Several years back, I was at work, sitting in a conference room waiting for a meeting to start. At precisely 2 p.m. the director walked in with a young engineer and introduced her as “our new resident expert.”
He proceeded to explain that all engineering questions should be directed to her since she had recently graduated from engineering school. As I scanned the room, I was shocked to see a sea of smiling faces nodding and agreeing with this statement; well, all except one — the young engineer. She sat there with a look of fear and anxiety all over her face and body, and it was very clear why.
Too often people toss around the term “expert,” usually referring to anyone who has some experience or technical certification in a field. My car mechanic is an expert and my dentist is an expert. Even the salesman at Best Buy in the video game department is an expert. But does the job that we do or degree we hold instantaneously make us an expert? The answer is no.
In simple terms, expertise is actually defined by one of two criteria. According to K. Anders Ericsson, ,a Swedish psychologist, to be an expert you either need to have 10 years or 10,000 hours of deliberate practice in that specialty. The term “deliberate practice” is key here. This means whatever it is you claim to be an expert at, you must be doing it almost daily, for hours, over a course of many, many years. Only then can you truly be called an expert.
Take any field, like sport, music or science, and think of someone you would consider to be one of the best. Even if these geniuses seem to have peaked at an early age like Michael Phelps, the Beatles or even Einstein, the fact is, when they finally hit the world stage, they had years upon years of deliberate practice with their craft. Despite their natural talents, they had to hone and perfect their skills to achieve greatness.
Now, most of us aren’t at that level of genius, but even in our own domains, expertise takes an exceptionally long time to achieve. To truly know something, you must be able to have both declarative knowledge and procedural knowledge around the subject. I know that length x width x height can give me volume, but can I determine when and how to apply that formula when building a pool on the ninth floor of a downtown hotel? Probably not.
Our ability to learn and retain information takes years. We then have to be able to take all those various pieces of knowledge and pick and choose when and how to use them.
It’s a lot like driving a car. Would you consider an 18-year-old an expert driver? Granted, he’s been driving almost daily for two years, but it still takes a long time just to learn the functions and response of the vehicle. After that, there are the rules of the road to remember. And even then, the real expertise in driving comes years later, when we are able to predict how other drivers might behave and we have to anticipate how to handle immediate, high-stakes situations.
So be wary of calling anyone an expert simply because of their job title or the role in which they have been placed. Being an expert carries a lot of responsibility and I pity that young engineer who sat across from me and had all the responsibility of her degree publicly tossed on her.
A few words of wisdom for those of you who have been placed in the role of being the expert, yet know you probably aren’t: Find a mentor to coach you, read and continue learning as much as you can in your field, and most of all, practice applying that knowledge. If you mess up and fail, that’s OK. Failure is one of the best ways to learn and gain experience and it will actually add to your ability to become a great expert.
Just don’t mess up while designing that fancy hotel pool I’ll be swimming in next week!