I was probably twelve or thirteen when my grandfather explained his definition of "expert" to me.
The way he described it, he never wanted to be an expert because of the way the word broke down phonetically. In his words, "X" represented something unknown; it's the part of the math problem that you furrow your brow and break out the calculator to figure it out. A "spurt" is a leak with force behind it.
Having worked his entire life as a repairman for essentially every type of appliance, farm equipment, and heavy machinery you can think of, nothing was much worse in my grandfather's line of work than an unknown leak with force behind it. That usually meant that something was losing oil, failing to pump milk, wouldn't start, or– in more cases than you might suspect– was on the verge of combusting.
For all intents and purposes, my grandpa is an expert in his line of work if we go with the traditional definition. He's the guy people go to when nobody else can solve the problem. Yet, in spite of his reputation and skill, he shrugs off the title of expert. In fact, I don't think he considers himself to have any particular title. He just shows up in his blue jumpsuit with his red screwdriver when a problem arises and he fixes it–– no title, just solutions.
Naturally, I've been thinking about this lesson quite a bit recently since my title at my day job has "expert" in it. At HubSpot, I'm now a Product Expert. If you want to stretch it out to my full title that would require printing my business cards on poster-sized paper, I'm a Content Product Group Product Expert for CMS Insights, Setup, and Publishing.
In practice, what this means is that when there's a problem that frontline support reps have a hard time figuring out, I step in and either provide the solution so that our customers stay up and running or I triage the issue to a developer so that we can make improvements to our software.
Basically, when things break, I do my own version of showing up in a blue jumpsuit and pulling out my red screwdriver just like my grandpa. Unlike my grandpa, however, I can't exactly shrug off the title of expert. In fact, my current salary is dependent upon my being an expert.
Yet, because I am always looking at my career in the long-term and thinking about what will come next, I'm setting myself a goal for being an expert that requires bringing my grandpa's definition of an expert into harmony with the traditional definition: I want to be the worst expert I can be.
Here's what I mean.
What is Expertise?
Let's just start by looking at the two definitions of "expert" for now:
1. noun: a person who has a comprehensive and authoritative knowledge of or skill in a particular area.
2. noun: an unknown leak with force behind it. A problem that's only going to become a bigger problem because you don't know it's there or haven't found the cause yet.
At the surface level, these two definitions seem entirely contradictory. For all intents and purposes, it should be impossible for me to be a dictionary definition expert and a Fred-dictionary expert at the same time. To be an authority and having a comprehensive knowledge of a subject is at odds with having a problem that's causing things to break. After all, an expert should be able to identify the problem and fix it, right?
Perhaps that's true. Perhaps if someone has comprehensive knowledge and particular depth of skill in an area, they should be able to fix the concealed issues. Definition one should invalidate definition two.
And yet, I've found that when I view myself as an expert in the traditional sense, I have a tendency to shy away from taking risks in my field since taking a risk means opening myself up to being wrong and being wrong means feeling like a sham (cue Imposter Syndrome here). As an "expert," my reputation is built on being right and being knowledgeable in my field. Experts stake their reputation on being so knowledgable that we tend to seek out bigger problems to fix, too. In my day job, it's much more exciting for me to be able to say "we didn't have a pre-made solution for this big pain point, so I engineered one using my impressive technical knowledge" than it is for me to say "oh, this was an easy fix since all we had to do was add an extra curly bracket."
It feels more rewarding to have those "look at how much of an expert I am" moments when it's happening. That's where your peers pat you on the back and you feel validated in having the title of Product Expert. In fact, sometimes it has even led me to look for bigger problems and harder solutions, completely missing the fact that something simple could be happening. There's an adrenaline rush to doing something that reaffirms your expertise and the praise you get for doing so just feels good.
And yet, to the customers I'm working with, it doesn't really make a difference. Whether I've done something advanced and complex or something minuscule, what the customers care about is that their problem has been solved and they're able to get on with their business.
The complex solutions look great to other experts; any solution that works looks great to the people whose business actually requires that my position exists.
What I've found is that experts tend to work with other experts in their field in mind, not the people who are directly impacted by the outcomes of the field.
I sometimes kick myself for taking so long to put the pieces together on things like this. Three years ago, I reached this exact same conclusion when going into grad school just didn't feel right and I decided to take some time to work full-time and figure out what I wanted to do.
By the time I finished undergrad, I was on my way to being an expert in a different field. I excelled at literary research and criticism, and just knew that I had what it took to be the next dominant thinker in the field of Cather Studies. I already knew more about Cather's work than was probably healthy and was incredibly well-versed in the research that had already done within the field. All I had to do was take that knowledge a step further, get into a Ph.D. program, write up a dissertation, and boom! I'd be there and be able to establish myself as the expert on all things Willa Cather.
But, as fate would have it, I did what 99% of all recent college grads do. I had an identity crisis and stayed awake at night wondering what would be next.
While crises typically aren't cause for celebration, this one did help me reach an important conclusion. I didn't fall in love with Willa Cather and her work because of my research. My passion started when I was a confused, scared kid in rural Kentucky who felt like he didn't belong or have a place in the world until he read My Ántonia in a high school English class.
My joy wasn't in knowing all that there was to know about Willa Cather. It was about discovering her– it was about having the experience and letting the work wash over me. I wasn't looking for insights or paradigms or symbolism. I was just reading, and in doing so the work found me and led me to myself.
Being on the path to becoming an expert didn't dim my love of Cather. If anything it just made me appreciate her work more. Yet, I wasn't reading her to just read her anymore. I was reading her to be able to discuss her with other experts and to prove my expertise.
Expertise is a curious conundrum. You can know and do so much more in some ways, but do so much less in other ways.
This has led me to my current hypothesis: the only way to be the best expert you can be is to be a really bad one.
Why I Want to be a Bad Expert
The more I position myself as an expert and look for ways to prove my expertise, the more likely I am to miss the smaller details and overlook opportunities to learn something new. Perhaps even more dangerous, the more I see myself as an expert, the more I fear to be wrong.
Being wrong can be a fantastic thing. Being wrong is one of the best ways to learn something new, and taking the risk to be wrong opens you up to having innovative, creative ideas. Perfection– having this desire to always be right– is antithetical to growing. Striving for perfection, or, in this case, the textbook definition of expertise, therefore stifles learning and creativity.
So, my goal with having the title "Product Expert" is to be the Best Bad Expert I can be.
While I intend to leverage my knowledge and skills to deliver solutions– including the complex solutions as they're needed– I am keeping the door open to being wrong and making all kinds of beautiful, exciting mistakes. Bob Ross was right all along about there being no such things as mistakes, just happy accidents. You can make something beautiful out of happy accidents, just like you can make beautiful learning opportunities out of being "wrong."
Expertise is desirable in the sense that it's great to be very knowledgable in one's field, but being an expert is not if it causes you to fear being wrong, perform for other experts rather than the people affected by your work, or feel like you're done growing.
Where I'm Going from Here
Here's where things get really exciting, in my opinion.
Thinking about expertise and what it means to be an expert has piqued my curiosity quite a lot. I'm more intrigued and investigative about this topic than I have been about anything else recently. In fact, this blog post is just the beginning of my thoughts on the matter.
I'd love to learn more about how other people view expertise and what it means to them. I've created this short survey to get started, so please take a few minutes to share your thoughts there whether or not you consider yourself an expert.
Ideally, I'd also like to take advantage of being a remote worker and spend some time traveling around the country to talk to experts in various fields about what it means to be an expert to them and how it impacts the way that they work. I want to unravel this conundrum of expertise causing experts to be opposed to taking risks, and to see how one can be an authoritative expert while maintaining the sense of wonder and curiosity of a beginner. Your responses to the survey linked above will be a great starting place for me.