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

Part 1 in a 2 Part Series on Expertise

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 over 600 people at four 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.'”

Click here to read part 2 of this 2 part series.