As you know, I’m a big fan of pointing out people who claim to be financial experts but aren’t really.
But doing that several times got me to thinking: Just what is an expert? What defines one? How would I know an expert when I saw one?
So I thought I’d do a little research and put down some thoughts. Then you can add your two cents and we’ll chat about it. With all the smart people who read this blog, I think we’re bound to come up with something good.
Google’s Definition of an Expert
Like any other person, I started my search for a definition by asking Google what it thought.
I typed in “what makes someone an expert”.
As you might imagine, several links came up. 98 million or so to be exact. I’ll share some of the highest-ranking.
We’ll begin with Forbes who says that there’s really no hard and fast set of rules for determining an expert. But they do offer these thoughts:
While there is no 100% foolproof way to tell between an expert and their wanna-be counterpart, there are some things readers can do if they are seeking to assure that their “Expert” content really comes from an expert.
1. Consider the source: There are many good blogs run by individuals, but in a world where self-publishing is extremely cheap you need to know that just because it is published on the internet doesn’t make it true. I always recommend reputable sites and sources for instance for Technology it may be a source like CIO or Information Week whereas for business it may be Forbes or The Wall Street Journal.
2. Check the facts: Multiple layers of sourcing and fact checking always help. For instance, the stats given in this article came from Nielsen who is a reputable source, but sometimes people may claim stats from sources without documenting. Most well written pieces will link to the article where their primary or secondary research originated. If you cannot verify the source then it is warranted to question the author and their content.
3. Search or Nimble the Author: In the age of Google there is so much to learn about just about anyone via search or using tools like Nimble. Generally, you can find out someone’s credentials and background by searching them and in the information age you can verify that their bio is indeed accurate.
It’s funny to me that the author lists publications as expert sources (#1 above) when we’ve already established that many journalists are experts at journalism and not what they actually report on.
Of course this is a journalist saying that journalists are experts, so what did I expect?
The next suggestion comes from Quora, offering this definition:
An expert is someone who has sufficient experience and knowledge in a field to be able to recognize novel patterns from noise. Or, more abstractly, it’s the ability to collapse possibilities of a topic/domain to their most salient in order to decide/act meaningfully. For example, when I go to a doctor, she is able to diagnose important information related to an illness or condition by being able to eliminate what doesn’t belong and to query deeper about anomalies that may indicate the prospect of insight.
It’s written as if an academic wrote it, huh? Which is just who did pen this.
In a related post on Quora, here are some other thoughts:
Here is definition of an expert that comes from Dreyfus’s model. Experts don’t apply rules, or uses any maxims or guidelines. He rather has intuitive grasp of situations based on his deep tacit understanding. One key aspect of this level is that individual relies on intuition and analytical approach is used only in new situations or unrecognized problems not earlier experienced. Experience based deep understanding provides him very fluid performance. At this stage skills becomes automatic that even expert is not aware of it. Based on priori experience, they can even come up with solution for new never experienced before situations. “Experts” adopt a contextual approach to problem solving and understand the relative, non-absolute nature of knowledge. This ability distinguishes the “expert” from the “proficient” practitioner. Reflection comes naturally and experts solve problems almost unconsciously.
Becoming an expert requires not only the skills, knowledge and experience, there is more to it. Ericsson added that 10,000 hours of deliberate practice is also needed to gain expertise. However, there is bigger picture to expertise. Literature does not really detail the holistic picture on the expertise.
You’ve all probably heard of the “10,000 hours” rule to becoming an expert — that if you spend 10k hours doing something you become skilled at it.
That’s a misquote from the original research (which I learned on a podcast, I think it was Freakonomics). It’s actually 10,000 hours of deliberate practice which makes you an expert in the researcher’s estimation.
The comments on the page above seemed helpful too. Here’s one worth sharing:
Someone with lot of EXPERIENCE in that field tend to be the EXPERTS. Experts can never be encompassing a field perfectly there are always unknowns creeping in so the more a person has encountered such unique situations the more expertise he gathers.
And this one:
Someone becomes an expert in their field through experience that comes from analyzing and compiling concepts that encompass broad AND deep understanding. They demonstrate that expertise by developing new ideas and solutions that casual learners cannot.
Next I found this post detailing the nine abilities of expertise which included this quote:
Expertise typically has been viewed in terms of expert performance which means expertise in some abilities which are possessed by some and not all (Dror et al., 1993). These abilities may contain range of skills, knowledge and performance characteristics and it may vary from one domain to another. Ericsson (1994) defines expert level performance as “Usually, if someone is performing at least two standard deviations above the mean level in the population, that individual can be said to be performing at an expert level.” Ericsson & Lehman (1996) further elaborated expertise or expert performance as consistently superior performance in tasks pertaining to the field of expertise.
Lifehack then put together what I see as a great list of five characteristics of experts:
Knowledge: Clearly being an expert requires an immense working knowledge of your subject. Part of this is memorized information, and part of it is knowing where to find information you haven’t memorized.
Experience: In addition to knowledge, an expert needs to have significant experience working with that knowledge. S/he needs to be able to apply it in creative ways, to be able to solve problems that have no pre-existing solutions they can look up — and to identify problems that nobody else has noticed yet.
Communication Ability: Expertise without the ability to communicate it is practically pointless. Being the only person in the world who can solve a problem, time after time after time, doesn’t make you an expert, it makes you a slave to the problem. It might make you a living, but it’s not going to give you much time to develop your expertise — meaning sooner or later, someone with knowledge and communication ability is going to figure out your secret (or worse, a better approach), teach it to the world, and leave you to the dustbin of history.
Connectedness: Expertise is, ultimately, social; experts are embedded in a web of other experts who exchange new ideas and approaches to problems, and they are embedded in a wider social web that connects them to people who need their expertise.
Curiosity: Experts are curious about their fields and recognize the limitations of their own understanding of it. They are constantly seeking new answers, new approaches, and new ways of extending their field.
Finally, Bible Money Matters offers these thoughts on what makes an expert:
Extensive knowledge: They know a lot on their subject of expertise based on research, experience or occupation in a particular area.
Formal education: They may have advanced degrees in their area of specialization.
Licenses, degrees or certifications: They may have professional certifications in their area. For example, in financial arenas they may have a CFP, CFA, CFS, CPA or other specialized certification.
Working knowledge and experience in the subject area: They will usually have a good knowledge of the topic area because of working experience in the field, research they have conducted, etc.
Published works that stand up to scrutiny: They will often be a recognized expert because of their published works that have stood up to peer review.
People rely on them for their opinion in their subject area: A lot of people rely on them for their advice, and reviews of their work is generally positive.
Wow, that’s a lot to think about!
My Definition of an Expert
As you all know, I’m an 80/20 guy. I like to boil things down to the handful of basics that get most of the results.
As such, here’s what I think defines an expert:
- Knowledge. Could be formal or informal — a college degree, some sort of training, or simply self-taught education. Doesn’t really matter how the knowledge is acquired, just that you have it. That said, I would prefer knowledge gained through experience versus knowledge acquired through study, which leads us to our next criteria…
- Experience. Been through many situations, either personally or with others, learned from the events, and become increasingly more skilled as a result.
- Application. Put their knowledge and experience into practice in their own lives and seen positive outcomes as a result.
The rest is all fluff. I don’t care if you went to Harvard, write for Money magazine, are on TV, have a CFP license, or anything else. These things may be accomplishments and might help verify your knowledge (or maybe not) but they leave out the other two legs of the stool.
Thoughts on My Definition
I think a person needs all three qualities above to be an expert. And the more of each, the better.
The most controversial of the three is probably “application.” Some will argue that knowledge and experience are enough — that someone doesn’t have to take their own advice to be an expert. I disagree. I think they not only need to know the topic and experience through others (like a planner might), but also apply it to their own lives to really know the ins and outs of a topic.
This is certainly the case when it comes to money — at least for me. If someone has a ton of knowledge about money plus a wide range of experience and yet his finances are in shambles, I’m moving on unless there’s some unavoidable reason for his lack of financial success (like a major illness depleting his savings.) I’m the same way in other areas. I don’t want a doctor in poor health, I don’t want a lawn guy whose yard is a mess, and I don’t want a car mechanic with a broken-down vehicle. There are just too many others who can accomplish all three areas above that I prefer someone who has. Why settle?
It’s interesting to me that there are many people these days who either refer to themselves or are referred to by others as experts who only have one of the three qualities — and some have very little of the one that they do possess. In particular I think of the many “millennial money experts” who are inexperienced, have no formal education, and certainly haven’t applied much to their lives, and yet they are on a whole host of media being hailed as “experts.” Uh-huh.
So those are my thoughts, now it’s time for you to chime in? What’s your definition of an expert and how does it differ (if at all) from mine?
The Grounded Engineer says
Excellent write-up, ESI. I also listening to your podcast interview with ChooseFI, which was awesome and I highly recommend it to your readers 🙂
I agree with Lifehack’s definition and your definition. In my mind, your point on application is really the sum of the final three points from Lifehack: connectedness, curiosity, and communication. To apply your knowledge and experience you need to be connected and able to communicate your thoughts and share your experiences. Finally, to continue to expand your knowledge, you need to be curious. You need to ask curioush, thought provoking questions, which will also help expand your knowledge.
Thanks! Glad you liked the podcast.
I’ve done one other that is yet to be released and hope to do more.
Dan Malone says
According to Rule 702 of the Federal Rules of Evidence (and usually very similar wording in states’ rules of evidence), a witness who is qualified as an expert by knowledge, skill, experience, training, or education may testify in the form of an opinion or otherwise if:
(a) the expert’s scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge will help the trier of fact to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue;
(b) the testimony is based on sufficient facts or data;
(c) the testimony is the product of reliable principles and methods; and
(d) the expert has reliably applied the principles and methods to the facts of the case.
Bruce Stott says
I like this definition. It says the same as the other definitions above and is succinct.
I like it too, though it still leaves lots of room for interpretation. I can imagine attorneys arguing over whether or not a person is an expert even with this definition.
I totally agree. And I think that’s why you find so much contradictory advice out there. People saying, without doing (either now or in the past). I’d rather take my cues on money from someone who has made a lot of it – and manages it well. Great post. This is something that has been bothering me for while too.
J. Money says
An expert in money is someone who helps me get more of it 🙂 None of your smarts matter at all if my money is not better off after talking/reading/working with you! You help me grow my money, you’re an expert. You don’t, you’re not.
But in sports, is that the same approach? If you failed to win, does that mean your coach is not an expert?
Old joke. An “ex” is a has-been. A “spurt” is a drip under pressure. So an “expert” is a has-been drip under pressure.
Dads Dollars Debts says
The shoe cobblers kids always have the worst shoes…
I agree that someone should apply their teachings to their lives. Otherwise it is quite hypocritical. Still, there are many experts who don’t do the work when they come home. The carpenter who needs new flooring in his home or as you said, the lawn guy with a terrible lawn. It is work to them and not enjoyable.
Still money is money, and it is way more important than the lawn. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!
Sloan Ranger says
For me, what’s missing in the investment world is:
An expert is also someone who can disassociate himself or herself from sales (and other self-serving) incentives that color the “facts” or interpretations to the advantage of the expert. I think Warren Buffett, Charlie Munger, Ben Graham, et al. have (had) that essential quality. They have the other qualities, to be sure, but they frankly assess the facts, admit their shortcomings, and make recommendations based on what is in the best interest of the investor or the person seeking the advice – not what serves a personal or company (e.g., brokerage firm) agenda.
I think an expert needs wisdom to sum up the 3 criteria you provided.
In keeping with your fondness for debunking “financial experts”, I feel I have to bring up the newest kind of workplace “expert”- the management consultant. Some are worth their weight in gold, bringing a dispassionate outside view that cuts through the “way we’ve always done it”- but many more are brand-new grads, lack in the “experience” and “application” portion of your definition, and come up with solutions that create as many problems as they solve…
Thanks as always for a great read.
Yes. It’s so “interesting” to me that people leave school and suddenly become “experts” (named consultants) at anything.
john klabunde says
Hmmm… I think this question gets down to simplicity…..Results …..Results…and more successful RESULTS until (person A) gets……………………..A REPUTATION….another words…..everyone you talk to… agrees…. ….(person A) knows much more than you or them. Don’t fight it , it’s just a fact. Example . I am a good fisherman I am 53 and have fished all my life. I don’t hold a candle to my friend who is 20. He currently holds the largest catch and release muskellunge fish in Minnesota. He pays attention to detail better than most, ,spends the time to constantly improve, and he experiments. He surrounds himself with like minded people who have improved him and vice versa. In short , he put in the work most people weren’t willing to do……He constantly improves his craft…This is how you become an expert. The real difference is he spent more time on his passion than I was willing spend and paid more attention to detail than I was willing . I know about the 80/20 rule. some people just have the 100 percent.
I love the lines about application because in the financial arena there seems to be a ton of “experts” that lag the indexes and make their money from fees that ultimately limit your gains. Maybe I’m not an “expert”, but I am financially independent.
Maybe you are an expert! 🙂
Financial Samurai says
Hmmm, I’ve thought about this recently b/c I’ve noticed several millennial pundits say in their tag-line “Personal Finance Expert.” Really good marketing on their parts, but I’d be too embarrassed to say I’m an expert because I’m still learning lots of new things.
Maybe after 10 years of writing PF topics (2019) will I consider saying I’m an expert, but definitely not before.
I don’t know, I think it’s easy to get lost in the weeds, parsing over semantics . . . knowing a clown from a competent doer or ethical go-getter is generally good enough. Here we’re talking about financial experts, perhaps the most devious of the lot, which again begs the question, why not try to be the 100% expert yourself? Instead of worrying about the pack, the current trends, the ever-deviant history rooted in hard sales and exploitation. I had an interesting meet with a real shark at A.G. Edwards back in the day, before the tech bubble, before being gobbled up by other killers on the make. He was pretty fascinating for an a-hole . . . we did zero business, of course, which should always be the case. If you have two feet and a spine, you walk, no apologies. Happened at my credit union the other day; looked into an alternate checking option, heard the finer details, then . . . no deal. They just looked at me, unfamiliar with such a quick, conclusive rebuff. Time and money, baby; I’m reasonably nice, but all business. Waste your own time, not mine. Another example: years ago I scheduled a doctor appointment with a new guy. He was morbidly obese. He spent most of our very short meet, puzzled over the fact that I knew the body part in question with the appropriate terminology (just a slight tenderness had me concerned). Next . . . and so on and so forth. I’ve encountered more than one board-certified idiot, also dentists that want to take my blood pressure, otherwise skilled optometrists that crudely tried to profile me for marketing purposes. Next! And so it goes. Everyone, everything, taken with a grain of salt.