On experts….and what it means to try
I recently read a social media post from a business associate, let’s call him Alan. It was an excerpt from a famous quote, from a very famous American business icon, and then a summary of the quote from Alan’s point of view. The summary, as Alan saw it, was that the second a person identifies as an expert that they no longer are useful, that they lose the drive that led them to the possibility of even identifying as an expert, and that from there it was nowhere but a downward spiral. The implied message was that by claiming to be an expert, a person would no longer work towards greatness, no longer continues to press forward, that they would find themselves in the stagnant position of resting on their laurels, and no longer “trying to do more.” (that last part is a direct quote, and will play in heavily to my point).
I couldn’t disagree more.
I checked the validity of the quote, and it was spot on. I checked to make sure the general intent of the quote was captured, and it very much was. In every way, the spirit of the quote was perfectly represented by Alan’s summary.
But, I couldn’t disagree more.
I found myself fundamentally disagreeing with Alan, a celebrated local business leader, and highly accomplished man. But more important, I found myself in opposition with the original quote, made by one of the biggest American business icons the world has known.
I wasn’t fully sure why, but I also knew I was right. I’m repeating myself, but I stood in vehement opposition of men much more accomplished than I; one man a business owner and local entrepreneur, a published author, and leader in his field. The other man is among those in the Pantheon of American success stories, known throughout the globe. But I knew they were wrong. I knew that the world needed more experts, not less. I knew the world needed to respect experts more, not less. I knew that American individualism, while creating a powerful dynamic and driving force that’s changed the world, often made non-experts view their opinions as equal to actual experts. The over-democratization of the validity of opinion, creating a stance that allowed even the ignorant to have a say. Harlan Ellison put it this way, “You are not entitled to your opinion. You are entitled to your informed opinion. No one is entitled to be ignorant.” This pointed towards the hierarchy of expertise and implied that the more informed, the more one falls into the category of expert, the more entitled their opinion is.
I read, and re-read the quote and summary made. I tried to understand its essence, the message at its core. I found, as much as any other phrase, the key to the message. It was the stance that claiming one’s self an expert will inherently eliminate an essential drive, and create a scenario where that person, as referenced earlier in this post and pulled directly from the quote, will no longer “try to do more.” Stasis, stagnation, and entropic decay.
I still knew this was wrong. So, after researching the message, finding the key, and pointing it back to its own claim, I found another key. The focal point of the discussion. The word expert.
Expert is defined by Merriam-Webster as below: Expert – adjective –\ˈek-ˌspərt, ik-ˈspərt\: having, involving, or displaying special skill or knowledge derived from training or experience
This sounded innocuous and thoroughly uncontroversial, a state we should all strive for.
I then saw the answer to my question, the root of my objection, and the proof I needed to allow me to stand in objection to these relatively great men, and know that I was vindicated.
The etymology of ‘expert’ is as follows: From the Latin root experiri, and more closely the past-participle expertus/experitus, to Old French and then Middle English espert and expert, respectively.
Experiri…’to try’. There it was. The fundamental core of the quote and summary were flawed by their own misunderstanding of what an expert IS. Instead of taking a golden opportunity to challenge the claim of ‘expert’; to elevate the discussion and either find the claim worthy or set a true meaning of the word, they also missed the opportunity to change the thinking around the claim itself. We think in words, and this word was to be celebrated. The word had the potential to become a great target if one would just invest in the time to understand it. That the definition of the word held the entire ethos, that to be an expert is to try and try again; to never stop, to embrace failure as a path to success, to understand that knowledge and success and accomplishment are merely the building blocks to the search of more knowledge and success and accomplishment.
Expert is a process, a never-ending self-mandate to improve, and if we throw away the word we are in danger of eliminating the inherent goal it communicates. Again, we think in words, and this word held the key to greatness. We should fear this word, but not because of its misuse by people who think that experience is a resting place and hence are unworthy of the word, nor should we fear this word because a few myopic leaders discard its potential because of its abuse…no, we should fear this word because of the great responsibility it brings. We should fear to utter this word, but only because to do so requires us to live up to its noble meaning.
I am an expert, and tomorrow I will do what it takes to live up to this word. I am not finished, I’ve reached no specific end goal. I am proud to be an expert, but not just because of what I’ve accomplished, or what successes I have had. I am proud most, because of my potential.
As an expert, I can only pull from the past the tools which I need to succeed tomorrow. I am an expert, I will try and succeed. I am an expert, I will try and fail. The past is prelude, and as an expert, I’ve done nothing but collect the tools I need to apply to tomorrow.
I am an expert, and I understand that I will never be as good today as I can be tomorrow.