Sunday, February 17, 2008

Word of the Week: expert

I had an awkward moment this week when a potential client asked me what my areas of expertise are. Realizing that blurting out, “I’m not an expert in anything”, would likely bring a quick end to the conversation, I managed to avoid answering for a few minutes as I figured out how to reply.

My reluctance to call myself an expert doesn’t come from modesty or low self-esteem. It comes from my belief that the “expert” label should be sparingly used, so as not to dilute its meaning. In an era where it sometimes seems that many feel comfortable calling themselves an expert at something they’ve done once, as long as they’ve not made a complete mess of it, I feel the word is terribly over-used. To me, by definition, the term should apply to very few people.

As the conversation continued, I realized what I was being asked for was a list of areas I feel I can write about with ease, given my legal training and my professional experience. Realizing this, I managed to answer, though I was careful to point out that though I feel conversant in certain areas, I don’t think of myself as an expert in any of them. Fortunately, my response seemed to satisfy and we moved on.

All the way home, however, I still felt uncomfortable, worrying that somehow I might have over-sold my skills. When I got home, I made a beeline to the dictionary to look up expert. Here’s how my dictionary (Webster's New World College Dictionary (4th Ed)) defines it:
1 very skillful; having much training and knowledge in some special field
Given this, I guess my earlier views about what it means was a bit narrow, which also means I can rest a bit easier because, in answering the question, I don't think I exaggerated or mislead. So there you are, further proof that the dictionary is your friend!


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