Thursday, September 19, 2013

Expertise is in the Eye of the Beholder

I’m not an expert. At anything, really.

I don’t feel like an expert. I don’t act like an expert. I don’t carry myself in the way I imagine experts would carry themselves, would think of themselves.

I’m not credentialed like an expert. I have neither a doctorate in my area(s?) of expertise, nor even a master’s degree. I have experience, and years of it, as an engaged parent and as a professional in the field, but what does that matter if I don’t have those precious three letters, “PhD” in my name?

Were I to fly into the heart of the Ivy Leagues, or to New York City, or maybe even to the intensely-competitive private school world of Atlanta, you could easily find people who out-experted me. I can name at least three or four people in my very small professional field, in Atlanta alone, who can run circles around me, people I have sought often and from whom I have learned much.

Perhaps more importantly, and definitely more telling, I’m not comfortable considering myself an expert.

There’s all this education-focused literature out there now -- and I read a ton of it, which is the blue-collar way to educate yourself when you can’t or won’t disappear to graduate school for a year or for several nights a month -- that talks about the importance of grit and resilience, the value of hard work, and the detrimental consequence of viewing intelligence as a fixed notion.

The smartest people are those who never consider themselves expert enough, is the way I’ve begun to see it. The minute Nick Saban considers himself an expert enough coach is the minute he begins to see other coaches pass him by. The minute Toyota is satisfied with its place atop the automotive food chain is the minute the wheels get wobbly.

So I worry that thinking of myself that way, as an expert, as someone who knows enough about a given field or subject, is the best way to stop learning more, stop improving, stop getting more experty, or expertier. (Yeah, I know it’s not a word; I’m not yet an expert in English composition, either. Even though some people say I write real good.)

Earlier this week, I stood in front of a modestly-sized group of fathers, parents of middle and high school kids. I spent several hours attempting to hone down a useful overview of parenting in the digital age, a mix of Social Media 101 plus What Parents Should/Can Do. It had to be informative but not jargony, encouraging but not preachy. They needed to leave feeling they knew a little more and knowing there were realistic action steps.

I made a Prezi. I kept my talk in the perfect TED window of 15-18 minutes. I kept things light yet spoke with confidence about the topic, having read and reread a superb book and a dozen or so articles I’d favorited in Twitter over the last year. Nobody likes it when a meeting runs long. Especially when it’s during work hours. High-income high-fallootin’ successful dads tend to like it even less. I would not disrespect them by going over my allotted time. (And I didn't! Do you have any idea how hard that is for me?!?!)

Yet, as the bell tolled on the end of our time, no one left. The Q&A portion had started more than 10 minutes ago, and they were all still engaged, asking questions, wanting to know more. More than half the dads remained after I forced the thing to a close to talk more, to ask more questions.

This is bragging, which tends to be annoying and obnoxious, but what happened in that room was exhilarating, that moment when you get to savor that your relatively vast knowledge of a topic, something your audience knows so much less about, has value, that moment when years and years of experience and reading offers 15 minutes of people giving you their attention and positive energy.

Although I could never teach as a career, I can see where the great teachers -- or maybe even the not-so-great ones -- could go week after week, working for those brief and glorious highs when their words and knowledge creates a sort of mental or emotional adrenaline rush in their students.

For 25 minutes this week, to the 30 people in that room, I was an expert. And it felt really, really good.


Sara said...

Way to go. I heard it was excellent. And yes, those moments make a lot of other stuff worth it.

Daisy said...

I am so pleased to see you giving yourself the credit you deserve! Kudos for a job well done!