Sunday, October 5, 2008

exposing expertise

"Hi, how's it going?"
"Not bad, thanks. So, what type of work do you do?"
"I'm an expert welder."
"Wow, great. I will come to you with all of my metallurgical needs."

insert fine line here

"Hi, how's it going?"
"Not bad, thanks. So what type of work do you do?"
"I'm an expert maverick."
"Whatever, chump."

The fine line raises two different issues.
1. Hard skills vs. soft skills
2. Reaching and claiming expert status

Welding is a hard skill. If a welder claims to me that she is an expert, I assume that she has reached a certain level of measurable achievement in her craft.

Mavericism - is it even a skill? Note: It's not even a word. When Sarah Palin tells me that her team is the maverick team (and a team of mavericks, and has been a maverick, and that senate maverick, and maverick is us) does she think that saying it aloud makes it true? I am much more critical on claims of expertise in soft skills than hard skills. They're harder to measure and evaluate, and even tougher to demonstrate.

With both hard and soft skills, how do you ever know that you've reached expert status? With hard skills you might take an exam or fulfill a certain number of hours as a practitioner of your art and then be granted a piece of paper with artfully arranged ink that qualifies you as an expert. But, more often than not, whether through practice, talent, or experience, you are an expert whether or not the national governing body deems it so. Sure, someone out there in the world is better than you, but sometimes it's nice to let the humility fly away.

A few days ago the opportunity arose for me to test out claims of expertise. A colleague was walking around our work area looking for a squash partner. He moved around the room asking a bunch of different people, many of whom are frequent squash players. I have never played squash with any of these people but know that some are pretty solid players and others are newer to the sport. I know that the colleague that was looking for a partner was advanced beginner level, maybe intermediate. When he got to me and asked if I wanted to play, I responded with, "You don't want to play with me because I'm quite excellent at squash."

This caught him and the others off guard. They all thought I was joking and tried to get me to admit to a ruse. In fact, I am quite good at squash, but I'm not sure that anyone believed me.

Revealing skills to others is strangely exposing. The line between bragging and truth is weak without an additional party to substantiate. In the spirit of exposure, I offer you this:
I am an expert at spitting small objects. Give me a watermelon seed and I will spit it farther than you. Ask me to hit a target with a cherry pit and I will land it closer than you.
Doggonit, Joe, now that there is straight talk.

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