Picking An Expert

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The world is an unimaginably complex place, made all the more so by the incredible things we human beings have learned to do:  build skyscrapers and space shuttles, clear clogged heart arteries and blocked intestines, make cell phones nearly as thin as credit cards, and modulate the immune system just enough to prevent it from rejecting a transplanted organ but not so much that it leaves its host too susceptible to infection.  These are grand accomplishments requiring extraordinary expertise—expertise that Atul Gawande argued, convincingly I think, in his book The Checklist Manifesto over which no one person could possible achieve complete mastery.  Even a transplant surgeon with all her knowledge and skill can’t transplant an organ by herself.  Leaving aside the skills of the nurses, anesthesiologists, and organ procurement team, there are also the thousands of people who contributed their knowledge to inventing and manufacturing the surgical instruments, monitors, medicines, and support systems (not to mention the thousands behind them whose knowledge made those things possible) that are each indispensable for a successful outcome.

Given the complexity that underlies so many of the wonderful benefits of living in the modern world, finding an expert when you need one has never been more imperative (to make sure you’re able to take full advantage of those benefits) nor ironically more difficult (not because there exists a dearth of experts—quite the contrary; there’s never been more of them—but rather because the scope of each person’s expertise has narrowed down as the sheer amount of information to know has expanded).  That, and because only another expert is truly qualified to judge another expert’s level of expertise.

Who else but an expert plumber would know if another plumber’s work is any good?  If he chooses the right piping for the right job?  If the piping he chooses is right-sized?  Who else but a real estate broker with expert knowledge of the real estate market and of a particular landlord’s drivers would know if another broker obtained for his client a market deal?  We turn to these experts because we lack the ability they have to answer these questions, but because we lack the ability to answer these questions, we also lack the ability to judge their answers—that is, to tell an expert from an amateur.

Certainly we have our judgment and general experience to guide us.  But in differentiating a good roofer from a great one such resources are mostly useless.  In some circumstances, good may be good enough, it’s true, but do any of us really want our children’s teachers to be merely good enough?  Or our doctors?

How then can we reliably identify experts?  Most of us rely on the opinions of other non-experts and the anecdotes they tell us.  But anecdotes often misrepresent the true level of a person’s skill.  It’s not that they tell us nothing, but that they tell us far less than we tell ourselves they do.

Besides the recommendations of others based on anecdote, what we might also use to identify service providers as experts is their degree of excellence in realms indirectly related to their particular area, realms in which we do have some expertise ourselves.  Though by no means perfect indicators of expertise in a specific area, things like thoroughness in communication, rigorousness in follow up and attention to detail, and clarity of thinking contribute to expertise in all fields.  It’s certainly possible, for example, to pay close attention to detail and be only a mediocre doctor, but it’s hard to pay poor attention to detail and be a good one.

Outstanding performance in any specific area requires skill in multiple other general areas.  The degree to which skill in these multiple other general areas serve as leading indicators for skill in any one specific area will certainly vary, but in the end they may be the best indicators we non-experts have.

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  • Alex,

    I especially loved your line: “It’s certainly possible, for example, to pay close attention to detail and be only a mediocre doctor, but it’s hard to pay poor attention to detail and be a good one.”

    Many years ago a very successful painter friend told me he doesn’t ever refer to himself as an “artist”… he leaves that to the judgment of others to make that assessment of whether or not his creativity and talent rises to the level of artistry.

    Ever since then, I found that to be a guiding principal when seeking specialists/experts, aka the highest practitioners of art of whatever field. Whether it be from the guy at the local drive through coffee shop here in Long Beach or to the ortho surgeon in Denver, those who are willing to refer me to the person they think is the true ‘arteeeeest’ in their field, well those are recommendations that mean the most to me, even if it comes round full circle back to the starting point person.

    May you already be among the artists!


  • IMO: my 74-year-old father is an “expert” dentist. His practice has grown while most others in his area have declined. Next year he will retire after 50 years of practice. His success is attributed (by me) not only due to his excellent work but also to his fairness (financially and personally) in dealing with all his patients. This has led to a highly successful practice; successful measured by happy people who have received excellent dentistry, not dollars earned.

    However, even the best make mistakes. How the best handle their mistakes can be another measure of an “ethical/expert professional.” On more than one occasion, my fathers work failed in some fashion—perhaps the lab work, perhaps the impression mold—he always honored his mistakes and asked to redo the work for cost or in a few cases, for free if he felt he was directly at fault.

    I would suggest therefore, that there are a few additional measures or “contributing factors” in identifying an expert in a particular field including:

    1) the success of that individual’s business;
    2) how they handle mistakes and errors;

    combined with the other skills you mention above:

    3) attention to detail;
    4) communication skills;
    5) clarity of thought

    I think most folks would be quite satisfied with their experience taking these factors into account in finding a trusted source for work in nearly any field.


    Craig: Excellent points. Thanks for making them.


  • These are the life philosophical principles being discussed at various levels at different points of time under different circumstances in day-to-day life . But some one needs to follow in practical life and adopt them as life principles. I wish the people may broad base their thinking and adopt in life as there is nothing permanent in life and to note that what is today’s truth may not be truth tomorrow and vice versa is also true.

  • An expert probably becomes that way in the same manner you get to Carnegie Hall. Malcolm Gladwell has some good chapters about this in Outliers.