Can You Call Yourself an Expert in Any Subject?

I would think most people could call themselves master in the subject of themselves.  But do you have any topics that you feel you are an expert?  Think small when considering this unless you’re really the leading authority in a bigger subject.  For example, I might be an authority on Lady Dorothy Mills, a forgotten writer from the 1920s. 

I’ve kept a web site about Lady Mills for years trying to find anyone still interested in her work.  About once a year I get an email from someone who has run across her name and wants to know more, or has a tidbit of information for me.  I recently learned that Lady Mills has a sister in her 90s living in New Zealand, so I’m going to consider her the Master of the Topic.

Also, I’ve maintain a web site on the classics of science fiction – but there are many people interested in this topic, so maybe I’m only a scholar.  Topics are relative.  Some topics are too big to rank their specialists, like astronomy, but it might be possible to rank astronomers on a narrower topic, like studying cosmic background radiation.

From reading this essay I hope the next time you meet a person that asks you what you’re in to you can be a bit more specific than “I like music and movies.”  Think about what you like to read.  What topics perk up your ears when the television is on.  What do you like to argue about at parties.  Maybe once you think about this idea of ranking specialists you might like to specialize in a topic.

For the purposes of this essay I created a rough way to rank the levels knowledge on any topic.

Membership Levels in Knowledge of a Topic
Master 1
Authority 2 – 9
Expert 10 – 99
Scholar 100 – 999
Student 1,000 – 9,999
Amateur 10,000 – 100,000
Fan 100,001 – 1,000,000

For big academic subjects a person needs to have a Ph.D. and written widely on a particular subfield to call themselves an authority or expert.  But it’s possible to narrow your focus, say pick a dead person, or work of art, and master the topic.  For example, we might consider David McCullough the master of the topic of John Adams. 

Or I would guess Bill Patterson is the master on the topic of the science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein, but he might have rivals.  We have to wait and read Patterson’s first volume of Heinlein’s biography when comes out in August.  In the tempest in a teapot world of Heinlein knowledge there’s a contentious society fighting to claim authority turf.  If the going is tough at the top, it’s easier to claim a smaller peak, like Joseph T. Major did by mastering the topic of Heinlein’s juveniles with his book Heinlein’s Children.

At 58 I’m rather old to be thinking about what I want to be when I grow up, but I don’t think I’m too old to become ambitious about studying a specialized topic and trying to master it.  After my last post, Xmind Mapping LibraryThing Tags, I’ve been inspired to discover what subjects I’m the most interested in and start systematically studying them.  Hell, I could become a specialist in online library cataloging programs with not too much work. 

Everyone should have twelve topics they love at the moment.  These topics should be subjects that would thoroughly delight you to discuss at parties and around the water cooler at work.  I’m actively studying all the topics I’m interest in and want to pick twelve to consciously pursue.  The trouble is I need to narrow down my specialties.  I can say I like to read books about artificial intelligence (AI) and robots, but that’s way to big a topic other than just being a general fan. 

The other day I saw a video of a robot that solves a Rubik’s Cube in 12 seconds or less.  I wonder if the guy who built this robot is the absolute master of the topic, or if there are other robots that can do the Rubik’s Cube.  As a fantasy, I’d love to program a computer to read science fiction novels and write scholarly papers about any SF story I fed it, but that’s way too ambitious.  I might could become a scholar of robot characters in science fiction, maybe even an expert.  

Right now I’m just having fun contemplating this idea and what topics I want to pursue.  I hope to come up with a list soon.

JWH – 2/22/10

8 thoughts on “Can You Call Yourself an Expert in Any Subject?”

  1. What a fun idea. I doubt I could consider myself an expert in anything…perhaps not even myself. Ha!

    Curious, why twelve things?

    I don’t know from any kind of detailed study what you may or may not be an expert at, what I do know from the time I’ve spent on your blog is that you are certainly well versed in classic science fiction and your obvious interest in categorizing things and quantifying things means that I think you have a great chance of success at being an expert in whatever you choose to pursue.

    1. A dozen is such a nice number, not a whole lot, but not too little either. But I also think we should have a certain amount of variety in the things that obsess us. I know too many people who have too few things they focus on in life. I’m sure you have friends like these too, folks who only want talk about only four pet topics. If you’re good at too many topics you come off as a know-it-all. So by picking twelve I’m encouraging people to stretch themselves. And twelve is working out well in my mind mapping efforts. I hope to have my list soon.

      To be great at something, you really need to focus on one thing, but at 58 I’m long past the time when I can become a dazzling talent. By picking twelve I hope I can come off as a renaissance man. But then, I’ve never been great at doing anything, and usually end up doing everything half-ass.

  2. I’ve thought about the things I am good at, but never considered pursuing a topic and studying it to become an expert, at least not in the manner you described. Thanks, you just threw a light switch for me!

  3. I always heard the definition of an “expert” is someone who has made every mistake humanly possible in a very narrow field.

  4. I was always told that intensely focused research in a narrow field would equip the student for later, broader studies. Over time I have come to think this is often not the case. Having met and worked with experts, putative humanists who knew a great deal about a small thing, but lacked much capacity for serious critical thinking–I concluded the only way to actually judge the quality of someone’s thought is to be good at it yourself, and thus able to judge the quality of thought in others.

  5. It’s how you define expert, what you do with calling yourself it and what results are. Results are key if you are getting paid,

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