What Does It Take to Become an Expert?

Image credit: Gerd Altmann

My wife is a mental health counselor. She has a Master’s degree, has taught psychology and has been practicing her craft for years. Still, she hates applying the term expert to herself. She says it implies that she knows everything. Instead, she prefers to think of herself as a student of mental health. Rather than becoming an expert, her goal is to be continually gaining knowledge and experience as she moves forward in her career.

I like that, because doesn’t the word expert cause a lot of anxiety sometimes? It shouldn’t, but it does.

  • Denotation (from Merriam-Webster): having or showing special skill or knowledge because of what you have been taught or what you have experienced
  • Connotation: you better know what you’re doing because THE BUCK STOPS WITH YOU!


There’s always someone out there whose knowledge is possibly more comprehensive, whose advice is more beneficial. That is the fear that comes along with the word expert. We all at some time or another ask ourselves: what if I’m not good enough to apply that term to myself?

This is an interesting thought exercise for me as a writer. Am I an expert and if so, in what area? My job is to highlight the expertise, or describe the experience, of others. When doing our jobs, we writers are thinking far more about what we’re writing about than rating how good we are at it. How many stars out of 5 we get is for others – editors, reviewers, readers – to decide.

This implies there are (at least) two kinds of experts: those of knowledge vs. those of skill. Maybe you don’t do anything with great acumen, but what do you know that few others know? Maybe you don’t know much except that you’re really good at what you do.

Frank Deford is a sports subject matter expert you wouldn’t want to put on the football field. He is a subject matter expert. Andrew Luck is an expert quarterback who most people would prefer watch in action than listen to: a performance expert. Some people, like my wife, are amazing enough to have both knowledge and skill in a single area.

What about you? If you’re like me and Andrew Luck (the only time I’ll use that phrase!) you are known among your “fans” (the similarities are already breaking down …) for what you do more than what you know. If you have a track record of doing it well let’s go ahead and call you an expert, too.

If you’re still not comfortable with that term – if using it makes you feel like you’re erroneously comparing yourself to a famous professional football player – then feel free not to use it. What matters more to your clients is that you have sufficient experience to do your job and that you are consistently striving to get better at what you do. That’s what makes you a good investment. You’ll only get better with time.

That’s my plan. I hope it’s yours, too … expert.