I have been thinking about what it means to be an ‘expert’ in one’s field. The thought was triggered by a quote from Danish Physicist, Niels Bohr:
“An expert is a man who has made all the mistakes which can be made, in a narrow field.”
What am I an expert in? I thought to myself. From the outside, someone may say that I am an expert in psychology and cognitive neuroscience as I have doctorate. But have I made every mistake that can be made in this field? Nope. I have simply spent eight years of my life cramming facts into my brain and rearranging them on paper. At a push, I could sort of call myself an expert in producing a PhD, as boy did I make a hell of a lot of mistakes along the way. This makes me more of an ‘expert’ in time management, stress regulation, procrastination and organisational skills, rather than psychology…and still I’m very, very far from being a master at any of those yet.
From a very young age we are taught to simply study. The more we know the better. We are rewarded for our ability to cram facts by getting awards, our teacher and parents’ approval, and by getting into schools which others will praise us for. Yet, in my twenties I came to the stark realisation that just because I could name parts of the brain this didn’t mean squat, at least to me. True expertise I personally felt was being able to say I knew something, not because I understood it, but because I’d lived it.
I think this was one of my main sticking points when I was teaching psychology at a university. I loved teaching so much, yet I continuously felt like an impostor assuming this position of authority. All I was doing was regurgitating information to students, and then checking how well they could then put that down in an essay. I longed desperately to teach things that I could say to students, ‘I know this, because I’ve been there’, or to conversely say to them, ‘try it and find out for yourselves whether it’s true’. I think that is why I felt particularly in my element when a student would chat to me about their mental health issues. The advice I would impart wasn’t coming from a book somewhere. It was based on knowledge I had gathered making mistake after mistake on my journey on becoming an ‘expert’ in depression.
At the end of the day, I think we become an expert not by knowing, but by doing. This is not to take away at all from people who have impressive amounts of knowledge on a topic. It’s just that I feel we truly shine when we take all this information out of our heads and manifest it in some form in the outer world. Unless we do, we can’t learn, and if we can’t learn, we can’t evolve. It’s probably why being creative is such a fundamental urge that exists in all of us.