Where is the Line Between Expert Enough and Dangerously Uninformed?

Updated: January 30, 2012

Corbett Barr

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We've all had those conversations.

You're talking about something with a small group of people. It's a fun topic, but clearly nobody has really studied the subject.

It's all speculation and guessing. Good times over beers.

And then, someone in the group starts spouting theories clearly pulled from their ass. They cross the line from uninformed speculation to self-convinced truth.

"What the hell are you talking about?" You might think about your friend's little display of newfound "expertise."

But he's convinced himself that he's right, and now he's dug in. The psychological principle of consistency is at play now. Your friend (ahem, or maybe yourself) has committed to his position and has to stay committed in order to preserve his self image.

You eventually wrap up the argument and agree to disagree. You have a another beer or glass of wine and head home. You forget about the discussion after a day or two.

From Mild Annoyance to Dangerously Influential

On the small group level, this behavior might be mildly annoying, but it's also interesting to watch. Sometimes it's fun to participate in, for the sport of it.

But what happens when someone takes this show public? What happens when someone decides to spread his or her dangerously uninformed position with hundreds, thousands or millions of people?

You've probably seen this happen as well: an entire group of people follows one confident blowhard who brings 1% truth and 99% self-aggrandizing rhetoric to the discussion.

It's as if the entire group has decided that no member shall introduce facts or actual expert opinion to the conversation.

Does this remind you of anything? American politics perhaps?

In The Lost Art of Becoming Good at Things, we argued that we've become a society of armchair experts who know stunningly less and less and yet have stronger and stronger beliefs. Entertainment is winning over intellect. The facts are sobering.

And here's where I'd love to get your take on the other side of this coin, and the balance between the two.

At the same time, we're advocates of the concept of being expert enough to accomplish your goals, whether modest or world-changing.

Becoming a superstar in many arenas might require 10,000 hours or more. But spending just 100 hours or even just 10 hours learning or practicing something could give you an edge on 99.99% of people on the planet.

Most people simply don't study or practice. They worship at the altar of natural ability and assume it's futile for them to try to get better at something. They rely on third-hand information and never spend a single hour reading actual source material.

Imagine if those people spent one hour with the facts instead of hundreds of hours in a cloud of rhetoric.

And how could your life be changed if you spent 100 hours deliberately practicing something. How could you use those skills to better your life?

What I'm asking is this: where is the line between being expert enough to accomplish a goal and being dangerously uninformed?

Let's say you spent that 100 hours learning something. What does that qualify you to do? Can you teach others what you've learned? Start a blog? Can you hang a shingle and charge people for your fledgling expertise?

Or, are you just a marginally superior version of the uninformed masses we referred to before? Is that something to be proud of? How long do you need to study or practice before you can share what you've learned?

Now I’d love to hear what you think.

When are you expert enough, and when are you simply uninformed and unqualified?

Where is the line?

Feel free to cite specific examples or experience in the comments below.


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