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?