Since our life is a showcase for social media, we have chosen to wear the best clothes and fill our business card with areas of knowledge in which we are experts.
A quick search on LinkedIn, a transcript of the Mexican Zócalo square where the professionals announce their most outstanding skills, finds thousands of people who include the word «expert» in their presentation. The catalogue is immense: experts in coaching, communication, insurance, training, tax procedures, network infrastructure efficiencies, etc.
In its most popular sense, an expert is one who has above-average knowledge in a particular area.
To define oneself as an expert is simple and does not breach any norm.
When we have a problem with the car we call Peter because he is an expert in mechanics. Esther is an expert in restaurants and can recommend us where to eat. Laura is the stock market expert and will tell us where to invest. We recognize in them a knowledge that we lack, and we look for them to help us. They are our experts.
Who makes the expert? In Spain there are university degrees, with less substance than the master’s degree, which offer the title of expert in an extremely specific area to those who already have the appropriate qualification. In other words, an engineer who has already graduated can become an expert in railway engineering and thus obtain a diploma that makes it easier for him/her to apply for a certain job.
I do not intend to bring here the specialists with titles that endorse it, I bring here those who polish their professional profile with the self-designation of experts, without any evidence.
To define oneself as an expert is simple and does not breach any norm. It’s another thing to consider yourself a psychotherapist when you don’t have the right title, which would fall into the category of intrusion. But an expert in emotional health? No problem.
The controversial Richard Dawkins in his book «The Selfish Gene» illustrates how easy it is to consider oneself an expert. He says: «If you put a large enough number of people in a room and have them toss coins in the air, sooner or later someone will pull out ten faces in a row. If you ask him later, he will not tell you that he was lucky, but that he is an expert at throwing coins».
In the Middle Ages, guilds were institutionalized. These groups of craftsmen created a three-tier system: apprentice, officer, and master, which gradually enhanced the value of the knowledge acquired. They were the expert potters, blacksmiths, boilermakers, or jewellers, among others.
the child who begins to play the violin at the age of 8 will have to apply 10 000 hours in order to be a master of that particular string instrument.
Centuries later, the American psychologist Malcolm Gladwell established that it takes 10 000 hours of practice to be an expert at something. For example, the child who begins to play the violin at the age of 8 will have to apply 10 000 hours in order to be a master of that particular string instrument. According to Gladwell, this applies to any discipline: artistic, scientific, cultural, etc.
Peter Thiel, one of those Silicon Valley geniuses with many zeros in his bank account, says in his book «Zero to One» that it is necessary to dedicate one’s whole life to the same objective, without losing focus. This is the only way to achieve enough skill to succeed.
This classic argument is very much in question today. Overspecialisation is increasingly seen as less advantageous when it concerns the development of a professional career. It is not clear that a specialist is better at anticipating problems.
In my book «Actitud Digital» I tell the following anecdote that occurs at the end of the Soviet Union: «In 1980 the political scientist Phillipe Tetlock considered the possible dissolution of the USSR 10 years before it occurred. For a while he began to survey two types of people: experts in geopolitics and ordinary people (plumbers, administrators, housewives, …). The paradox of the result is that the normal people, advocated the fall of the Soviet State while the experts, led by the General Director of the CIA, Robert Gates, denied it».
I remind the reader that on 23 August 1989 Hungary opened its border to the citizens of the GDR. All that followed was a game of dominoes.
Tetlock of the University of Pennsylvania brings this and similar anecdotes together in his book «Expert political judgement: How good is it? How can we know?». The author records that political analysts who roam so much on television fail to make their predictions more often than people who are only informed.
To add to the evidence of the low reliability of experts’ predictions, Chinese researcher Wai Fong Boh finds that the best engineering inventors are neither experts nor generalists, they are polymaths, those with knowledge in multiple disciplines. Boh proposes to return to the great geniuses, to Leonardo, to Newton, to Archimedes or to Copernicus. Those with diverse yet interconnected knowledge who did so much for progress and science.
It seems that the arrival of the digital era has put the usefulness of experts into question and has incorporated the concept of the hybrid worker or, euphemistically, also called the Swiss Army Knife.
If we follow the teachings of another researcher, the Hollander Beatrice Van der Heijden, we should aspire to be competent in various areas of knowledge, but always after becoming experts in one of them. Van der Heijden says that after applying the 10 000 hours that give us expertise in one activity, we have many more ahead of us, an average of 75 000 hours in a working life, to learn about other disciplines. She concludes her statement with a term that is as eloquent as it is simple: Flexperts. Experts yes, but with a broad focus on different interests.
It seems that the arrival of the digital era has put the usefulness of experts into question and has incorporated the concept of the hybrid worker or, euphemistically, also called the Swiss Army Knife. This new concept advocates workers with a broad knowledge in different disciplines. It is not a question of being an expert in something specific, but of having a broad vision of different functions and, in their integration, achieving a higher level of efficiency.
Timothy O’Reilly says in his book «The WTF Economy» that we should focus on the problems and not the solutions. That we must achieve a broad understanding of what is happening. Better to be an expert on climate change than on solid fuels. All this is in line with the Fundación Telefónica report which states that young people today will have an average of eight jobs in their working lives, all of them with quite different functions.
Another way of confirming the experts’ downfall is to analyse what those who have achieved outstanding professional goals have done. Guy Berger, a technician from the social network LinkedIn, has done so and after analysing nearly half a million winners he has concluded that the more varied the experience in terms of functions, not sectors, the greater the professional success.
Few words have been so distorted in recent years as an expert (I would add coaching. But that would be another article). It is a free term, within reach of anyone. Being an expert today is an empty egg, white on the outside, nothing inside.
You already know that if you want to be an expert, do not ignore other complementary areas of knowledge. On the contrary, if you need an expert, ask for an authority, you will avoid shocks and disappointments.