I know a lot about a lot of topics — I’ve spent hundreds of hours on these topics. And yet, I wouldn’t call myself an expert. And the reason for that is the reason you should be skeptical of experts you see online or on TV.
Take artificial intelligence. I ghost wrote a book on it, which required hundreds of hours of research and primary interviews. I edited another book on it. I’ve cowritten articles on it for publications like HBR. I’ve advised AI startups on how to communicate their value. And I just moderated an online panel discussion with two renowned AI authors.
Am I an AI expert? No.
There are a lot of topics that are like this for me. I edited a book on the future of mobility and autonomous cars. Not an autonomous car expert.
I was a marketing technology analyst for years, cowrote a bestselling book on social media marketing, and ghost wrote a book on marketing technology. I give talks all the time at content marketing conferences (or at least I did, when there were still conferences). Not a marketing expert.
I studied mathematical logic for three years. Not an expert. I spent ten years analyzing the future of television. I was an expert on that, but I’m not now.
What am I an expert on? Business writing. Non-fiction books intended to create influence.
What’s the difference? I’ll explain.
Expertise requires constant, continuous research
To become an expert, you need to study a topic. You need to research it. You need to know everything you can about it. That takes years. There’s no sure way to know when you’ve got there, but some indicators are (1) an advanced degree, (2) writing a book on the topic, (3) having created an original idea that has influenced others, or (4) getting paid to consult on the topic. Public speaking helps, but isn’t sufficient unto itself — because public speakers often succeed based on other people’s content along with performance skills. While they may be experts, speaking alone isn’t sufficient to establish that.
The challenge is whether you can stay an expert.
To stay an expert, you must continually keep up to date. You need to read all the papers and see who’s talking about your topic. You need to read their books and articles. Your quest for knowledge must be never-ending, because knowledge keeps moving.
Note that you need both the extended study and continual research. If you studied a topic and then didn’t keep up, you are an ex-expert. If you keep up to date but don’t have the grounding to understand the context for all the research, you are a news junkie, not an actual expert. (Yup, reading 50 articles does not make you an expert.)
I’ve done the work on writing and authoring and publishing. I continue to do the research. If you’re writing about it, I’m reading about it. And I get paid for that knowledge. Expert.
I have not done the work to keep up with mathematical logic or the television industry. I am not obsessively keeping up with articles on AI or autonomous cars, and I do not have original ideas about those topics. I probably know more about AI than 95% of the people reading this, which means I can have an intelligent conversation with the real experts — but I’m still not one of them.
The current moment has spawned a bunch of faux experts in virology, epidemiology, economics, FBI procedure, work-at-home, and you-name-it. They may get on TV. They may create a meme that’s popular in your feed. They may be blogging or tweeting on the topic. They may even become famous.
But without study, original ideas, and maintaining knowledge of what’s going on in these areas every day, they’re not experts. They’re just blabbermouths.
Don’t get fooled.