Identity Theft Expert?

Golf Expert

Are you an expert at something?

In the world of professional speaking, you are expected to be an expert in your topic (to be taken seriously and to make a living). So speakers begin calling themselves experts, sometimes before they deserve the title. It’s like giving yourself a nickname – it feels a bit self-congratulatory.

I’m no exception. After becoming a two-time victim of identity theft, writing a book on identity theft prevention, and delivering approximately 50 identity theft speeches, I suddenly became an identity theft expert. One day at a speech, someone introduced me as John Sileo, identity theft expert. A local TV station was there filming, so that night on TV I became a local ID theft expert. And that eventually led to some modest national recognition. The name stuck – because it was good for marketing and because, compared to the people in my audience, it was usually true. But compared to a criminal investigator who’d studied financial crime for 20 years, it was untrue. My expertise was really about DELIVERY – distilling and delivering the most important prevention information in a way that inspired people to take action. Which is great… but does it make me an identity theft expert?

Here’s the kicker. Had I not been branded an identity theft expert before it was probably true (if, in fact, it is true even now), I would have never been given the opportunities to BECOME an expert. Once I was branded “the expert” (and it’s later incarnation, “America’s Top Identity Theft Speaker”), I was invited to speak for Fortune 500 companies, participate on boards, contribute to panels and conferences and articles and to meet other experts on the topic. That exposure increased my expertise. But the chicken/egg sensation still troubles me – which came first, the title or the expertise? All too often, I think the title is first. Is that necessarily a bad thing?

Which brings me to my point. How do we become genuine experts in our field? I think that this is the single most important professional question we face as a nation as professional jobs increasingly go to people with greater expertise (sometime in other countries). If my friend Patrick (a pilot for Continental) were to call himself an expert as early in his career as I did, we would all be taking our vacations by car this summer. Ditto for a doctor, teacher or Army general. Expertise obviously varies by what we are applying the term to. But I would like to find the common denominators among these fields (expert pilot, speaker, guitar player, coach, mom, golfer, chess player, etc.). Out of this conversation, I’d like to collect an understanding of some of the common qualities that experts share (if such a list exists). With that knowledge, maybe it will be easier to become an expert. I’ll share my thoughts and learnings once I’ve heard yours.

My fascination with this topic has lead me to read academic papers on the topic. Drawing from those, let me set a common foundation by defining a couple of terms:

  1. Expert: “One who is very skillful and well-informed in some special field” or “someone widely recognized as a reliable source of knowledge, technique, or skill whose judgement is accorded authority and status by the public or his or her peers” (Webster’s New World Dictionary, 1968, p. 168).
  2. Expertise: “the characteristics, skills, and knowledge that distinguish experts from novices and less experienced people” (The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance, 2006, p. 3).
  3. Expert Performance: the ability to consistently reproduce superior performances – to land the airplane safely in a monsoon every time, to win half of the golf tournaments you enter in a year, to play the guitar like Tommy Emmanuel:

So this is the question: How do we become experts? What, exactly, makes you the expert you are?

Is it knowledge? Experience? Coaching? A certain type of practice? Is it in our genes to become an expert? Is it a personality trait? Hard work? Focus? What made Bobby Fischer a better chess player after 9 years than his opponents, some of whom had played competitively for 30 years? They had more knowledge (knew more combinations of moves), more experience (games played), higher IQs, better coaches (according to some), etc. But comparatively, he was the greater expert at age 16. Why? I don’t want to oversimplify, but to find common ground. To explore some universal truths about expertise.

I’m sending this blog post to people that I truly consider experts in their field. I’d love to hear their thoughts on the topic, and yours.

John Sileo
Identity Theft Expert

13 replies
  1. CR Sturgis
    CR Sturgis says:

    In some of your conversation, being an ‘expert’ almost relates to being a “brand” in the marketing world. Whether you brand yourself, or become branded by others as an expert, the lore can be mistaken for true expertise.

    I believe to have “expertise,” you have to have not only studied the subject (from a. literature, b. others, and c. your life experiences), but have formulated and interjected new ideas and matter into that conversation. You create something new that others can learn from that becomes part of the subject. Even if this is a speech, or article brief, or book, once others trust your information and pass it on, and other experts begin to use it to formulate yet other new conversations around the subject, you have proven you have expertise on the subject.

    Now I would call you a true expert.


    P.S. Thanks, now my brain hurts…

  2. Gina Schreck
    Gina Schreck says:

    An Expert. In my opinion, there are different levels of expertise. True expertise is a combination of knowledge and experience. Some may have lots of hands-on experience like an automechanic or even a parent, without ever reading a book on the subject, but then they are limiting thier “expertise” by only seeing the subject through thier eyes. Some may have lots of book smarts in a specific subject, but then your “expertise” is limited to that of the authors and it is dated–stale! I’ve heard it said that “knowledge is power,” but I beleive “knowledge, when applied…that’s POWER!” And that, my friend is my “expert” input!

  3. Jack
    Jack says:

    Well-written post, and I wish I had time to type out all my thoughts! But here is a start. I have to confess that “expert” is a term of art to me; I have worked with a few in the litigation realm and that has come to obscure/distort my view of what that means in the real world.

    So I could relate a few of the principles that allow one to be qualified as an expert in the legal realm. Those are probably too narrow for the real world, but the criteria used to decide whether someone is qualified as an expert in court are somewhat useful to think about as possible gating principles for real-world expertise.

    There is one issue I am mulling over, though: the nature of expertise. To take your example, given what I know about the guy, Bobby Fischer may not have a claim on being a chess expert, depending on how you define the term. I don’t think he was much of a teacher, or had much of an ability to explain his methodology or teach his craft. It’s like how the great baseball managers tend to be marginal catchers who spent most of their time in the bus leagues, and weren’t the Hall of Famers. Maybe there’s some logic to the idea that doing something very well is a different skill than explaining it well, and that not doing something so well requires you to “explain” the craft to yourself first in a way that the prodigies do not have to, so that you become a better teacher of the craft. And in the realm of expertise you are talking about, explaining your views very well and being an effective teacher is the whole ballgame, in a sense. The background knowledge is necessary, but not sufficient to make you an expert. If I had your wealth of knowledge but Bobby Fischer’s presentation of self, nobody would consider me to be an expert in much of anything.

    And that dichotomy has some impact in my world too. We have plenty of experts with gold-plated CVs, but an expert who lacks the gift or discipline of explain his/her thinking in a clear way to a layperson is pretty much useless. But you can think of the opposite example too — people who are all presentation and no substance (take Jerry Falwell for example) who sell nonsense under the cloak of expertise.

    I guess it also depends whether you’re talking about expertise in a profession (like airline pilot or biochemist) or a field of knowledge (like identity theft or 19th century German poetry). Those dynamics probably differ in a lot of ways. But the common virtue among experts in those different areas is to give an audience of people who didn’t know or care before the expert started talking the impetus to care, and some rudimentary and sound tools to work with to vindicate that newfound interest.

  4. Mark Sanborn
    Mark Sanborn says:

    Since I made expertise part of my theme during the year I served as NSA (National Speakers Association) president, I spent a considerable amount of time studying and thinking about expertise. My conclusion is that expertise is primarily developed and proven by these components: experience, education/study, teaching (others), research (primary and secondary) and innovation (adding something new to your field of expertise). Far more people posture as experts than can actually be considered true experts. A new book just out from Random House talks about this in part (based on reviews; I’ve not had a chance to read), The Cult of the Amateur by Andrew Keen. He talks about the internet creating faux experts; opinions, often incorrect, have taken on credibility through mass dissemination. The research, by the way, is clear: expertise almost always takes 10-15 years to develop. Instant expertise is really a myth. You can quickly gain more expertise than you had, but it doesn’t make you an expert.

  5. Christie Ward
    Christie Ward says:

    I am constantly intrigued by the notion that true
    talents cannot be taught. They are behaviors,
    actions and even attitudes that we consistently use
    and that get consistent results. It is what comes
    naturally to us. Knowledge and skill, on the other
    hand are learned. We sharpen them like a knife with
    repetition and practice.
    I’m not sure a person can have expertise without
    all three of these: talent, knowledge and skill.
    You can learn what you need to (skill), study what
    you need to (knowledge), but still not hit a ball
    like Tiger. Tiger has talent. That gives him
    expertise without question.
    And I’m quite sure Tiger doesn’t have to .
    for us.

    optimize his website for key words. Many people
    pop up like an expert that way. He simply is one.
    It would benefit all of us to focus on our true
    talents to uncover our expertise, instead of
    “decide” we’re going to be an expert on something.
    Thanks, John, for posing the question. A few of us
    will be tracking you for the results!

  6. Brad Montgomery
    Brad Montgomery says:

    Well, it seems to me, as a total clod, that expertise is over rated.

    That’s a joke, people.

    A good friend told me years ago that “if you read 7 books about any topic” you’re an expert. In some ways it’s totally true. I remember in college studying health care politics for an entire semester. I undoubtedly had read more about the topic than 98% of our Congressmen and Senators, and it was clear that I was NOT an expert. Yet we considered them to be experts.

    My point? Not sure, but I can tell ya I loved your post. Keep up the good work, mr. expert!

    Brad Montgomery

  7. Howard Wallin
    Howard Wallin says:

    In a recent documentary Eric Clapton, who most would agree is an expert guitarist, confessed that he found it impossible to accurately play some songs written by blues legend Robert Johnson. During an interview Mr. Clapton said, “I am able to approximate Robert Johnson’s skill level but I’m not good enough to duplicate it.” I am of the belief that whether or not someone is an “expert” depends upon who is calling them an expert and by what measure the determination is being made. In some circles, I am known as a sales expert. I have achieved personal and professional success practicing the craft of selling and I have had the pleasure of helping hundreds of sales professionals in dozens of global corporations improve their own sales performance. Am I a sales expert? Depends on who you ask.

  8. Colleen Stanley
    Colleen Stanley says:

    My first qualifier or disqualifier on an expert is finding out whether they have “been there and done it.” I have found in field of expertise, sales and sales management training, that many of the trainers are teaching out of a book. They have never been charged with a quota, never actually managed a team or been responsible for true P & L responsibilities. The second qualifier is whether or not the person can share their expertise in a manner where people actually learn and/or change.

  9. Barb
    Barb says:

    Now that’s a very intriguing question and I’ve often wondered it myself because I like the idea of being an expert in something. I think one of the vital traits needed to become an expert is drive, desire, tenacity, single-mindedness, focus – whatever you want to call it – that compels you to study, learn, practice, publish, listen and stay current on your specific topic until you know more than most of the population knowledgeable about the topic. More ?’s: Is “expert” always a relative term? Are most experts driven in many areas of their lives or just in their area of expertise? Must you be a disseminator of your expertise in order to be an expert or can you just ? I don’t think I agree with Mark Sanborn that it takes 10 – 15 years to become and expert. I think it has to be variable depending on your commitment, availability of information, time dedicated, etc. – and once you’re an expert doesn’t mean it lasts forever. It’s an ongoing process. And though I like the idea of being an expert, I’m a “generalist” – know a little about a variety of topics.

  10. Suzanne Vaughan
    Suzanne Vaughan says:

    You asked, “Is it in our genes to be an expert?” Is is a personality trait, result of hard work, or focus? Great questions! I don’t think it is in our genes or a personality trait that makes us an expert in something. I believe it is the desire to become accomplished at something, the hard work to see it to fruition, the strength of character, the committment of time and energy, and the courage to never give up that puts us in the running to develop expertise.

    My second son was gifted. I knew it, the schools knew it, and he knew it. When he was in the 8th grade his teachers encouraged him to take the ACT test for college entrance that most kids take when they are juniors in high school. He took the test and scored higher than 60% of the nation’s juniors and seniors. He was offered a scholarship at that time to attend Denver University and skip high school. As his average (not gifted) parent, I felt he needed the high school experience for not only education but social reasons. He graduated at the top of his class. He received a nomination to West Point. He turned it down and took a full ride Air Force ROTC scholarship to the University of Colorado to persue Electrical Engineering. I watched him struggle in college. For the first time he had competition. He wasn’t committed to hard work, as he had never had to work hard to get good grades before. He assumed college would be easy as most things had been for him up to that time. It wasn’t. He refused to dedicate himself to an appropriate study regimen. He ended up losing his full ride scholarship by one tenth of a percentage point. Why? Not because he was not smart, but because he was unable to work hard, commit himself to the time and energy it would take to be successful, and was choosing not to focus on what was most important. Here was a kid with the brains to do anything and was unable to succeed in developing the knowledge, skill, and committment to achieve a level of expertise in his chosen field.

    I don’t believe becoming an expert has much to do with genetic makeup. I believe it has a lot to do with motivation. When we want something and want it desparately, we will work hard, study, spend endless hours developing skills, focus on our goals, and never give up. And then our expertise continues to grow as a function of time and experience. Then and only then will we reach a level of expertise that by some would qualify us to be called an expert.

  11. Andrea
    Andrea says:

    What is an expert? Well..I think an expert is constantly evolving and ‘becoming.’ One does not arrive at a point where they know all there is to know.

    One only becomes an expert by “being”. Becoming an expert is a process..and I think sometimes its a learning process through a bunch of failures or hardships that bring about expertise. You truly come to know something once you have dealt with a darker side.

    I also think that becoming an expert means listening to that small still voice deep within. It’s listening to your heart when everyone else says to do otherwise. It’s going with instinct and a gut feeling because you care. I don’t think you can become an expert without throwing your heart into something and caring about it. I consider someone an expert when they have made it through the trenches and come out on top.

    And I also think that being an expert means being extraordinarily ordinary.

    Knowing what you know for the sake of knowing it..not for the sake of celebrity.

    I hope this makes sense.

  12. Patrick
    Patrick says:

    My definition of expert? Doing it better than 99% of your field.

    Not necessarily the best, they have contests and tournaments for that. Whether it be sports, science, plumbing, flying airplanes, music, etc., experts are the high water mark in their fields and the ones that the vast majority are below with regard to expertise or ability.

    The question then becomes, how did they get there? Some might have been born with certain abilities. Some probably had exposures, and opportunities that aided in their gift or talent. Some, through drive and determination, achieved their success and abilities, picking themselves up and trying again and again until they surpassed the rest. Some, the true geniuses and top echelon of experts in their fields, probably had a little bit of everything. Thomas Edison, when talking about the invention of the light bulb and how many tries it took until he got it right said, “I didn’t fail, I just found the 10000 things that didn’t work.” Drive, determination, and ability all coupled to put him at the “top” and an expert in design and science.

    What keeps you there? That’s up to the individual. In medicine, music, aviation, whatever the topic, professional pride and willingness not to rest on ones previous success’ has everything to do with maintaining where you are in your field. Not wanting to “mail it in” and continue to push yourself. To not only exist but to continue to excel is the mark of an expert. It’s not enough to pass the bar exam, finish med school, earn the MBA or get the dream job you’ve always wanted. What are you prepared to do to stay at the top? How much do you want to dig? That is where experts separate themselves and make the rest of the field “also rans”.

  13. Sotolo
    Sotolo says:

    I’m still learning from you, while I’m making my way to the top as well. I absolutely enjoy reading all that is written on your website.Keep the aarticles coming. I liked it!

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