Beware the self-identified “expert”

Every field of human endeavor has its experts: those individuals who, through the right combination of talent, practice, and experience, acquire the highest levels of knowledge and skill within that field.

It is also one of the most basic observations about life and learning that the more you know, the more you realize you don’t know. As such, those who know the most are also (often) the most keenly aware of their own limitations, and are therefore the least likely to comfortably inhabit the identity of “expert.”

And yet, plenty of people proudly inflate their own status to that level, be they charlatans seeking unearned power and influence, or earnest practitioners of lesser abilities, who are simply benignly unaware of their own limitations (if such ignorance can truly be benign). It doesn’t help that we live in a world of “resumé inflation”, where everyone is an expert in everything, simply by virtue of putting those words on a piece of paper.

Of course there are also the occasional “true” experts who act as provocateurs — or simply have raging egos — who may be aware not only of their own limitations, but also of the even more extreme limitations of everyone else around them, and who leverage that knowledge for greater personal gain. But we have another word for these people. (Assholes.)

The challenge then is this: how do we identify those on whom we can most rely to share their “expertise”, if the true expert refuses the label and the self-identified expert is anything but?

I think the answer is simple: we find experts by the admiration of their peers.

Unless they’re all assholes too.

A note about the photo above: That’s Pete Prodoehl, a guy I don’t know much about but whose website I’ve long been aware of, and who does not appear to self-identify as an expert (except in the seemingly tongue-in-cheek way of this photo). But I found the photo on a post on a douchey motivational website for aspiring entrepreneurs, encouraging “expert” self-identification, while not bothering to identify, credit, or link to Pete’s website. Take all of this as you will.