How do you know, if you are an expert?

A bit more than a year ago, I realized something that scared me for a second. When we started to write the White Paper about Sales Systematization, I came aware of the fact that I had never really considered or questioned, if systematizing sales was a good thing. Crap. What if… the thing I had been training people and helped companies do for six years turned out to have major holes… or even worse, totally wrong? What if the expertise we had built our company around was worth less than a bucket of beer? I had to question, if we were really experts at all.

If I would tell you that an expert is someone who has much higher than average abilities in a certain field, when it comes to things like knowledge, skills and experience. You would be likely to agree. So will probably Wikipedia and the dictionary you might have at home. And that was also the definition I had used, when it came to myself and us.

When it comes to hiring experts (or consultants) you encounter a problem. People are not experts just because they say so or consider themselves to be. Not even knowledge or experience are a guarantee. Still they are good indicators. Since, it is very difficult to really become good at something unless you have done (a lot of) mistakes that have given you the opportunity to deepen and question your current understanding. A person’s need to vigorously underline how good they are, is usually a bad sign. It isn’t hard for them to show you, what they are talking about. In my experience, people who really know what they are talking about dive into the subject. They have probably become good, because they are passionate and constantly curious about their field. It is difficult to become the best at something, you don’t really care about.

There is a big problem, when it comes to many usual ways of developing your expertise and learning new ways to solve problems. The limitations are very often looked aside or not discussed at all. People are taught how a model, methodology or tool works. They are given the knowledge of how to use something and how it works, but NOT when not to use it and when it doesn’t work. The problem is somewhat built in the ways we teach people things. Imagine a lecturer talking about the reasons and possible situations in which his theories and best-practices don’t work. He is supposed to be the expert. Why is he telling us this, if it is already broken from the start? Consider this for a while, would you hire me or any other consultant, if they told you they don’t know what they are talking about? Of course, it is often easy to find out (and consultancies mostly hire fast learners), but it’s difficult to be an expert, if you are doing something for the first time.

The thing is… we need to learn how to use new tools, but we should also discuss what the tools are meant for. There is not one tool for every situation. An expert is not only someone who knows a lot of tools, but someone who understands, which tools to use and their specific limitations in that particular case of application. If we are unaware, that there almost certainly are things we don’t know and forget to consider the uniqueness of the matter at hand, we are more likely to think we know everything there is to know. In real-life there is no collection of right answers on the last pages of the book.

In my opinion, the first step in really starting to become an expert at something is understanding the limitations of what you already know. We need to keep on questioning why we believe in what we think we know. Otherwise we will take things for certain and lose creativity in finding new better solutions.

Searching for one single way to get to the bottom of things – is a fool’s errand.