The paradox of the expert

Derek Sivers, author of “Anything you want”, is often asked for his opinion and advice on the grounds that he founded and sold his business, CD-Baby, for $22million. In a video of his story he expresses his surprise at this as he is a professional musician, not a business genius. He asserts that he just found a bunch of stuff that worked and followed it where it took him. So, is he an expert or not?

There are lots of ‘experts’ out there who have gained that status because of their proficiency at what they do. They may consult on sales, presenting, networking or all sorts of things that they are really good at, through a natural talent, aptitude or enthusiasm. They are clearly expert at what they do, but are they someone who you can learn from, who can show you how to be expert as well? Are they worth listening too?

I had plenty of teachers at school and university who were experts in their field but quite useless at imparting their knowledge to us students. They were just not able to come down to our level and relate to us. There are plenty of top sportsmen who fail at coaching and management for much the same reason. They just don’t understand how we mere mortals work.

Time and again we find that the best teachers often were so-so students, the best coaches often were just squad players.

Derek Sivers is worth listening too because he is just the same as us, and he started from the same place as most of us are starting from. He may not consider himself an ‘expert’ but we can relate to what he has to say, to the struggles he has been to and the lessons he has learned. That makes him an expert in what is useful to you and I.

It’s a paradox but maybe the ‘expert’ is the least qualified person to show you the way.


2 responses to “The paradox of the expert

  1. Good blog. I want to pick up on one thing though. As a relative new academic, I’ve had to learn the art of teaching. It’s a new skill and there are a 1000 & 1 techniques that can be used to impart my knowledge. But this is the thing: it’s not about what I know, it’s about what my students learn.

    So you’re right often the best in one field does not mean you’ll be an expert at teaching; it’s another skill altogether.

    • What I am getting at is that it is more important that the person empathises with your position and can see from your perspective than that they have great knowledge. Often, this means they have been in your place. A good example is sports coaching. Many great coaches were never more than mediocre players, whilst few great players go on to be effective coaches. Going for the ‘superstar’ speaker or consultant can be a mistake, you’d get better results from someone who’s more like you, knows what you are going through and can communicate at your level.

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