What Makes an Expert? by NCSF – National Council on Strength and Fitness

This article was required reading as part of the NCSF certification renewal process.  I liked it.   I am sharing it with you so you can better vet the qualifications of people you get training advice from.  In strength and health.  -Nuey

The internet provides instantaneous information on virtually all subjects currently known to man. It allows for immediate data related to a multitude of disciplines; allowing for research to be performed related to a subject, instructions to be provided for a specific task and advice to be gained by an “authority” in the area of interest. What is amazing is the number of “experts” who exist in each domain and this may be no more evident than in the fitness industry. Every newsletter, e-news, blog, instructional video, webinar, etc. is presented by an “expert in the field.” But what defines the word expert?

When CNN calls in a military expert it is often a retired general but never less than a battle tested colonel. Reputable news sources providing information on business programs reference Harvard business professors, whereas medical based information is always from an accomplished physician who often also chairs a department at a medical university. Each of these individuals is not questioned as to maintaining a level of expertise based on their education, credentials, and experience. In the fitness industry it is not uncommon for anyone who makes a video, does a local interview or owns a website to call themselves an expert. This begs the question “is it ethical to call yourself an expert because you workout frequently or hold a degree in a fitness related field, or are marketing yourself as such to sell your wears?”

It is generally accepted that an expert level of any skill requires 10,000 hours of purposeful engagement in a particular area. The key emphasis is purposeful engagement. Spending 10,000 hours doing something does not necessarily make you an expert. For instance, there are many people who have spent 10,000 hours cooking in the kitchen but that doesn’t mean that each is considered an expert chef. Purposeful engagement suggests that there is at a minimum – direction, interaction, analysis, and pursuit-based inquiry. The expertise at this level is often assigned to a subset area as most disciplines are too vast to maintain an expertise level in all areas. This is why most school degree programs have tracks or specializations to maintain area focus and prevent the “jack of all trades and master of none” phenomenon.

In the psychological investigations between the expert and non-expert, there seems to exist certain criteria that differentiate the two; historical knowledge as to the discipline’s evolvement and key milestones in the past (discoveries/developmental/technical etc..), requisite procedural knowledge, extreme efficiency in the ability to scan, data process and evaluate information and situations, focused analysis based on the application of specific principles, and research based inquiry (problem solving). The caveat to this is a discernable ability to do it all well.

Although formal education is often considered the most well established route to expertise, there is experienced-based expertise that in some cases leads to more rapid discovery and technical evolvement. Most would argue that one must understand the authorities to challenge them, which explains education. In basic terms, undergraduates regurgitate/replicate information, graduates review and analyze information, and doctors question the information in pursuits of a better, more efficient way. An auto mechanic who learned the locomotive basics in two years of technical school may be considered much more knowledgeable after 20 years of practice than his original teacher. He, in fact, may become an industry innovator as he performs trial and error research everyday without an IRB committee to slow him down. His education is certainly inquiry-based as he looks for better ways to solve the problems he confronts.

America watches TV – a lot of TV. And if a TV personality such as Oprah calls someone an expert the person is nearly guaranteed to become the next big thing. Books, videos, their own television show, etc seem to be the natural consequences of Oprah’s expert rating. Is it simply a factor of platform that makes an expert? This may explain why everyone in the fitness industry is an expert. Any mass media platform needs a marketable title for optimal sale value. This suggests the platform presents the concept of expert in that area regardless of the true level of the professional.

One litmus test in the evaluation of a professional as an expert is if that individual is considered an expert for the purposes of law. Although a courtroom often requires a lower level expertise than a credible University, for an expert witness to be considered as such they must be qualified by the court, based on expertise, accomplishments, and training directly related to the subject matter of the case. In the courtroom, the lawyer responsible for hiring the expert witness is also responsible for convincing the judge that the witness does, in fact, possess specialized experience and training based on the individual’s background, formal training, education, quantifiable skills, experience, and requisite knowledge. Education and degrees are highly regarded by courts as evidence of expertise, but an expert witness can also be qualified based on experience and skills alone, assuming they are above that of an average professional. Once the questioning of the witness has concluded, the court will then make a ruling on whether or not the witness will be admitted as an expert in their field.

If someone would not be qualified as an expert in the courts by the aforementioned process, they are most likely not an expert in their field. This does not necessarily mean they do not have a level of expertise or a value in the profession, but rather that they should not represent themselves in a manner that may falsely assign unearned merit. In some cases a subset of skills in a domain may warrant particular acknowledgement, but ethically should only be presented in that context. For instance, if a fitness professional coaches national level Olympic weight lifters they may have a measurable expertise in the specific lifts and coaching techniques which would add to their authority in that area, but only to the extent that it remains in the specific realm of Olympic weight lifting techniques. To suggest an Olympic weightlifting coach is also considered an expert in health and fitness would likely be a false statement unless the individual was educated, trained and experienced in those additional areas.

When is it ethical to call yourself an expert and advertise yourself as such? The following are supportive evidence (or not) that a level of expertise has been established and can be documented.

  • Education – accredited education curriculum, area of study, level of instruction, rigors of the academics, degree of assessment/evaluation.
  • License/Certification – performed using legitimate measures of one’s knowledge/skill – in the fitness industry this suggests standardized proctored examinations, not online open book tests. Professional certifications are generally considered minimum competency assessments for employment not an assignment of a title of expert.
  • Experience/Time – actual time spent in higher levels of the professional domain Broadening Experiences – participation in events that expand inquiry and provide intellectual growth.
  • Specific mentors – Time spent under highly qualified experts.
  • Recognition by peers in same field – the level of peer recognition by qualified professionals.
  • Specificity of Expertise – actual area of higher knowledge or skill presented.
  • Published works – contribution to expertise is based on the publication and the audience.
  • Speaking engagements (venue and audience) – having an audience does not make one an expert, but the depth and scope of the content, the venue and the level of education/skill of the audience indicate value toward expert acknowledgement.
  • Thought processing and innateness of the knowledge – level of understanding and ability to synthesize and process information intuitively.

Each of the previously mentioned areas unto itself may not define expertise but the contribution of the collective categories round out definable qualifications of an expert. For instance a person with a degree may not be able to pass a certification exam, therefore which has more value? A graduate degree may have little merit or high merit depending on the school, professors, curriculum and assessment or evaluation of knowledge to be conferred. Schools that require a thesis and qualifying exams to graduate are different than a program that grants degrees for time served. Working for 10 years without development in one’s knowledge and skills may present less worth than 3 years experience in a challenging and engaging work environment that demanded continued learning, inquiry and detailed focus. Being considered a guru by thousands of low-level professionals does not compare to the respect of a much smaller quantity of high-level professionals. Presenting on a local news show or industry conference or tradeshow does not match presenting at a University, in the same way writing a blog does not equate to being published in the Journal of Applied Physiology.

Based on these considerations, the decision to represent oneself as an expert requires a personal evaluation and an appropriate degree of ethics. If bias is a concern, ask a respected peer who is not a friend to participate in the evaluation. In some cases, people believe they are more knowledgeable than they are, but as most readers would agree, in the majority of cases people know their level of expertise and choose to market themselves above that level. Taking the time to go through a personal evaluation will not only help with ethical behavior but also identify areas where one’s expertise can be advanced. Identifying areas of weakness is the first step to improvement and can initiate the path to the next level of expertise.

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