doing that on your last job? Impressive! I learn so much more about your experience with something from the “because” than I do from hearing a claim of expertise.

Here’s my suggestion: let’s not care so much about having to be an “expert” in something — let’s care instead about gaining valuable experience and being able to talk about that experience.

Show your support

Clapping shows how much you appreciated Pamela Fox’s story.