I always wanted to be an expert in something. After six years of college and two degrees, I thought I was a political expert. My dad made quick work of that delusion. I knew nothing. Apparently he was right, because to this day I can’t win a barroom debate with the average high school dropout who caught Rush Limbaugh that morning. Facts are such poor ammunition when confronting “The Truth”.
Lesson 1: Expertise is not conferred academically.
My next brush with expert status came as a government employee. Hired directly out of grad school I joined a scandal-ridden office that soon after I arrived was forty minutes of a 60 Minutes program. Almost immediately, amidst the scandal and incompetence of my government job, I was being touted to the public as “an expert”. I knew so little, but with title in hand I was sent to the field to tell experienced managers, business owners and career bureaucrats that I knew more than they did about something. Unfortunately, that “something” was illogical, ill-conceived government programs and regulations that I barely understood myself. I was the clerk at Best Buy who, after his two days of new employee training, was your computer “expert”.
Lesson 2: Expertise does not come with the title.
I changed careers, took a substantial pay cut and entered a field where I had no academic training whatsoever. I was a natural… I hoped. Two years after I entered the field, I took a terrifying leap and started my own company. With two years experience and some industry-endorsed awards, I represented myself as an expert – a savant of sorts, whose work met immediate acclaim. The fact was, though I possessed a certain talent for the work, I knew very little more than the people I was advising. Frightened that I was in over my head I consulted my “expert”, the revered CEO of a much larger competitor who had already been installed in our industry’s “Hall of Fame”. Over drinks he revealed the frightening truth, “we’re all just one step ahead of our clients; it’s the inevitable nature of our business.”
Lesson 3: Expertise is a very relative term.
Still, I worshipped at the expert shrine. After years of writing a humor column in a magazine I bristled one day as some lame “morning zoo” radio team unofficially laid claim to being the local kings of comedy. I called them out on it in my column which prompted some on-air name calling dutifully reported back to me by my children (“Dad, my friends said KLQ called you a scumbag on the radio today”). Once again, it was a question of my “expertise”. So, sitting down with my editors I devised a test – 10 minutes of stand-up comedy in front of a neutral audience. The zoo was a no-show that first year, but some of their equally unfunny peers tried and died; I beat them all. A month later my delusions were mercilessly quashed as I bombed horrendously while performing at a real comedy show.
Lesson 4: There is a difference between experts and expert observers.
Recently, I entered the blogosphere, where a new “expert” is born every 30 seconds. Of the few blogs I have visited, some have proven quite informational, others minimally so. Many are entertaining; I enjoy good writing. And others have become the “pundits” of our generation. I greatly distrust pundits. It’s more than their dubious “expertise”, it’s their total lack of accountability. A recent piece of research tracked the predictions made in 2005 by the most oft-quoted political pundits. Our nationally-worshipped political gurus were less accurate than the National Weather Service on a rainy Memorial Day weekend. But none has been fired, reprimanded, sent to pundit school or any relevant institution for that matter (not that schooling counts, see Lesson 1) – for their inability to predict anything more difficult than the days of the week.
Lesson 5: The evolving expert: “I speak, therefore I am”.
The wonderful enabling quality of the Internet is its ability to distribute information about any subject to anyone who asks. The wonderful thing about blogs is how they democratize the process. As recent Congressional hearings have illustrated, search engines can control the online flow and quality of information in countries such as China where knowledge is considered a controlled substance. Blogging has enabled millions to skirt the censorship process, if only sporadically. Through blogs the downtrodden and others can vent, exchange rumors, sources, sites and sometimes accurate information in over 100 different languages.
For those of us seeking analysis of facts and events from time to time, blogs provide us a broader perspective. But is it an expert analysis? What is an expert other than someone smart who agrees with us? Well, you can ask me. I think after all these years I have finally achieved expert status. I have become an expert in observing those who claim to be experts. If my dad could see me now.