Being called a subject matter expert is unsettling.

While some may take it as a compliment, I become anxious. Part of me is appreciative that I've gained the trust and reputation to be labeled as such. A much more significant and self-doubting part of me wonders who can really be an expert at anything. The world is dynamic. There's often more than one right answer.

My hesitancy partly stems from the lack of confidence, I suppose. But, I also have created the self image of a generalist. I strove to be a specialist. Now that I've achieved that recognition of my peers, I still feel like there's a lot to learn before being inducted into The Club.

Truth is, there's some scar tissue here.

An undergraduate know-it-all questioned my expertise in my field of study β€” geography β€” when I wasn't able to quickly give an approximate size of a nearby field. Of course, to someone with no understanding of the field of geography, this is probably GEOG 101, with a subsequent lesson on capital cities.

Rather than take the opportunity to educate, I shrugged. Admittedly, I've never been able to accurately size the dimensions of a large piece of land that well. But, I thought, my expertise, if I have one, is in human geography, not land surveying.

How could I be an expert if I don't know everything?

Maybe there needs to be an AP Geography test upon college graduation. Alas, maybe then I'll feel like an expert. Or, I'll get a graduate degree in geography. That should do it.

Two years into a graduate degree, defending a thesis that looked less and less like the plan I envisioned when I started, I was on the receiving end of a sage, yet grim, truth:

When you earn your bachelor's degree, you think you know everything. With your masters, you'll realize you know nothing. For your PhD, you'll realize nobody knows anything.

For a twenty-something hungry to learn, this was sobering. I'm pretty sure I've lost sleep over this idea.

How could I be an expert if I don't know everything?

Because, you see, in my head the argument is presented as follows:

  1. Experts know everything about their field.
  2. I do not know everything about my field.
  3. Ergo, I am not an expert.

Subject matter experts are intelligent, knowledgeable, and dedicated. Subject matter experts don't know everything, even in their own field. You'll find for as many firmly held beliefs the subject matter expert holds, you'll find an antagonist and counterargument hiding in the blades of grass ready to strike.

How could I be an expert if I don't know everything?

I don't have to know everything. Subject matter experts don't know everything. They have advanced knowledge in one corner of their professional field.

How could I be an expert if I don't know everything?

New knowledge is being produced. New experts emerge.

How could I be an expert if I don't know everything?

I have advanced knowledge in one corner of my professional field.

by @jlevimccollum

🚍 πŸ—ΊοΈ πŸ“Š Geographer working to build better government.