A dictionary will tell you that an “expert” is someone who has more than average knowledge of a subject, someone who can provide superior results, or someone recognized as a reliable source of information. What the dictionary does not tell you, however, is that people often disagree about who is expert and who is not. The word is intentionally vague. There is no single diploma or degree for being an expert, no single standardized test, no clearly defined finish lines. Professor James Shanteau, of Kansas State University, summarized the problem of identifying experts in a 2002 article (pdf) in the European Journal of Operational Research. In the paper he asks, “Although experts have been studied for over a century, there remains a critical unanswered question — how can we describe who is, and who is not, an expert?” He then enumerates nine different ways researchers have identified experts. Even amoung researchers, it seems that someone can be designated an expert for nearly any reason.
In some domains it is easy to identify the experts. Objective criteria allow observers to measure who is best and who is not. When discrete measurements are available, experts will often exhibit superior performance in the dimension of the metric. A chess master, for example, can win against lesser skilled competitors. Professional golfers and tennis players can outperform challengers. Medical specialists are more likely than junior practitioners to diagnose a disease correctly.
In other domains, however, the identification of an expert is highly subjective and almost impossible to measure. Experts on foreign policy, law, accounting, finance and many other fields will provide differing and often contradictory recommendations. Wall Street, for example, is filled with experts who attempt to pick high performing stocks, yet they fail nearly as often as they succeed. When objective criteria are not available, a person is broadly accepted as an expert when a sufficiently large number of people grant the title or when the person has practiced or studied in a field for as sufficiently long period of time.
There are, of course, some people who are universally recognized experts. The late Clyde Tombaugh is the astronomer who discovered Pluto. Jonas Salk invented the polio vaccine. Stephanie Kwolek invented bullet proof Kevlar. Mohamed Ali was an expert fighter and Whitney Houston an expert singer, and so forth. Few people who study these remarkable people would dispute that they were experts in their fields.
Unlike industry titans, however, most experts are not renowned. Most experts quietly serve their companies, customers, communities, and families. In a business setting, for example, the expert is the one who can answer important questions correctly and reliably. If Chris knows the most about a business system, then Chris is the resident expert on that system. If Jordan has been involved in a project since its inception and remembers many of the key decisions, then Jordan is the expert. These experts rarely seek public notoriety, and their expertise may be constrained to a very narrow subject, but they are experts.
Herein, is one of the powerful attributes of the title expert. Anyone can be an expert, and anyone can make you an expert. You are not an expert because you think you are, you are an expert because someone else thinks you are. And when just one person thinks you are an expert, you are, to that person, an expert. Being expert in the eyes of one person does not make you an expert in the eyes of many. And, being an expert in the eyes of many people does not make you an expert in the eyes of all. You must earn the distinction repeatedly with every person you meet, with every interaction.
Being an expert is a subjective concept; it is the idea that you have value, that you are different, that you can be trusted, that your recommendations are worthy of consideration, that your opinion counts. Being an expert to the right person, the one person who needs you, can be more important and more life-changing than being an expert for many people. Where there is an expert, there is trust. Where there is an expert there is a leader. Where there is an expert there is inspiration.