There’s a common misconception that 21st century Americans have come to believe. Let’s call this misconception the Myth of the Expert (ME). As I’ve considered this myth, I’ve observed at least two aspects: (1) an expert is the only one qualified to perform a task, and (2) only the expert knows how to get the job done right.
First aspect relates to qualifications. In general, when you’re looking for expertise, you consult an expert, someone who really knows. Whether you need a physician to diagnose your ailment or a roofer to re-shingle your home, you want someone whose credentials confirm their expertise and competence. Under normal circumstances, you’re not going to seek a medical opinion from your roofer.
There’s this fuzzy, unwritten rule in our culture that mysteriously freezes our ability and/or inclination to lend a hand to any endeavor where our credentials are either non-existent or lacking. This is standard operating procedure, right? We depend on our mechanics, plumbers, technicians, doctors and psychiatrists to diagnose (and presumably, fix) all problems … because they’re the experts!
I speak from experience. As a new mom forty years ago, one of the first things I did after bringing my 10½ pound bundle home from the hospital was to consult Baby and Child Care, the child-rearing bible written by Dr. Benjamin Spock. (The good doctor has been dead since 1998, but there’s a current website carrying on his name!) When Dr. Spock’s tome told me the average baby sleeps 14-16 hours a day, I panicked! My little munchkin was sleeping less than 10 … call the doctor!!
Even after my daughter’s pediatrician talked me in from the ledge, it still took me time to understand I was suffering from the Myth of the Expert, ME! I had failed to consider Spock’s words in full. His statement referred to the average baby. Clearly, my daughter was blazing her own trail and if 10 hours sleep was sufficient for her infant needs, who was I to argue?
However, I still had another hurdle of realization to lumber over. (And lumber I did!) I hadn’t yet understood that all the theoretical knowledge Dr. Spock had compiled in his book − helpful as it was − didn’t make Dr. Spock an expert on my child. He could give helpful guidelines (which the book did), but he didn’t know my child. He would never know my child.
I learned it was my job to become the expert on my child (and all subsequent children I bore).
Understanding the Myth of the Expert (ME) has stood me in good stead over my lifetime. In terms of my approach to childrearing, I learned quickly that books can provide guidance, but I must be a student of my children. As I mothered them, I learned their unique non-verbal cues, actions and behaviors that told me infinitely more about my children than what they expressed in words. My thorough and diligent study made me an expert on my children.
Don’t get me wrong. We relied on “experts” (physicians, advisers) as needed, but we weren’t immobilized by fear when confronted by a concern “outside our wheelhouse” of understanding. There are definitely times to consult people with specialized skills.
The second aspect of the Myth of the Expert (ME) relates to gullibility. As a culture, we’ve adopted this crazy idea that there’s One Right Way to perform a task. The so-called “expert,” with his/her particular set of weighty credentials, has apprehended the arcane knowledge about this One Right Way to set the world aright again.
Yes, it makes sense to have an orderly 1-2-3 procedure for tackling any task. Yes, through experience, the “experts” have learned efficiencies in tackling a given task. But there may be many ways to address a problem and create a solution.
We can turn the Myth of the Expert (ME) on its head (so to speak). As I learned in mothering young children, I needed to become the expert … ME. I could accept the myth or become the reality and I did the latter. I didn’t become an expert on anyone else’s kids, but I … ME … knew my own.
I doubt I’ll ever seek the skills of a physician or nurse, but I’ve managed during my lifetime to wield a plumber’s wrench and an electrician’s wire-cutters among other tools required to keep a household running. My tendency is to rely on ME and call in an expert only as a last resort. Likewise, I’m painfully familiar with my limitations.
I’ve also learned just because I’m not an expert doesn’t mean I remain content in my ignorance. If something’s important to ME, there are resources to sharpen my expertise. What about you? What’s keeping you from being the expert you’d like to be?