In the age of the internet, knowledge is literally at our fingertips. Information that was available only to university students and doctoral candidates a few decades ago, is now just a click away, but the amount of information available is growing at an exponential rate. It’s growing so fast, in fact, that we are having to develop new technologies just to cope with it all. This arms-race between information and technology is growing faster and faster. Once can almost drown in it all, and experts are relatively few. In fact, the concept of an expert in information technology is almost a misnomer. Not only does technology grow, but it also changes. This evolution is so frighteningly quick that new positions and titles are being created every few years just to have something to call the experts who work on it. Currently, I’m a Voice over IP engineer. That didn’t exist a decade ago, and wouldn’t have been dreamed of twenty years ago. When I entered the information technology arena, I had no idea what VoIP was, nor that I was going to become an “expert” in it. But what did it take for me to gain this expertise? It certainly wasn’t a college degree, I only have a GED and when I went to college it was for anything but information technology. I became an expert because I had to. It was a strategy of adaptation. I took something new, and I figured it out. I studied what I could, both online and off. But is that all I know? Am I a VoIP Engineer, full stop? No. I had to become an expert in quite a few different kinds of technologies, on-the-fly, and without an iota of an idea of what I was doing. This didn’t come from some cowboy ideology of not needing the “system” to get by, in fact, there weren’t any classes at my local college that even covered this subject. The technology was brand-new and I was growing right along with it. There were no experts, just devices and instruction manuals.
So what did I really become an expert in? Well, I became an expert at being an expert. You see, we are rapidly reaching a point where what we know and what we remember are becoming split entities. I don’t remember half the things I know because I don’t need to. The knowledge is in the cloud. I just need to remember what I need to know and I can access it when I need it. Just like I don’t need to remember every recipe in my favorite cookbook to prepare dinner on a day-by-day basis, I don’t need to remember every configuration script or specific command syntax to program a Cisco gateway that I only access once every few months. My knowledge is just a skeleton of the whole. And so, I don’t need to limit myself to a particular title, I just need to know what information I need and where to reference it.
So, then, what separates the expert from the layman? Well, experience plays an important role, but that doesn’t necessarily need to be specific to the subject matter at hand. I’ve become an expert overnight for companies that I’ve worked with simply because I was building on some rudimentary experience. That, and I knew how to learn. But how do you do that? Well, the first thing is to know how to ask. This might be a simple as someone else in your office, another “expert” that knows where to find the kind of information you need, by asking the internet through a search engine like google, or by engaging in a discussion on a forum of other people who know, or know how to find the knowledge you seek. You will often learn more in a five minute conversation than you will in an entire chapter of a book. But that’s easy! Anyone can do that. Yes, of course it is, but there’s another difference between the expert and the layman that makes all the difference in the world: confidence. We’re not talking about confidence in what you know, or what you can do, because in most cases when dealing with technology, you probably haven’t got a clue. The confidence you need, the one thing that comforts the layman when they engage you as an expert is the confidence that you can find the information they need. A confident, “I don’t know, but I can find out.” Is much more reassuring than a stammering stream of jargon. And this confidence comes through losing the fear of your own ignorance.
Ignorance is a very powerful motivator, but we’ve developed, as a society, a fear of being thought of as stupid. This has even, in many cases, developed a culture of anti-intellectualism that has, as Isaac Asimov once put it, “…been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.” There is an element of distrust that comes along with this fear of not knowing, and I believe this stems from a lack of confidence in one’s own ability to learn. Indeed, it will always be true that what we don’t know will far outweigh what we do know, and as our collective knowledge increases, what we can know becomes daunting. There are so many things that we can learn that it’s almost paralyzing, but I choose to look at our collective knowledge as a vast garden from which to pluck whatever fruit of knowledge I wish. Verily, I want to eat it all, but can only fit so much into my mouth. But I know that, if called upon for an apple, or an onion, I can find them among the rows and harvest them as the situation warrants.
So, we should not fear that we do not know, but revel in it. Know simply that you can know, and that is all you really need to become an expert. Experts are merely the librarians in a great library. They do not know the contents of every book, but they are confident that they can find any book you need.