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How Much Do You Need to Know Before You’re an Expert?

By Valerie Young

During a recent visit to the dentist, my hygienist Anne asked about my recent speaking tour in California. When I told Anne I’d spoken on the Impostor Syndrome to thousands of people at numerous universities, including Stanford, her response was, “Wow, you must be a real expert.” While that term doesn’t always resonate with me, I suppose I am an expert.

But what does it mean to be an “expert”? Naturally you do need to know something about the topic at hand. But how much knowledge do you actually need to consider yourself an expert?

The Expert Trap

If you’ve ever read a job description and automatically disqualified yourself because you didn’t have one or two out of a long line of competencies or the necessary experience, passed on an opportunity to speak on or otherwise showcase your knowledge because you “don’t know enough,” or not started your own business because you are not yet “an expert” then you may have fallen into the Expert Trap.

The common belief that you need to know 150 percent before you’re remotely qualified to step up the plate is a huge dream stopper. Striving to be THE expert is the knowledge version of perfectionism. And as with perfectionism, going for total knowledge can at best slow you down and at worst bring your dream to a screeching halt.

The problem for people who fall into the Expert Trap is that they suffer under the misconception that there’s some clear line of demarcation between expert and non-expert — and that they’ll somehow know when they’ve reached it. We tell ourselves, “If I can just get enough knowledge, experience, or training, then I’ll be an expert.”

And herein lies the rub — you can never know it all. It’s like the commercial where a man beams that he’s reached the end of the Internet. What makes the ad funny is its absurdity. The Internet is so vast and ever-changing that if you lived a thousand years you’d never reach the “end.” It’s the same with knowledge. There is no end. You can add to your understanding of a subject but there will always more to learn.

The Expert “Myth”

You’re especially prone to the Expert Trap if you mistakenly believe that competence and expertise are one and the same. The belief that, “If I were really competent, intelligent, qualified… I would know more” keeps far too many people from striking out on their own.

A lot of men fall victim to this same self-limiting thinking. Yet my early research, coupled with twenty-plus years of anecdotal evidence, suggests women are more prone to equate competence with knowing it all.

Apparently I’m not alone. A few years back I wrote a letter to the editor. In it I described how a man who finds himself confronted with something he’s never done before is more likely to “wing it” while a woman in the same situation often expects herself to know it all up front.

A week after my letter appeared I got this email from Dan Pink, author of Free Agent Nation and A Whole New Mind:

I just read your letter-to-the-editor in Fast Company. Great work! My hunch — speaking as a male all too willing to opine without sufficient facts — is that you’re spot-on. That at least is what I discovered during several hundred interviews with independent workers over the last two years…kudos again on telling it like it is!

Just to be clear — expertise in and of itself is not a myth. After all, we all know people who are undisputable experts in their respective fields. The myth is:

  • believing that being an expert means you have to know everything there possibly is to know about a subject  
  • believing you will someday be able to announce triumphantly that you have reached the end of knowledge and are “done”
  • believing that if you don’t know everything there is to know, then you know nothing at all
  • believing our inner voice when it says, “If I were really smart, then I would know how to do this.”

Not only is it humanly impossible to “know it all,” but the misguided pursuit to do so can kill a dream before it ever begins. As Suzanne Falter-Barns asks, “How many of us linger forever in endless training and classes, waiting to get really good at something before we plunge a single toe into the submission/rejection pool?”

Just as with perfection, the pursuit of expertise can become a convenient excuse for never moving forward. The reality, says Falter-Barnes, is that “You cannot become a master until you actually take the leap, do the work, make several thousand mistakes, and live to tell about it.” Adding, “Experience is truly the only thing that makes experts so expert.”

Finally, next time you’re rattled by not knowing it all, let yourself off the hook by remembering the wise words of Mark Twain who said: “I was gratified to be able to answer promptly. I said, ‘I don’t know.'”

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  1. Hi Valerie, I couldn’t agree more with your post. As a book coach I find one of the biggest stumbling blocks for want-to-be non-fiction writers is that they don’t see themselves as an ‘expert’, and make the assumption that to write a book they must know everything before they start. (That may well be a gender thing, as you mentioned above.) As one of your licenced Profit from Your Passions coaches, I have the added bonus of being able to guide them through this, and the key turning point for them is to realise that in the process of writing the book they will become much more of an expert. Writing a book is like a fabulous low-cost self-study course where you gather expertise and produce a book as your outcome, and the rewards are enormous – credibility, authority, confidence, recognition and more…
    Bev Ryan,
    Book Coach & PFYP Career Coach (Australia)

  2. Hi Valerie,
    Great post. What would your view be on the 10,000 hours argument that is thrown around?
    I’ve come across it before but most recently in ‘Bounce’ by Matthew Syed.
    The whole notion that you’re a real expert when you’ve dedicated 10,000 hours to it. Which takes apparently about 10 years.

    Thoughts?

  3. Julie

    I love getting your emails and inspiring words. I know I have suffered from the Imposter Syndrome and have read your stuff for many years. I even had a phone call once with you. Only my own fears have stopped me thus far. I am taking steps now in spite of that to pursue my own dreams. Because if not now, when?

  4. I totally agree, Valerie – and yet I have suffered from “expertitis” myself, feeling uncomfortable when someone asks if I’m an expert. I now console myself with a thought from John Childers, that you can share your knowledge as an expert/guru, as a teacher, or as a student – and all three levels are equally valid to different audiences.

  5. Bev you are so right about how many people let the belief that they aren’t expert enough stop them from writing a book or starting a business. If you’re not a brain surgeon then I advise against writing a book about how to do it. But if the book is about life after divorce or raising a shy child or opening a bakery… everyone can either a) draw from their own experience or b) talk to others who have experience and do other homework to gain knowledge.

    Would love to have you submit an article sometime on how to craft a book.

    Valerie

  6. Emma,

    So glad you raised the 10k hour question. I see skills and knowledge as somewhat different.

    If you want to be a concert pianist, play in a major golf tournament, or become a master craftsperson then yes, the 10k hours no doubt applies.

    Unfortunately there are others who fall into what I call the Natural Genius trap. Here the thinking is that if something doesn’t come easily or happen quickly than I must not be “smart” or capable enough. In reality everyone gets better with practice.

    But I didn’t need 10k hours to learn how to start a business and someone who wants to write a book on the best hot dog joints in the Chicago doesn’t need to spend years preparing.

    Make sense?

    Valerie

  7. Julie and Julia (sounds like a movie 🙂

    Thanks for sharing. A good way to push past fear is to tie your dream to the needs of others… so if you’re afraid to start a business coaching people on how to become more prosperous, think of all the people who would lose out if you hold back your gifts.Looked at that way it’s selfish to let fear stand in our way.

    Great point Julia – you can be an expert and a lifelong learner at the same time.

    Valerie

  8. Stephen & Susie Edwards

    Valerie, My wife and I just recently got very interested in sharing our Life Lessons with others. We are in 100% agreement regarding your thoughts on being an expert. A little knowledge can be dangerous, but neither will we ever know it all. At the ages of 56 & 63 we are still learning and, just as importantly, willing to share those lessons with others. When we assist others to overcome their habits, hangups, and holdbacks we find every situation to be an opportunity to increase our knowledge.

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