Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Word: Expert

The definitions of words go far beyond what is said in Merriam-Webster's, which defines:
: \ˈek-ˌspərt\
Function: noun
Etymology: Middle French, from expert, adjective
Date: 1535

: one with the special skill or knowledge representing mastery of a particular subject
The word "expert" gets thrown around a lot these days. It started me wondering what exactly qualifies someone to be labeled as an expert in a given field. Is it knowledge? Experience? A mix of both? Which is more important?

Who determines if someone is an expert or not? People from the outside looking in? Do other experts have to identify you as one of their peers? Can you declare yourself one? What if there is nothing out in the "real world" to prove your expertise, like a book, award, article, or other recognition?

A quick search of the Internet, and I find that I'm not alone in my wondering. There are blog posts everywhere pondering the same question. Type into Google "how to become an expert" and 46 million results pop up. On the first page, I see articles that say you you can become an expert on anything in 2 hours, four weeks, 30 days or less. These are interspersed with posts that say expertise is usually established over a period of 8 to 10 years.

It is ridiculous to say that anyone can become an expert in a significant skill or subject in two hours, so let's throw that one right out. It's reasonable to say that in many topics, people can learn a lot if they study it for two hours. However, to become an expert in that amount of time is more than a stretch, even for the most connected speed-readers in the world. Unless of course the topic is completely silly and inane, like LOLCatz.

Is a month long enough to become an expert? If someone made a full-time job of learning how to knit or scrapbook for 30 days straight, I believe they would be an expert at the end of that time and I might ask them to help me learn. However, if I were seeking the services of a real estate agent, accountant, or tax preparer, one month is simply not enough experience to gain my trust.

Ten years of experience is a good number to determine expertise. If you were my cruise ship captain, airline pilot, or brain surgeon, I would want you to have at least ten years of experience under your belt. The same would be true if for a veterinarian, child psychologist, and college professor.

Ten years seems reasonable until you consider that the very first time the phrase "Search Engine Optimization" was ever used appears to have been in 1997 and the most popular search engine at the moment, Google, wasn't founded until 1998. How about all of the people with "Social Media Expert" slipped into their resume? A search for the history of social media produces a timeline indicating social networking sites didn't start major strides in growth until about five years ago. By the ten year rule, experts in SEO and social media would be nearly non-existent.

So what is the answer? Well, I'm no expert (ha!), but my favorite answers for what it takes to be one came from two very well-written posts. The first does an excellent job of defining what makes an expert (and how to become one), paraphrased here:

5. Knowledge & Practice
4. Experience in putting that knowledge to use
3. The ability to communicate what they know to others
2. Having social connections with other experts with whom knowledge can be shared

And the most important aspect all experts have in common...

1. The curiosity and drive to learn more, do more, and be more than they are today. The desire to expand their understanding once they've mastered one aspect of their field. To never be satisfied with the same old routine. Without this fuel, how can expertise be attained?

What qualities do you think make someone an expert?

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