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I Am An Expert?

April 17th, 2009

I have written and published over 42 training articles on actions and specifics related to law enforcement and corrections practices.  With every article I write I am asked by others and I find myself at times asking subconsciously, “Am I an expert?”  I have never thought of myself as an expert in any area, just ask my wife and she will tell you she wishes I was an expert in marriage relationships.  Since I have had this question posed to me I will try to define an expert and let others working the field define who the expert is. 


While knowledge in a specific career field is obviously an important quality of expertise, it’s only one of several factors that make someone an expert in their profession.  As I watch Man Vs Wild I wonder if Bear Grylls is an expert?  As I researched the internet I found that several out there don’t think so.  Let’s look at his accomplishments:


  1. At 7.22am on May 26th 1998, Bear entered The Guinness Book of Records as the youngest, and one of only around thirty, British climbers to have successfully climbed Everest and returned alive. He was only 23 years old.
  2. Bear is also a Karate Black Belt.
  3. Bear spent three years with the British Special Air Service (21 SAS).
  4. Bear’s first book, ‘Facing Up’, went into the top-10 best seller list, and was launched in the USA titled, ‘The Kid who climbed Everest’.
  5. In 2007, he became the first man to fly a powered paraglider to a height above Mount Everest in the Himalaya.


Now as I look at his list of accomplishments and experience I could not very easily say that he is an expert in survival.  But I can say that I see him each week actually doing what he says you should do in a survival situation and eating what he says you should eat.  Would you eat a live snake or frog as he does?  Is he talking the talk and walking the walk?  I can say “yes” he is, now is he an expert?  You will have to decide.  My expert may not be an expert in your opinion. 


I’ve come up with five (5) characteristics that I feel are exhibited by real experts:


Knowledge: Clearly being an expert requires an immense working knowledge of your subject. Part of this is memorized information, and part of it is knowing where to find information you haven’t yet memorized.  I have attended over one hundred different continuing education courses on law enforcement and corrections specific related practices.  Above all, I read a lot of books and articles specifically and targeted toward my chosen career.  I want to know what others are saying to ensure that when I write a training article I am on target with the information I present to officers in the field.  Am I better that those who do not seek out continuing education, in some cases, “yes.”  In my opinion everyone should continually seek out additional training and advanced education within their job specific skills and in some cases even pay for it out of their own pockets. 


Experience: In addition to knowledge, an expert needs to have significant experience working with that knowledge. Individuals need to be able to apply their tactics it in creative ways, to be able to solve problems that have no pre-existing solutions they can look up to identify problems that nobody else has noticed yet.  I have stated that just reading and studying about how to do something only gets you so far.  Actually doing it gives you a different perspective on the subject and may lead you to determine that the book is wrong.  I would say that at least ten years working hands on in your selected career profession should give you a well rounded base of information knowledge.  


Communication Ability: Expertise without the ability to communicate it is practically pointless. Being the only person in the world who can solve a problem, time after time after time, doesn’t make you an expert, it makes you a slave to the problem.  It might make you a living, but it’s not going to give you much time to develop your expertise.  This means sooner or later, someone with knowledge and communication ability is going to figure out your secret, or worse, a better approach, teach it to the world, and leave you to the dustbin of history.  You must have the ability to present your information to the world in a way that others can clearly understand what you are presenting.  An expert is not an expert if know one can understand what they are an expert in.   


Connectedness: Expertise is, ultimately, social; experts are embedded in a web of other experts who exchange new ideas and approaches to problems, and they are embedded in a wider social web that connects them to people who need their expertise.  You must continually seek the advice and pick the brains of others in your area of expertise to make sure that you are still on the path of what they are still doing.  This pertains to individuals who are “retired” in the specific field of expertise.  As careers and laws change daily and how we do things within that career field continually transform an expert should still be actively doing that job that they are an expert in.  How can an individual who has not been in the profession for many years still be an expert in that field?


Curiosity: Experts are curious about their fields and recognize the limitations of their own understanding of it. They are constantly seeking new answers, new approaches, and new ways of extending and promoting their field.  Experts understand that they need more and more information on the subject.  As I worked within the area of corrections I quickly understood that I needed more information on psychology to understand human natures and why criminals did the things they did without fear of consequence and retribution.  Some I work with just don’t care about “why” or “how” but I cannot operate that way.  I need to seek out these answers so that if someone else has questions I may have the answer.


I have also come up with five (5) ways how to identify an expert:


The sad fact is, there are a lot of people out there passing themselves off as experts who aren’t experts at all.  Those who may not even be competent and are giving information in areas they have no business speaking on. How can you tell if someone’s putting you on?  It can be hard to tell the fake experts from the real ones; many fakes have a great deal of expertise in the field of coming off as an expert!  But here are a few things to look for when seeking information:


Commitment: Experts are enthusiastic about their fields of expertise. It’s the only thing that keeps them growing as an actual expert. Look for serious, obvious commitment to the field. Experts don’t have to do what they do, they get to.  I often told my offers each day when I started roll call, “Did you get to come to work or did you have to come to work?”  You are an expert because you love what you are doing and your leadership should revolve around the information you are an expert in.


Authenticity: A real expert doesn’t need to scam anyone to sell his/her services. They practice what they preach. If you feel that someone is trying to pull one over on you, find someone else.  It’s one thing to pass information off as what you do but your coworkers will know who you actually are and what scam you are playing.  Do others think you are an expert and come to you for information?  This will truly be the tell all of an expert.


Openness: Expertise speaks for itself. Trade secrets are for people who aren’t confident in their abilities that fear you won’t need them if you know what they’re doing. If someone is unwilling to explain to you what they’re doing, move onto the next expert.  Experts are excited to tell you about what they are an expert in and how to do it better. 


Open-mindedness: Experts are always looking for new approaches to the problems they’re good at solving. They should also understand the mistakes that non-experts make, and why they’re mistakes in the first place. If you’re expert is dismissive when you explain what you thought might be the problem, it usually means they think they have all the answers. Real experts know they don’t.  Its one thing to complain about how bad things are and why things are not right.  Experts have solutions to the problems and are willing to not just complain about the problems but ready to offer solutions. 


Clarity: An expert should be able to explain to you exactly what they’re doing and why. While every field has its own jargon, any real expert can describe their work without using it.  Jargon is useful within a field as a kind of short-hand for complicated concepts or procedures, but has no place when dealing with people outside the field. If they can’t say what they’re doing in language you can understand, there’s a good chance they’re either:


a) Trying to rip you off (think “shady auto mechanics”, here) or

b) They don’t really understand what they’re doing or why.


“An expert is someone who knows some of the worst mistakes that can be made in his subject and who manage to avoid them.”

Heisenberg, Werner


I hope this information makes it easier to establish who are experts and how to identify them.  As far as the answer if I am an expert.  The bottom line is that someone else has to think that you are an expert before you are one, so I can’t answer that question, you have too. 

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  1. May 14th, 2009 at 15:36 | #1

    Great article. Very solid points on evaluating who is or who is not an expert. I always believe we can learn something from everyone, and it might be just what not to believe or do.

  2. Jennifer Drennan
    January 20th, 2010 at 10:57 | #2

    The asst.warden where I work just sent me your article on thinking errors. Yes we have the text book version, but I like yours much better. I am constantly looking for new ideas and I appreciate the new take on this. Why do we constantly label others? Article about r u an expert? Who gives a crap. Knowledge is power. Good Luck!!!!!! Keep writing. J. Drennan TCS

    April 7th, 2010 at 11:43 | #3

    Great article. I just wanted to comment that an expert is also an individual who pays particular and special attention to detail including spelling. Review the article and you will find (2) two. Have a great day.

  4. October 15th, 2010 at 04:29 | #4

    I am a college student who is getting my B.S, in Criminal Justice in my first year I was working on my B.S. in Human Service Child and Family Welfare. My passion has always been working with children and teenagers, well I decided to go back to school when I was 40 and It was hard to pick which to fields my heart was in. While getting my BS in Human Services I was taking all criminal justice electives. So finally this semester I changed my degree major and I am wanting to work in corrections, probation, parole and inside facilities. When I read your page Tracy it bought tears to my eyes because even though we all think we are experts in this or that you really put this together for me. You named all 5 charateristics that need to be exhibited and thn 5 ways to indentify 5 ways to identify expetise was really neat. I would like to read more of your articles because you have a great head on you and I want to be like that one day!!!!!

  5. November 26th, 2010 at 17:39 | #5

    Love your site man keep up the good work

  6. T McCormick
    February 7th, 2011 at 17:36 | #6

    I am looking for information for a tatoos on a NYC blood. There is a tatoo of two lightning bolts under the eye. Never seen it before on a street gang member, just white supremists. Any ideas?

  7. March 11th, 2011 at 20:43 | #7

    I will admit you have come up with some common demoninators or characteristics regarding what defines an expert. These are no doubt great qualities of a true professional. However I feel you have failed to place significant importance on the value of educational credentials and acedemic centered research. To gain confidence from stakeholders and those policy makers we in corrections are attempting to influence, our message must on target, based on sound evidence and reliable data. Personal research and professional experience must be accompanied with comprehensive acedemic foudation to truely achieve public confidence to facilitate a transformational paradigm shift within our profession..

  8. October 25th, 2011 at 13:07 | #8

    Just wanted to give you a shout from the valley of the sun, great information. Much appreciated.

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