How do you recognize an expert?

Go back to the roots: experience. An expert is someone who has repeatedly solved the concrete problem you are encountering. If your toilet leaks, an experienced plumber is an expert. An expert has a track record and has had to face the consequences of their work. Failing is part of what makes an expert: any expert should have stories about how things went wrong.

I associate the word expert with ‘the problem’ because we know that expertise does not transfer well: a plumber does not necessarily make a good electrician. And within plumbing, there are problems that only some plumbers should solve. Furthermore, you cannot abstract a problem: you can study fluid mechanics all you want, but it won’t turn you into an expert plumber.

That’s one reason why employers ask for relevant experience: they seek expertise they can rely on. It is sometimes difficult to acquire expertise in an academic or bureaucratic setting because the problems are distant or abstract. Your experience may not translate well into practice. Sadly we live in a society where we often lose track of and undervalue genuine expertise… thus you may take software programming classes from people who never built software or civil engineering classes from people who never worked on infrastructure projects.

So… how do you become an expert? Work on real problems. Do not fall for reverse causation: if all experts dress in white, dressing in white won’t turn you into an expert. Listening to the expert is not going to turn you into an expert. Lectures and videos can be inspiring but they don’t build your expertise. Getting a job with a company that has real problems, or running your own business… that’s how you acquire experience and expertise.

Why would you want to when you can make a good living otherwise, without the hard work of solving real problems? Actual expertise is capital that can survive a market crash or a political crisis. After Germany’s defeat in 1945… many of the aerospace experts went to work for the American government. Relevant expertise is robust capital.

Why won’t everyone seek genuine expertise? Because there is a strong countervailing force: showing a total lack of practical skill is a status signal. Wearing a tie shows that you don’t need to work with your hands.

But again: don’t fall for reverse causality… broadcasting that you don’t have useful skills might be fun if you are already of high status… but if not, it may not grant you a higher status.

And status games without a solid foundation might lead to anxiety. If you can get stuff done, if you can fix problems, you don’t need to worry so much about what people say about you. You may not like the color of the shoes of your plumber, but you won’t snob him over it.

So get expertise and maintain it. You are likely to become more confident and happier.

Daniel Lemire, "How do you recognize an expert?," in Daniel Lemire's blog, April 21, 2024.

Published by

Daniel Lemire

A computer science professor at the University of Quebec (TELUQ).

One thought on “How do you recognize an expert?”

  1. I like your points, I’d argue one though.

    > “That’s one reason why employers ask for relevant experience: they seek expertise they can rely on.”

    That’s true as long as you’re outside. Then they will move you to whatever place in a reorg even if that doesn’t fit your expertise for whatever administrative reason or because they think it will make you a more round engineer…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

You may subscribe to this blog by email.