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When Are You An Expert?

At what point in your career are you considered an expert by others, and when is it appropriate to call yourself an expert? Does being in your field for 10 years inherently mean you are an expert? Do you need to have published articles or serve on a board of directors? What if you have 20,000 twitter followers?

Are you an expert in your government field? If so, how did you get there?

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Good questions.

ExpertNet is allowing experts to self-select for the beta. InnoCentive recruits.

I’m guessing that sites like Knowledge Network and the inherent processes expose those who are not qualified to join in various discussions on a range of topics.

In certain fields it is linked to career visibility, i.e., are you visible on a national level? internationally recognized? etc.

Jenyfer Johnson

I guess I started to feel like an expert when people, especially my counterpart at HQ, started coming to me to ask my opinion on questions in my field of expertise. I’d been working with him (my HQ counterpart) about 10 years and in my position the same number of years and had a good grasp of what I was doing (Hazardous Waste/Hazardous Materials Management). I had been a conference presenter and taught a couple of classes at a symposium in my field as well.

I still feel there is more out there I can learn but I know that I am someone my HQ calls on occasionally.

Stephen Peteritas

Yeah this is a tough question. To Andy’s point its mostly based off of education and experience but of course that’s not an absolute and while that seems to be the accept view I’m not sure it’s the right view. There are always examples of people who don’t have education or experience but are still experts. That was a real bad answer but I hope someone knocks this out of the park.

Michele Costanza

Expertise is situational. As an example, if you were an Army captain ready to deploy to Afghanistan, would you rather hear from a peer, another Army captain in the area of operations where you are headed, or would learn more from reading a doctrinal field manual? It’s important to know doctrine but it’s equally important to share relevant and current contextual knowledge. I don’t think most people respect or weigh as heavily those who would be considered experts in the past, those with credentials, either academic or industry, and even years of experience. Anyone can hang up a shingle online and start giving people advice, and even calling themselves “doctor” when they never earned that credential. From someone who did earn the doctorate, it grates on my last nerve. However people won’t take advice even from an expert if the medicine is hard to take.

Allen Sheaprd

Expert by success – IMO.

As @Michele said – who would you rather learn from? Someone who just came back alive, supervisor who has not been there yet, an instructor or field manual?

When do people consider themselves expert? Too soon. As the joke goes “70% of people think they are above average”

When am I an expert? When I can not only do things quickly on a moments notice but acomplish things the manual says can not be done or “is not recommended”. Once again – past performance is the litmus test.

Am I an expert – no, well temporarly. There is always something new comming out. Plus people are timid.

Yun-Mei Lin

In my opinion, an individual shouldn’t be declaring themselves an expert, unless they caveat it with “self-proclaimed.” We all collaborate in a peer-to-peer fashion, but when your peers begin to recommend you to others needing expertise in your area, then you are an expert.

I do not believe that experts are made after any length of time, or any amount of certification. I have seen so-called experts, declared so by walls of certificates, who had no practical knowledge of their subject matter.


I think there is a line between arrogance and too humble. I call it confident humility. When you are good at something, you should not be afraid to say it. For example, if you are a really excellent tennis and golf player, you should be honest at your skill lvel.

I’d say you are an expert when you have consistent excellent work over time & ideally have done it multiple times in multiple ways.

Avatar photo Bill Brantley

I am a scholar/practitioner in the government field. I have mastered a body of knowledge that points me toward more fields of knowledge before I can actually say I fully understand government. I am proud of the fact that I have reached the point where I can ask good questions and have a toolbox of methods to find answers. So I am not an expert in the sense that I have an answer for every question but I doubt few do.

Michael McCarthy, APR

I think Yun-Mei Lin said it best – “We all collaborate in a peer-to-peer fashion, but when your peers begin to recommend you to others needing expertise in your area, then you are an expert.”

Sterling Whitehead

Expert is subjective. I’ve been called an expert in contracting even though I have just 1-year of experience in the field. I am not expert…not yet.

One of the better attempts at creating an objective standard comes from Malcolm Gladwell. He argues in Outliers that you become an expert when you have 10,000 hours experience in an activity.


I think the lines are starting to blur with the internet: google search, wikipedia, etc.

What makes this question hard to answer is that there are some of us whose expertise is mining the web for information! So we can appear to be experts in a wide range of fields simply because we know how to find answers to just about any question.

I like that ExpertNet is self-selecting. I think the Convener Team has hit on an important point: these days expertise (and answers) will be found in the most unlikely places.

Rob Ahern

It’s interesting that most folks on this thread equate being an expert with knowledge and experience without any explicit consideration of insight or perspective. I’ve come to believe that true expertise is an honest understanding of possible errors and their consequences. More than perceived capability, a true expert knows the limitations of his or her knowledge and is comfortable admitting as much. In my experience, those who refer to themselves as experts often lack this ability and, as such, are prone to mistakes of far greater substance than lay people.

Rob Ahern

@Bill – that’s a great book! I’m currently reading Being Wrong by Kathryn Schulz (she also writes for Slate – The Wrong Stuff) and I recommend the book and her column to everyone.

Our most important lessons are learned by being wrong and sometimes pride, arrogance, ignorance, etc. deter “experts” from this process.

Kristy Dalton

Thanks everyone for your insight. My thought has always been that if you’re at the point when your peers are recognizing you as an expert, then you may just be. I tend to agree with the comments that there is no standard timeframe for ‘expertnessdom’ to develop. I also like the notion of continually learning and evolving in your field, and being able to understand the greater context and multiple angles of your craft.
@Sterling Am I doing my calculation right that Gladwell considers one an expert after… just over a year?

Adriel Hampton

Actually, if you go by a standard work schedule, Gladwell wants you in the game for five years, or two and a half social media lifetimes.

Kristy Dalton

@Adriel, don’t pretend there’s a moment of the day where you’re unplugged and that you don’t dream in tweets 😉

Kitty Wooley

When you can deliver results that people value, that most people can’t deliver?

I love this question and have been thinking about it for a while. The answer was simpler ten years ago, when there were fewer ways to acquire free content and informal mentors. Maybe it depends on the domain now. E.g., if the domain is medicine, the answer will be different than if the domain is training or social media marketing. In medicine, one has to have a professional degrees, good judgment, thousands of hours of supervised practice, etc. In social media marketing, experts now seem to be a mix of educated, seasoned marketing professionals who have kept up with Web 2.0 and have facility in using tools such as Twitter, and folks who haven’t learned marketing theory but whose content is just so interesting, so sticky, that they attract followers like flies to honey. In training, a similar mix seems to be developing. If Joe Smith doesn’t have any formal training in instructional design or learning & development, but can consistently cause people to change their behavior in a way that organizations need – especially if professional trainers have tried and failed – then it seems to me that he’s made himself an expert. John Seely Brown’s argument here is apropos – the experts who sit on knowledge stocks (i.e., do not continue learning throughout their lives) run the risk of becoming irrelevant.

Kitty Wooley

Also, I applaud your mentioning “the notion of continually learning and evolving in your field, and being able to understand the greater context and multiple angles of your craft” – including your use of the word “craft,” because it connotes a focused, fully engaged employee who (at least some of the time) experiences flow – an ideal situation for many of us!

Allen Sheaprd


Gladwell cites many examples of “10,000” hour rule. In that case, having started with computers in 76 with the 7400 quad NAND on 12 pin DIP socket – whoo hoo!! I’m an expert.

However soo much has changed. IC circuits, CP-M and then DOS 2.0 to 6.0 to Win 3.1 and now Win 7. UNIX BSD 4.2 to Linux and its utilites (disk druid and Gnome interface) How do we ever get 10K hours before we are at “new stuff” V 9.0 ???

@Adriel you do have a point. The GUI that has changed – not what we do nor how the CPU&ALU do it. Cobbs laws for database, boolean logic and word processing has not changed since the 1960’s. Well they did invent the electric typwriter, but the keyboard is the same. So we can get 10K hours. in. Your point of 2.5 social lifetimes is valid.

@Kristy – Dream in tweets? Yea we call them 130 CHR$ subtitles :0)

My peers will see me as an expert till we go to “OpenWorld” or IBM SHARE convention. Then the it seems like there are soo many experts. There is soo much to re-learn these days.

Life beyond 75 baud is good – but its still 1+1=10

Kitty Wooley

LOL! Allen, then there are the people who have forgotten more than most people will ever learn! I doubt that you can ever escape being an expert!


Surprised no one has mentioned the idea of collective intelligence yet.

If my information is partial, and your information is partial, do we collectively = 1 expert? 🙂 That is the beauty of social media, i.e., incomplete knowledge and experience gaps can be quickly closed with input from others..

Note that it is called ExpertNET for a reason..

Allen Sheaprd

@Kitty – that is sooo kind. Thank you. Its a long story why that’s so kind.

Even the 10,000 hour rule is no barrier, we all do something for many years becoming an “expert” . My neighbor inspects homes but is our skateboad expert. He rode for days on end. At events the “pros” on display recognize him and invite him in.

@Christopher. So true. First person to do it. “What’s wrong with the database – I do not know but he installed it. Lets ask him, he must be the expert”


Thomas Edison said “I am not a great man but have such vision for I stand on the shoulders of giants who came before” Here social media rules! Hype? Look at all the experiances gleemed from tweets, posts and blogs. David Pink gave a great lecture on how to “stumble” upon knowledge – follow the links. Yea. That simple. When you look up A, there will be links to B, G, Y, R (other random subjects) Pick on. Follow it. See what it can teach. Learn and follow one of the next set of links.

Have a great day!

Daniel Honker

There’s a common thread in these comments that expertise is subjective. I couldn’t agree more. My two cents would be that an expert is merely a person with the knowledge that you need. Sometimes that knowledge is technical. If I need a medical opinion, I’m going to consult a doctor with years of medical training and practice.

However, sometimes the knowledge you need is someone’s experience; this is particularly relevant in stakeholder engagement. If I need to tap people’s ideas for improving how my office processes grant applications, for example, the people I need to talk to are “experts,” in a way. This is part of Andrew McAfee’s concept of “emergent expertise” — it’s expertise on a macro scale that results from tons of micro interactions.

So from this frame, what we commonly refer to as an “expert” really means someone who’s extremely knowledgeable in a technical area or subject matter. But let’s also remember that just about everyone has some type of expertise — it just matters what type of knowledge you need.

Robert Suchanek

Some say an expert is a person that’s made all of the mistakes. I’ve been a computer programmer for a long time and don’t make the same mistakes I did when I started; I make all new ones.

W. David Stephenson

Create an entirely new perspective (provided, um, that it is valid, LOL!) and you’re instantly the expert.

I got into homeland security because (no lie!) of the comments on or soon after 9/11 about failure to connect the dots. Back in the 80s, when I did corporate crisis work on environmental issues, I’d literally given the Fortune 100 client a picture connecting the dots between various environmental activists and the interlocking directorates of groups on whose boards they served, so I figured I could connect dots with the best of them (not to mention, more relevant, that I’m as right-brained and intuitive as almost everyone in the homeland security field is left-brained and analytical). With my work on social media as facilitating the emergent behavior researchers have shown is critical in disasters, I quickly established that I wasn’t just saying I was an expert, I really was. I’m not certain that time-in-grade ever really establishes you as an expert (it could be 20 times 1 year, doing the same thing over and over): it’s unique contributions to the body of knowledge that really makes you an expert. And it can vanish in an instant, especially if there’s a paradigm shift.

Mike Ellis

I don’t think that it’s ever AOK to call yourself an expert. Based on your actions and your accomplishments, you should let others determine whether or not you should be called an expert.

Avatar photo Bill Brantley

@Mike – Exactly! Warren Buffet doesn’t claim to be an expert but his results certainly demonstrate he is an expert in investing. You will find that the true experts are the most humble about their expertise. I remember when Kurosawa was awarded an Oscar for Lifetime Achievement and he started his acceptance speech by stating that he is still learning about film.

Adriel Hampton

@Kristy, 10,000 hours is two years in my book, yeah.

“Web thinking” or “network thinking” quickly brings down expertise barriers, except in complex tasks where extreme repetition is valuable.

Maisha B. Hoye

Was it in Star Wars or was Bruce Lee? What is that saying? “The student has become the master” So think its entirely appropruate to call yourself an expert when you seen the people you’ve led, mentored, taught, etc. succeed.

Allen Sheaprd


Good point and I’ll raise you two 🙂

Are there local experts and national? Is “national” recognition part of being an expert? Like you I tend to think yes – but not everyone will publish or speak. So “no name recognition – no expert title” ??

Followers and recognition – expert? (sigh) Yes – for good or bad. Examples are: Jim Jones and his cult where nationally known. Hitler, thought to be an expert in one area but really had other plans. Sigmund Freud got his fame from promoting cocaine – later did psychotherapy to save his name. (Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sigmund_Freud )

The point to all this is National recognition does not make an expert correct. Experts are often wrong.

Two areas of controversy are global warming and oil recovered from BP oil spill. Turns out the planet Mars is losing its ice caps well due to a warming trend similar to Earth’s. Why? One explanation is sun spot activity which is tightly coupled to our planets temperature. Here there are “experts” on both sides. One group is being heard, the other is practically unknown.

Second, the amount of oil recovered from the BP oil spill. One group says its mostly done, another group from the university of Georgia is saying they have barley started getting the oil out. Hear again – two respected groups. One heard, the other barley gets any air time.

Note: global warming and oil spill solutions are left as an exercise for the student. Both are *way* off topic. They are used only to make a point – a discussion. Please, we write about what makes an expert.

Sterling Whitehead

This conversation has me thinking: should we be developing a comprehensive list of what makes an expert on GovLoop?

Allen Sheaprd


GovLoop experts – how would that be run?

Would the list be from the ranking system? Would it be by as @Megan said those “Nationaly known” ?

There are also GovLoop leaders and How-To (https://www.govloop.com/profiles/blog/list?tag=how-to) section by experts a.k.a. really good people.

Then I think how social media levels the playing field. Ideas and posts stand on merrit. Few know any members background. This allows everone to be heard. Does it work? FEMA’s policy is “The person in charge may not be most senior nor of highest rank. They are the one who knows how to get things done” Ok FEMA may sound like a bad example but look to volunteer organizations that work. Its not the professor, doctor, or master seargent in charge. No, its the one others are willing to listen to and follow.

Its one thing I like abot GL – anyone can stand up to post or create a group. Open door policy in action.

Sterling Whitehead

I’m not looking for a GovLoop experts section.

Rather, I’m looking for someone to list and simplify the expert qualifications that were identified in this discussion.

The list would then be posted to GovLoop so there is a deliverable. That way, we all benefit from having a product we can refer to.

Kristy Dalton

Who would have thought a blog post without one declarative sentence would generate so much feedback? All of this has taught me to do less talking about what I think I know, and instead ask more questions. Thanks everyone for your insights. We made the Fab Five!

Allen Sheaprd

As @Kitty said – great question and some good answers.

@Kristy Who would have thought your post without a declarative statement would be soo good – an expert ! 🙂 LoL Hmm, now to look up “declarative statement” 😉

Any one else suprised at the lack of conflict? Most people agree with the conclulsions – other peoples saying “by your work, we can not find someone else better”

Allen Sheaprd


Experts on GovLoop – the “how to” group and (most likely) owners of a specific group.

Finding the “expert seal of approval” or logo would be hard without an index (sorry I’m still a 20th century kind of guy)

Sir, an index would be bad. Instead a GL group listed by catagory of people willing to be called “expert” Yea this violates the “called by their peers” expert. We need people willing to come back every few days to answer questions and give opinions.

@Sterling it sounds like you have the passion and vision for this. Go forth and conqure. (not sure if that is a declaritive statement or not 😉 – but it is a good idea and whish.


Year: 1989 (62nd) Academy Awards

Category: Honorary Award

Winner: To Akira Kurosawa for accomplishments that have inspired, delighted, enriched and entertained audiences and influenced filmmakers throughout the world. (with Japanese translator Audie Bock)

Presenter: George Lucas, Steven Spielberg (including a taped segment from Japan)

Date & Venue: March 26, 1990; Dorothy Chandler Pavilion

AKIRA KUROSAWA [via translator]:
I am very deeply honored to receive such a wonderful prize, but I have to ask whether I really deserve it. I’m a little worried, because I don’t feel that I understand cinema yet. I really don’t feel that I have yet grasped the essence of cinema. Cinema is a marvelous thing, but to grasp its true essence is very, very difficult. But what I promise you is that from now on I will work as hard as I can at making movies and maybe by following this path I will achieve an understanding of the true essence of cinema and earn this award. George [Lucas], Steven [Spielberg]. Thank you.