What It Means to be an Expert

I’ve had the pleasure since 2014 of immersing myself in photography full-time. Prior to then, it was a hobby, indulged in only when other things didn’t demand my time. Since then, it’s been the other way around. I can honestly say that it is the one job I have had in my life that I have truly loved. It isn’t really a job, either, for the simple reason that I don’t depend on income from it to live.

You approach things differently when you love doing them. Everything about the subject fascinates you – even the mundane can have some appeal. But for me, every time I learn something new and am able to apply it, it’s better than anything else in the world (except family, friends, health and comfort, of course).

Acquiring lots of knowledge eventually labels you an “expert” and someone said that in reference to me the other day. I immediately corrected them and said I was still learning. But yes, in that particular area, I had pretty much figured it out. I stopped to think what it means to be an “expert”. The answer is interesting.

A couple days ago, I attended a talk given by another expert, someone who like me had dived headlong into an area of specialty and after several years had established a reputation. I enjoyed the talk very much, but noticed a particular challenge for this individual: it was difficult for them to organize their thoughts and to present them in a way that led us less well-informed folks logically through the information.

Many of the basics were left out, although the basics were needed to help those new to the subject. And a lot of the points raised were prefaced with “by the way”, suggesting that it was an idea that had just popped into the presenter’s head. With so many ideas to draw on, that happened a lot.

I used to work with highly skilled engineers, many of them recognized as experts in their areas. The same challenge applied to them: they could convey the most complex subject to a peer, but struggled to translate those concepts into meaningful descriptions for the lay person.

What this has led me to conclude is that experts have a particular obligation: I think experts who choose to offer their services as a paid consultant or speaker need to recognize the diversity of the groups they interact with and build in several differrent “languages” for their interactions.

The best experts read their audiences either before arrival or on arrival and adjust accordingly. A great example is the scientists and engineers that appear on one of my favourite shows, CBC’s Quirks and Quarks. This is a weekly radio show that explores many of the important themes in our world today – everything ranging from climate change to infant language to insect societies to why asphalt roads shimmer in the sun. Nobel laureates, astronauts, engineers and medical researchers all appear as guests. The host, Bob McDonald, interviews his guests in a way that highlights both their expertise and their ability to communicate in a meaningful and interesting way to others. Bob plays the role of a typical listener and asks for clarity when the expert is too “expert” to be understood.

If’s a fascinating exercise, to watch how these world renowned experts take the language of their expertise and interpret the world in a way we can all understand. Some do it very well, others less so.

When I was in photography school, our final project involved not only shooting a portfolio-worthy collection of photographs, but organizing and presenting the collection with accompanying words in a public setting, helping others see what we saw in the project. I wondered about it at the time (as I also wondered about the need to take an art class in drawing), but both experiences have proven to be exceptionally worthwhile.

I look at it this way: others have taught me and I feel the obligation to give back. Watching someone’s face as they grasp a new idea or discover a new way of doing something is extraordinary. It’s the best feeling in the world. I’ve always wanted to be a teacher, but I have a fatal flaw: I need students who are as eager to learn as I am. That isn’t always the case in a formal education setting. So I have settled for one-to-one tutoring and coaching, when I know I have the starting point I need. And I love talking to audiences that have asked me to do so – because I know they are interested too.

If you have spent time learning your craft, if you are at the pinnacle of experience, consider offering your services to volunteer groups or to individuals. But make sure you can do it in a way that both recognizes your expertise and makes that expertise accessible to others. It’s the best feeling in the world when you get it right.

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