How to Use an Expert
The dictionary defines an expert as, "A person with a
high degree of skill in or knowledge of a certain subject."
In other words, experts know certain things, or know how to do
certain things, but they don't know you, and don't have a degree
in serving your needs. That suggests the basic problem with habitually
relying on expert opinions and advice.
Let's look at the idea of "skill or knowledge of a certain
subject." With a doctor, that subject is "medical science
as currently taught in medical schools and books." This
does not automatically mean a doctor is skilled in determining
"what is best for this particular patient," nor is
his knowledge about "health solutions outside of mainstream
medicine." Many people (including myself) solve their own
health problems even when regular doctors have no workable solution,
because their training is very limited.
Notice how an authority on stocks can be certain you should
put your money in stocks, while a real estate expert will be
sure you should invest in rental real estate? They each see from
their own perspective, and we have to ask honestly if it is likely
either will ask us enough questions to know which path is best
suited for us. They may absolutely know what they are talking
about when they stick to their subjects, but their area of expertise
does not include "what is best for a particular person according
to all of his or her skills, goals, values and circumstances."
The bottom line is that experts don't know you! Never abdicate
your mind to their ideas about what is right for you or your
situation. Could an expert on cars, with all the knowledge possible,
walk up to you as a stranger and say for certain which car is
right for you? Not likely.
Even a doctor who knows every treatment possible for arthritis
cannot say for sure which is best for you. He or she cannot balance
the possible options against all factors, like lifestyle, the
cost and inconvenience of each treatment, and what those would
mean to you. With the wisest experts available, in the end you
still have to decide for yourself.
The Care and Use of Experts
What are experts for then? Use them for their skills and skills.
For example, it's my decision what to do about my computer problem,
but I need to know what my options are. For that I ask someone
who knows more than I - an expert. If I decide to fix it rather
than replace it, I'll certainly pay an expert for that, but whether
to repair or replace it is not something they can say much about.
In other words, use them for their skills and knowledge, but
don't think they know what your decision should be.
Experts are often very limited or biased in their thinking
and approach to problems. Seek out their knowledge, but be aware
that they are not necessarily very skilled nor knowledgeable
when they go beyond their area of expertise, which is especially
clear when they try to predict things based on their supposed
"authority." Notice how stock experts generally do
about as well as monkeys when choosing stocks over the years?
A builder I knew had a ton of knowledge about construction,
yet he almost always underestimated the time a project would
take. My mechanic friend can tell me what it will take to repair
my car, but always guesses too low for the cost. These people
are experts in their subjects, but their expertise doesn't include
You can still use their knowledge in these cases. Just make
adjustments to their predictions. I know very little about construction
costs, for example, but if I ask the contractor for a best guess
and then add 30%, the resulting figure is far closer to the real
costs than either his own estimate or my uninformed guess would
have been. The same is true in the case of the mechanic; I ask
what it will likely cost and then add $150 to that to get a better
Adjust for the known tendencies of "authorities"
in order to predict the future better than they are able to.
Probably you already do this with a friend who is always late
for everything. He or she certainly should be more of an expert
about herself than you, but you can add ten minutes to her estimated
time of arrival to more accurately predict it.
This "adjustment for known tendencies" is just one
of the tricks to properly using experts. It isn't meant to denigrate
their knowledge or skill. It's about tapping into it in better
ways than they do. Some questions to ask when gathering "authoritative
advice" or information:
- What would other experts say about this?
- What factors about you or your situation are not clearly
known by this authority?
- Are there biases or known tendencies apparent in their thinking
It makes sense to respect people for their knowledge. Let
them feel appreciated and so be inclined to be helpful to you.
At the same time you should respectfully decline the suggestion
that experts know what is best for you. After all, you have your
own mind for a reason, don't you?