Sunday, June 26, 2011

Expert Opinions

In a recent discussion among a group of professional musicians and artists, I was stuck by the comment, We're all experts at something...  It would probably be an accurate statement in any group, but it's quite different from a phrase often used by one of the leaders in another group with which I worked: None of us here is an expert...  I think these two very different perspectives open up possibilities for very different results.

The word "expert" has actually become suspiciously uninformative.  According to Tim Ferris, you can legitimately call yourself an expert if you've read the three top-selling books on a topic.  Perhaps in some situations that's enough, but it isn't always sufficient for me to trust my knowledge of a subject.  I am much more confident claiming to be an expert in the field of music, because I've been doing that for over 30 years.  I guess from my perspective, experience has something to do with the definition of an expert.  There are a few other niches that I feel qualified to call myself an expert as well, but there are also other people from whom I could learn a thing or two.  Even within the broad field of music, there are areas that I don't consider myself expert, like playing bassoon or crafting a violin.  So whether one is legitimately qualified as an expert sometimes depends on the context as well.

For someone to state, "None of us is an expert here," is intended to open up creative and full participation from everyone present.  If no one is an expert, then everyone's opinion is equally valid.  If no one is an expert, then no one can pass judgment on the ideas that are shared.  But if no one is an expert, then everything shared becomes reduced to opinion and decisions get made based on the most powerful personalities rather than the most accurate data.  If no one is an expert, then it actually devalues the collective experiences of the group. This is a great way to preserve the status quo, but not a great way to move forward and grow.

"We are all experts at something," is equally intended to encourage creative and full participation from everyone present, except with a bit more wisdom and insight thrown into the mix.  It begs the question, "What is my area of expertise?  What do I know more about than most people here?"  It means that everyone has something to offer, but it also means that everyone has something to learn.  You are an expert at something, and everyone else here is an expert at something.  No one is better than anyone else in that case.  Everyone simply has something different to bring to the table.

I'm not trying to hide which perspective I respect more.  The most productive, honest, and healthy situation I can imagine for a group is one in which everyone's expertise is acknowledged and valued.  In assembling a group for a special project, it makes sense to bring together people that have different pockets of expertise that are important to the task.  This is obviously more valuable than just a group of willing people without a clue. 

The trick is recognizing one's own strengths and weaknesses and being willing to bring both forward.  Some people don't want to bring their strengths to the foreground because they want to be modest or humble, or they think that their ideas will be shot down, or they doubt the value of their own experience.  Others live under the impression that they don't actually have any weaknesses, that there is nothing they need to learn and no task that someone else could do better.  Both are equally dysfunctional.  As the philosopher admonished, "Know thyself."  A wise person is willing to fully claim their expertise and fully accept the expertise of others.  And a group of people with that attitude in place could do something truly remarkable.  

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