ALL THE EXPERTS – Some thoughts on expertise

In Musings by Chris Foley

Why it matters: Because it's really hard to tell the experts from the charlatans.

Why it matters: Because it's really hard to tell the experts from the charlatans.


This has been coming up a lot lately in my Mastermind group and in conversations I’ve been having with friends and colleagues:

What does it even mean to be an expert at something? 

Malcolm Gladwell famously argues in his book Outliers: The Story of Success that one must put in 10,000 hours of reliable and deliberate practice to achieve mastery of something, and he presents several case studies to support this theory. It’s a good book. 

Gurus, Rockstars, Ninjas galore.

We seem to have survived the rather annoying surge on social media of folks claiming to be gurus, ninjas, rockstars, etc, particularly in the field of online marketing, and some of them had even written books (wooo! — You’ll remember that at one time or another the mark of an expert was that they’d written a book) but so few of them had put in their 10,000 hours, and so many of them were so clearly doing the “fake it ’til you make it” thing. That seems to have died down a bit but it’s still here and it’s both amusing and annoying that there are still people jumping on that train at this stage in the game. 

The problem persists, though it’s shifted focus from Guru, Ninja, et al to something new.

Nowadays it seems that I can’t swing a barely veiled hyperbole without hitting a Coach, Trainer, or Speaker.

Now, I’m not knocking coaches, trainers, and speakers — I myself have been each of these things at various points in my career and on some days I’m all three of them! I also have the privilege of working with some very talented coaches, trainers, and speakers who have achieved mastery and expertise in their fields.

The experts ARE out there, but the landscape is littered with charlatans, and how do we tell the difference?

My point has to do with expertise and experts. I’m seeing a rather disconcerting trend (and I think Paul Jarvis has talked about this as well) of folks who take a couple of online classes and decide that they’re going to put their own (tragically minor) spin on it and go into business teaching that thing themselves. The trouble is that this person isn’t an expert; they just took a couple of courses and now they’re going to regurgitate this plagiarized shit back on their customers. 

So back to experts. What makes an expert an expert anyway? Is it the 10,000 hours that we equate with mastery? I don’t think that that’s necessarily necessary, though it certainly helps. I’ve known people who have put in their 10,000 and they’re always very very good at what they do, but I have also noticed that some of them are unable to create new things out of that space. They may have achieved mastery in their particular area, but that might be it for them. 

I’ve noticed an intuitive sort of mastery that doesn’t doesn’t seem to require years of repetitive experiences. 

I’ve worked with experts who were relatively new to their field or discipline. What made them experts is that they totally and absolutely understood and embodied their field or discipline to a degree that was truly unique and they were able to inject their own voice and approach into something. They maybe didn’t create something new out of thin air, but they have something that’s uniquely them — that goes far beyond putting their own spin on a thing. 

These people are also rare, and I have the privilege of working with a few of them. What I’m trying to figure out right now is a gauge that we can all use to determine the experts from the bullshitters. One of my first red flags is when people claim to be an expert (or a ninja, guru, rockstar, etc, etc). The more you try to convince me of your expertise the less I’m buying. 

Another thing is an overall sense that the expert in question does or doesn’t have their shit together. I don’t know if this is directly connected or not, but I’ve found that the less well a person is able to tell their own story, the less well that person has done the work required to lead them to the expertise they claim to posses. 

My wife points to an old adage reportedly expressed by Einstein which says that “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” If you truly own a topic and possess expertise around that topic you should be able to explain it quickly and simply. That’s another item that I look for when vetting expertise. 

As you can tell I’m not looking to solve this problem in this article but to articulate it and get it out of my head. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this, as it’s sure been coming up a lot and I’d like to gain, well, a little bit more expertise around judging expertise and distinguishing the pros from the charlatans. 



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