To be an Expert

Curium | 13 Mar 2015 | News | General

Recently I was referred to as an “expert.” Despite being a significant step down from wizard , I still don’t feel like I deserve the title. Rationally, I know I must know a reasonable amount or I wouldn’t be able to perform my role and for this particular person, the amount I know obviously qualifies as expertise. So why do I feel like it doesn’t apply personally?

I did some digging to see if others have felt the same way and came across a few interesting topics.

The first one I came across was Impostor Syndrome. This is where an individual is unable to accept that they are responsible for their achievements. Despite evidence to the contrary, they think these achievements are down to luck or timing and consider themselves a fraud for representing otherwise.

While in the same arena, I’m far too arrogant for this to apply! I think I’m good at what I do; I’m just uncomfortable with the “expert” label. It’s also most commonly seen in high-achieving women and being neither, on the whole I think it is unlikely that impostor syndrome applies in my case.

Next up was the Dunning-Kruger effect. I’ve seen this referred to a lot recently but always in reference to the “incompetent” aspect of the study – that people of a low skill level tend to mistakenly rate their ability much higher than it actually is. To paraphrase one of the authors, “If you’re incompetent, you can’t know you’re incompetent…the skills you need to produce a right answer are exactly the skills you need to recognize what a right answer is.”

What I didn’t realise is that the study also found the opposite to be true. That the people who were truly skilled tended to underestimate their ability. Looking at the original paper I see that this effect is nowhere near that seen in the “unskilled” group but the principle itself is enough to prompt thought on my own situation and lead me to the next topic I found.

The Four Stages of Learning is a model originally developed by Gordon Training International in the 70s. In summary the stages are:

Stage 1 – Unconsciously unskilled – We don’t know what we don’t know. We are inept and unaware of it.
Stage 2 – Consciously unskilled – We know what we don’t know. We start to learn at this level when sudden awareness of how poorly we do something shows us how much we need to learn.
Stage 3 – Consciously skilled – Trying the skill out, experimenting, practicing. We now know how to do the skill the right way, but need to think and work hard to do it.
Stage 4 – Unconsciously skilled – If we continue to practice and apply the new skills, eventually we arrive at a stage where they become easier, and given time, even natural.

Stage 1 is similar to the unskilled group in the Dunning-Kruger study. If you don’t know the extent of your ignorance you could actually believe that you are expert. After all, in your own mind there is nothing more to know! The fact that I’m questioning the meaning of expertise in the first place hopefully excludes me from falling under this category.

I can relate to Stage 3 for a number of skills I have at the moment but “expert” is unlikely to be the first word people think of when watching me perform them!

Stages 2 and 4 were the final piece of the puzzle for me. I think I am uncomfortable with the expert title for two reasons. In my field the amount of potential knowledge to gain and skills to learn is vast. I know a lot but I’m also aware of the sheer amount that I don’t know. Instinctively I feel you should know it all to be considered an expert, however unrealistic that may be.

Secondly, there are specific areas where I have become unconsciously skilled and have forgotten that these skills took time to develop. They don’t feel like expertise as they are now second nature to me.

I think it’s a good instinct to not want to go around calling myself an expert as there will always be things I don’t know. I need to remember not to take it too far though, underselling the knowledge and skills that I worked hard to obtain.

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