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OnWords: Expert


A few years ago, the humorist John Hodgman published a book titled The Areas of My Expertise.

The book used irony to skewer the whole notion of expertise, yet the subject matter expert or “SME,” is still the go-to person for journalists and executives alike.

In my own limited experience with being called an expert, it certainly doesn’t feel like anything special.

In fact, it’s kind of scary, because the deeper you get into a subject, the more you’re aware of how little you actually know.

But the word “expert” still carries a lot of weight, and experts are now relied upon for outsourcing an organization’s understanding or quickly silencing its critics.

The expert is quickly becoming synonymous with expressing opinions one can have confidence in, perhaps a vital thing when the facts of a matter are in dispute.

But like other titles such a “poet” or “sage,” those truly in the know are rather skeptical of people who apply the term “expert” to themselves.

We have even gotten to the point at which being called an expert can be a disqualifier. Some would prefer an outsider, a person whose expertise isn’t based on the expectations of “business as usual.”

Certainly, the experts have been proven wrong a lot lately—about election results, economic indicators, cholesterol.

The best use of the word “expert,” then, may be for someone who knows her limits and isn’t afraid to use them to prove her worth.