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The lost art of becoming a true expert

“The web is expanding peoples’ horizons yet killing them at the same time, and the art of becoming a real expert has been diluted by the unvetted experts of today.”

A dying art

In 2011, Texas real estate broker David Winans took issue with the low standards of real estate licensing, noting that becoming a real estate agent requires less education (and we would add less continuing education) than a manicurist. Even if a real estate professional takes on more education than is required, as an industry, standards are low – any Jim Bob Jackson that can retain a few facts after a few internet courses can weeks later be handling peoples’ largest investments and assets. Would you trust a stock broker who went to school for a few weeks? No, and that is a much smaller investment amount.

A small segment of the real estate industry pushes for “raising the bar” and the argument is helpful on a brokerage level as brokers push each other to be better internally, but if education requirements remain so low, no amount of talking is worth much, honestly.

Corbett Barr at writes, “Has the art of becoming good at things become lost on today’s instant gratification society?” Think about that for a moment. Everyone likes to talk about how busy they are and how they no longer have time for cooking classes or working out, yet Americans carve out an exorbitant amount of time for television watching and Facebooking. Our nation has become experts on what happened on the Kardashians but not on how to make something with our hands.

What is an expert?

Someone recently called me an “expert writer” and I cringed, not because I am not extremely experienced, and not because of my pedigree, but because there are many out there who are far more experienced, intelligent, and frankly, higher quality than I am. I’m no Walter Cronkite, Virginia Woolf, or C.S. Lewis.

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But am I an expert? I was reading on a fifth grade level at age four and was first published by age six. I wrote competitively through the University Interscholastic League beginning in sixth grade, competing in journalism and creative writing through high school. I was the Yearbook editor and wrote for the high school newspaper. As an English Literature major in college, I wrote hundreds of pages of analysis and earned high scores, and through my Spanish Language degree even wrote extensively and creatively in a foreign language. I’ve written thousands upon thousands of news and editorial articles in recent years and I have been paid to speak at many conferences across the nation.

I’ve devoted my entire life to writing, and by all accounts, I am an expert.

Yet, as an example, a carpet saleswoman with an email address can begin a blog claiming to be an expert writer, and who will question her? No one, because most people are now hiding the secret that they are not truly an expert at what they do. Even with all of my earned expertise, I still struggle with the term “expert” because of the bad taste left in my mouth by all of the newborn, self-proclaimed gurus, ninjas and mavens that get on the world’s last nerve. People sign up for Twitter and two weeks later are leading classes on the topic, people who started a blog in 2011 go volunteer to speak at national conferences with no credentials, professing expertise on blogging. The word “expertise” has lost its meaning.

The role of the web

With the rise of the web, we are all supposed to have this vast amount of information at our fingertips, and in a way, should be more empowered to vet professionals’ expertise, but most people Google a person, see thousands of entries about them (by them!) and instantly assume ubiquity.

Beyond expertise, what is sad is that many people are replacing real life experiences with virtual, web or tv experiences. A few years ago, my husband and I realized that we were trying new restaurants (based on social media recommendations) that we never would have otherwise. We were proud, we were expanding our horizons. But we simultaneously became acutely aware that we were not trying much else. In years before the web, we had to busy ourselves with new discoveries offline and new activities, but like many others, we became so busy online that our offline world became less diverse.

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The amount of information we were taking in was astonishing, and we honestly were learning a great deal of information, but we had to do more to expand our horizons outside of that – we took up kayaking, more activities at church, being more social, and getting our hands dirty in the real world. Does that make us kayak experts? Based on Twitter mavens’ standards, yes, but based on the real world’s standards that are frustrated that manicurists are required to be more educated than real estate professionals, no.

The web is expanding peoples’ horizons yet killing them at the same time, and the art of becoming a real expert has been diluted by the unvetted experts of today. I am most certainly mourning the dying art of becoming a legitimate expert, and the very word “expert” has become tainted – an accomplished writer should never cringe at the word “expert” in fear of being lumped in with the illegitimate experts.

Lani is the COO and News Director at The American Genius, has co-authored a book, co-founded BASHH, Austin Digital Jobs, Remote Digital Jobs, and is a seasoned business writer and editorialist with a penchant for the irreverent.



  1. Tinu

    January 22, 2012 at 6:49 pm

    This is a serious and widespread problem that I've written about at least once a year since about 2004. And I think it takes active communities to combat it – something needs to be there for people doing their due diligence to find when they search.

    And as leaders of these communities, we have to be vigilant in getting the newbies to do their due diligence. It's at the point where I think it needs to be an on-going movement. It should be in the fine ink on every PayPal transaction, or on the home page of every search engine, or on every broadband bill.

    The places I see expertise thrive best are in those communities of people who get together and figure out how to balance knowledge, real world experience and innovation, to come up with a loose formula for who an expert is.

    The search community is a good example of that – for a while there between 2006 and 2009, it was pretty easy for a person with little experience or knowledge and a bit of luck ranking for easy terms, to proclaim themselves a search expert, and sell lots of $47 ebooks or $2500 courses.

    But the search community answered back with a simple question – what were these new-found gurus long term results?

    In other communities, the idea of true expertise has failed. I would cite the example of internet marketing. Though not by far a main focus of mine, I'd been a part of their community since I found one of the areas where checks and balances were being maintained in 1998, the Warrior Forum. Over the years, what started out as a good idea (show proof that you're an expert/experienced/knowledgeable) became a cottage industry of people making a profit from showing others how to Fake expertise.

    And that's affected the entire world of IM – to most online entrepreneurs they're all dismissed as snake oil salesmen and lumped in with business opportunity seekers and network marketers. (whether that assessment is fair on either end is a whole other discussion.)

    And I say all that to say – in order for the idea and ideals of the true expert to remain, a community that judges who is worthwhile by its own standards has to be built or led.

    But on the other hand, if it's turned into an actual regulating body, this can fail fast. Because then you could be replacing one form of crook with another – when there's a formal governing body they can be bought or corrupted.

    It's a very delicate thing and there isn't a quick easy answer.

  2. Rachel LaMar

    January 22, 2012 at 10:03 pm

    Excellent post, Lani. I wholeheartedly agree with you. I think so many people think they have the right to be "experts" without the blood, sweat and tears. One of my biggest pet peeves is people who use content written by others, and post it as their own. My hope is that eventually these instant experts will feel the wrath of karma, and not be seen as true experts. Those who study, focus and work hard will persevere.

    • Tinu

      January 22, 2012 at 10:56 pm

      What's sad is that learning something for yourself eventually is worth the time it takes to copy someone else and pretend. Because you can't pretend forever. You'll have to actually learn something or lose business due to being a poser.

  3. Maddie Grant

    January 22, 2012 at 11:02 pm

    I don't know, Lani, I think this post sounds a lot like Andrew Keen and the Cult of The Amateur. I love the fact that we're all battling it out on our own merits. And while I do agree there are charlatans and snake oil salesmen out there, I also think "buyer beware". In social media circles, specifically, if not everywhere else, it is actually insanely easy to Google someone and figure out exactly what they have been up to and whether they are truly experts or truly not. The old meme about it being the "Wild West"? I'd much rather be here at my cozy little desk than battling it out in the hinterlands with guns and horses. There is truly no comparison. I think we just need to chill and make sure we are constantly doing the best work we can and always learning.

  4. Greg Cook

    January 23, 2012 at 2:06 pm

    Lani, I recently read an ebook titled: The Death of the Real Estate Agent.
    The real title should have been The Death of the Traditional Real Estate Agent, which wouldn't have been as catchy.

    The premise of the book is the agent of today has to be an expert adviser to attract clients and eventually succeed.
    We first have to be perceived as an expert, before we'll get the chance to prove it.
    No amount of blogging will prove our expertise, it's the face to face interaction with clients that will.

  5. Drew Meyers - ESM Exec Designs

    January 24, 2012 at 10:57 am

    Spot on Lani. The term "expert" is certainly thrown around too loosely these days, and doesn't mean much anymore as a result. I've grown up writing a LOT (raised by a single mom who was a teacher)..and spent much of the last 6-7 years writing for my jobs — and I'm not even sure I'm a real expert. When I see people like Kris Berg & Diane Tuman — THOSE are the expert writers in the industry. I'm good…but an expert? I'm not so sure.

    Good discussion..

  6. David Winans

    February 21, 2012 at 9:19 am

    Lani, I do want to point out that the TX barber requires 7 times the educational hours over the TX real estate agent. Not sure if we will ever get the folks in charge to make real estate a true profession by raising the educational standards in Texas for real estate agents. Thanks for the editorial.

  7. RuthmarieGarciaHicks

    November 3, 2012 at 12:22 pm

    This is a very interesting article because one of the biggest problems I have with this entire topic is how do we define what an “expert” is.  It is a term that varies from field to field.  In my former field – to become a true “expert” you needed a Ph.D. and post-doctoral training – or about 14 years full-time.  That, of course, is an extreme case, but the point here is that the term defies explanation.  
    Last year, I was at an office meeting and someone was talking about SEO.  I made a few comments on black hat vs. white hat tactics and discussed a couple of issues and asked some questions…I added at the end that I was NOT an expert.  Then the person in front of me who was hawking herself as an SEO “expert” said – “No, if you know all that you ARE an expert and can be hired as such.” Huh??? I’ve taken a few classes, done a lot of reading and have helped people since that time for a minor fee  (because it had become too time consuming not to) on organice SEO, but that’s about it.  I do NOT fancy myself an expert in this field.  But once again, you get back to definitions – how does one define expertise on SEO.
    As to real estate – sadly, success seems to be determined on when you got into the game and how honest you are.  The more dishonest people sadly seem to do better around here.  I know a lot of agents who got into the game the same time I did.  What I have found was sadly that in 90% of all cases the people who I wouldn’t trust as far as I could throw a grand piano have done the best.  Expertise?  What’s that?  They basically con their way into the home sellers or home owners hearts. They massage people, connive, convince and persuade.  They are successful, but their main expertise is in being able to schmooze.

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