I'm a writer. I know, I know ... shocker. But there are nuances to being a writer that some people never consider.

For starters, a writer often has to quickly make him or herself an "authority" on a topic, using source material to gain an inside perspective, to write about it in a way that resonates with and conveys meaning to the reader. We become "on the fly experts." It's part of the job.

And that's a job I've done since I was very young. I've made a career of it. I teach other people to do it, and to get better at it, to leverage that ability to build or improve their business and their lives. It's a core belief—something I don't question. And yet, recently I've been challenged on that belief, and it has me thinking. 

What is it that makes someone an authority or an expert? 

How many books do they have to read? How many practical hours do they have to spend working in a field or studying a topic? What is the minimal level of "quality" and "quantity" required in order for that study and those hours to count toward expertise? 

Where is the line between being an authority and not being an authority? 

In my work, there's no absolute for this. It's relative. I work under the philosophy that if I have more knowledge on a topic than the audience I'm writing for, then I'm an authority on that topic relative to that audience. If I've read three books by the most prominent thinkers in a field, then I am an authority on that topic relative to people who have had little to no exposure to that topic. 

That seems logical to me. It seems right. Further, it actually seems unquestionable and inalienable. 

But therein lies the problem ... because another core belief I have is that you must know the why of what you're doing and what you believe. And on this topic, on the subject of expertise and authority, I don't know that why. Not yet. But I'm going to change that.

A one-month deep dive into authority and expertise

For the next month, I'm committing to doing a deep dive into authority and expertise. I'm going to start exploring what it means to be an authority on a topic, and how someone becomes an expert. I'm going to search for the line between not-an-expert and expert. 

I don't know how I'll do this just yet. Not entirely. My first step is going to be looking at a dictionary. 

Here's the definition of "expert" according to Merriam-Webster:

Expert — adj. Having or showing special skill or knowledge because of what you have been taught or what you have experienced

SOURCE: http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/expert

And here's the definition Merriam-Webster offers for  "authority" in this context:

Authority — n. An individual cited or appealed to as an expert

SOURCE: http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/authority (1.c)

I have some immediate impressions about these two definitions, and because I'm starting from the point of view that I'm learning as I go, I want to break these out here. Because it's impossible for me to separate my past experience and knowledge from this pursuit. I'll be digging in based on what I know as the starting point, with the aim of filling in what I don't know. So here goes.

My interpretation of the dictionary definitions

The definition of an "expert" doesn't put any parameters on the quantity or quality of the "special skill or knowledge." It only dictates that the expert "shows" that skill and knowledge, and that they come from what the expert has been taught or experienced. No qualifiers are given. It doesn't even mention how the expert would show that skill and knowledge, so that's wide open in my mind. 

How much special skill? How much knowledge? Does the expert write a book or write a blog? Do they do a TED Talk or talk to their buddies in a bar? 

Based on the definition, all someone has to do to be an expert is show their skill and knowledge in an as yet undefined method, and that skill and knowledge must come from what the individual has been taught, by methods also undefined, or has experienced, to a degree not delineated here. 

That seems like a lot of leeway. 

Likewise, according to the definition, an "authority" simply has to be "cited or appealed to as an expert." Based on this definition, if someone is quoted even one time by someone else, referred to as an expert even once, or is even just sought out for advice, the individual is an authority on the topic. That seems to justify my position on "relative authority."

Actually, that's not true. Apparently, there's nothing all that relative about it. You are an authority if someone considers you an expert, and you're an expert if you can show special skill or knowledge based on what you've been taught or experienced.

Let's break that down just a bit further.

"Special," according to Merriam-Webster:

SOURCE: http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/special

SOURCE: http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/special

It was easier to pull a screenshot of this, rather than retype it. But I think this is a pretty clear picture (badump-bump).

"Special" means "unusual quality," "held in particular esteem," "readily distinguishable from others of the same category." Unique. 

This doesn't disqualify my position on authority and expertise. An individual who reads three books by the leading authorities in an industry would have special knowledge that (and this is going to send some folks into orbit) even the individual authorities themselves might not have. Because the reader has access to the knowledge presented to all three authors, while the individual authors may lack the perspective of the other two for some reason. 

The brain surgeon argument

So here's the logic question I will get (and it's the sort of question I'm going to ask myself over the next month): Would I trust a brain surgeon who only read three books on the subject?

No. And the reason is, though that would-be brain surgeon may actually be an authority on the subject of brain surgery, may actually be an expert relative to me, they are not a master of the skills and knowledge required. They can speak with authority on ganglia and gray matter, but they aren't qualified to cut into the brain with any real hope of success. 

And I think that's what's really at issue here. I think there's a confusion over the differences between a subject matter expert and a master of the subject. One is more knowledgable than his or her audience. The other understands it so intrinsically that their expertise may be unmatched. They're a higher level expert and authority. 

Standards make the difference

I could go off on a tangent about "mastery" at this point, but I think we can all (or must all) agree to one thing: There are standards that must be met. In the case of a brain surgeon, those standards come in the form of a medical degree and a minimum number of hours with scalpel in hand. There are pre-determined competencies that must be met and measured. Those standards—that criteria—determines mastery.

Likewise, we have standards for "authority" and "expertise." I quoted one of them. The dictionary is an internationally accepted standard for determining the meaning of words. You can question the validity and accuracy of the standard, but we still have to all agree to start somewhere. I chose the most notable and quoted dictionary in existence. I'm citing Merriam-Webster as an authority on the definition of terms. Challengers welcome. 

Over the next month, I'm going to work very hard to deconstruct everything I just wrote. The whole argument, based on what I know and have experienced, and the sources I have cited, will be called into question and analyzed. Because I think it's important, to me personally, to settle this question once and for all. 

What is an authority? What makes someone an expert? Who determines that, and what are the criteria for the determination? 

What do you thinK? I would love to hear your perspective on this. Who do you feel are authorities in their industries, and what is it that made you decide that? How do you determine if someone is an expert? What is your benchmark?

Leave your answers in the comments, or (even better) call me at 281-809-WORD (9673). Leave me a voicemail with your answer or a question, and I may play it during a special episode of the Wordslinger Podcast

Let's become experts on authority and expertise together. 


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Kevin Tumlinson is the author of numerous novels, novellas, and non-fiction books, and the host of the Wordslinger Podcast. Try three of his best books for free when you download his starter library at kevintumlinson.com/starterlibrary.
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