Friday, November 13, 2015

I'm Not An Expert. None Of Us Really Are.

I've been in my line of work for almost a decade now. Some years ago, several people referred to me as an expert. Although humbled by their choice of terms, I took pride in their high regard for my talent and skills. Without giving it much thought, when others asked what I did for work, I'd begin with, "I'm an expert in the areas of (or my areas of expertise are) social media, online marketing, blogging, content management..." That "pitch" didn't last too long. By choice. Although my knowledge and experience in those areas have a strong foundation and my experience is lengthy, I realized I had an aversion to the word "expert." In fact, as the months and years rolled along, I downright despised it.

What exactly is an expert?

By definition, the word expert (in adjective form) means, "possessing a special skill or knowledge, trained by practice, skilled." The noun version is, "a person who has special skill or knowledge in a particular field." In my opinion, the word itself is overused. A lot. If I had it my way, this word would be banished from the English language.

When you think about it, what distinguishes someone as an expert? How many years of experience does one need to qualify as an expert? Is it even necessary to throw that word around so carelessly? What's the purpose? Are we striving to continuously outdo the person standing beside us or to uphold seniority within a group? Or are we attempting to pacify our need to be recognized? Does identifying ourselves as experts play a key role in our self-worth?

Since being involved in animal rescue, fostering, etc, I've lost count at how many times I've heard the word "expert" tossed around. While I have a great deal of respect for those who have years of experience and knowledge in one area or many, using the word expert very seldom has a positive impact on me.

Most times, it leaves a bitter taste in my mouth. 

When mentioned among a group of people, it generally does not produce a positive outcome. Why? To start, it's intimidating to those with less experience. It radiates a sense of unnecessary authority for the person claiming to be an expert. More so, it shuts down the potential to generate conversation.

I'm reminded of an incident that occurred last year. Lisa and I were engaged in a conversation. Five people, including us. One of the participants, Ella (not her real name), was telling of her experience with a foster dog. She had some trouble acclimating him to home life, but after a couple of months, he was adopted by a wonderful family. Happy ending.

Ella's voice was enthusiastic. She had been fostering for a couple of years now and was considering joining a certain rescue group. The excitement in her voice was contagious. I can remember thinking, "We need more people in this world like Ella."

Not even a second after Ella's last sentence, another woman abruptly took over. She unmistakably fell into the bucket of, what I consider, The Expert Whores.

I have various names for personality types that I can only take in small doses. "The Expert Whores" refers to the group of people who continuously feel the need to surpass everyone's experiences. You know the type. If you've been an avid baker for 10 years, they've done it for 12. If someone among the group has fostered 15 dogs, they've fostered 20.

Their input during the conversation does not reflect the intention to connect with like-minded people. Their intent is to trump quantity and experience and they quickly take over the lead. They've done more. Seen more. Experienced more. Made more. Struggled more. Etc.

The Expert Whore's first sentence, after Ella spoke, included how long she had been fostering and approximately the number of pups she had fostered. The next few sentences to follow was a condensed synopsis of what Ella had done wrong and how she could have handled things differently. Then, the inevitable...

"When you've done this for as long as my husband and I have, you become an expert at this sorta thing."

Ella's face froze. She immediately dropped out of the conversation. Her eyes darted around in desperation for an escape. I knew what was happening. Ella excused herself and strolled over to a vendor table. Lisa and I backed out of the conversation as well. I wanted to touch base with Ella before the event was over, but I was unable to locate her. She joined a rescue group, but not the one she had originally planned on.

At that point, and moving forward my philosophy, and all the reasons why I stopped referring to myself as an expert in my line of work, made sense.

I'm not an expert.

None of us really are.

The reasons behind my mindset were quite simple.

Until the day we take our last breath, our brains are in a perpetual state of learning. Our brains are like sponges that soak up experience, knowledge and what we learn from our trials and tribulations.

For example, let's take the number of years I've been baking. I have a photo of me as a young child, maybe 4 or 5, at the kitchen table baking chocolate chip cookies. At the age of 41, I use the same recipe. Since that photo was taken, I've been an avid baker. Am I an expert? No. Am I experienced? Yes.

To this day, I'm still attempting to improve my skills. I have yet to make giant, fluffy biscuits. I've tried. But, I haven't quite gotten it yet. The same with bread and pie crust. I make both, but the end result tends to be unpredictable.

My 30+ years of baking does not qualify me as an expert. If I were to apply the word "expert" in relaying my years of experience, some would deem that as intimidating and they'd be hesitant to approach me and say, "I've been baking bread for 10 years and here are some things I've learned over the years."

Do I want to shut down that stream of generating conversation and sharing experiences? No. I don't. If someone has been baking bread for that long, teach me. Let me know what I can do to improve what I'm already doing.

I think we all need to take that approach, especially in the field of all things animals. Whether it's fostering, rescue, grooming, rehabilitation, socialization, training, etc. Everyone has something to offer.

As much as I want to learn from someone who has 20 years experience in training, I want the lines of communication to be opened for someone to approach me who is interested in fostering...or baking biscuits.

Experience and knowledge shouldn't be used as a means to trump the person standing beside of you. We need to focus more on educating and sharing what we've learned. With each other. With the public. With those who step forward with Ella's enthusiasm.

In this day and age, so much ugly is happening in the world. The community of people who have dedicated their lives to being the voice of the voiceless and protecting and putting all efforts to ensure the safety of all animals is minimal in comparison to those who are against these efforts.

If we let go of our need to establish seniority or superiority and drop the word "expert" from our vocabulary, our community and camaraderie would increase. Strengthen. Get rid of unnecessary conflict, drama, and tension.

As a huge fan of Ani DiFranco, one sentence from a song comes to mind...

"We barely have time to react in this world, let alone rehearse. And, I don't think that I'm better than you, but I don't think that I'm worse."

She has a point.

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