Thoughts On Expertise

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Michael, my boss, when talking about building an all-star web design team, told me that I would be the resident CSS expert, which shocked me the first time he said it, because it’s very weird when someone gives you that level of praise. The first time I remember being called an expert was when I was a very young web designer, around the birth of web standards, though it would be many years before I would know how to use them. It was a freelance job where I had somehow convinced the client that I was their guy (probably my “competitive” $8 hourly rate had something to do with that). When I asked them what they wanted, they just shrugged and said, “I don’t know. You’re the expert.” I felt like these people were looking at me like some kind of child prodigy, who could understand these technical computery internety things that were just over their heads. It kind of terrified me, because I wasn’t a prodigy and I didn’t have the answer.

When Michael brought up my alleged expertise again, those wide-eyed moments came flooding back to me, and I started asking others what they thought of expertise. It turns out that none of my friends will admit to being experts in anything, including those who are clearly much smarter or more focused than I am.

I even took to Twitter for a mini-survey asking if anybody out there would consider themselves an expert on using Twitter, a bare-bones simple service. I didn’t care about whether they could use it to effectively leverage social marketing or any of that nonsense, just enough knowledge to answer the majority of questions someone might have about Twitter: What can you use it for? How do I answer a question? How do I link to a tweet? Twitter doesn’t really get much more complex than that.

The few responses I got all said no, they are not experts, again some from people who I know have considerable experience and could answer all of those questions and go into more depth, too.

I had chats with Aaron and Emily, who both mentioned that there’s always someone who knows more than you, which is true, but I don’t feel like that works against expertise. Emily admitted that she probably conflates expertise and genius.

As for me, I will now fully admit that I am a CSS expert, and yes I claim expertise on Twitter, as well. Part of expertise is comprehensive knowledge, but the other part is authority. I say it’s time to own up to your knowledge and take pride. If you can live and breathe any specific subject, congratulations, you’re an expert. Tell it to the world.

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