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How to Use an Expert

The dictionary defines an expert as, "A person with a high degree of skill in or knowledge of a certain subject." In other words, experts know certain things, or know how to do certain things, but they don't know you, and don't have a degree in serving your needs. That suggests the basic problem with habitually relying on expert opinions and advice.

Let's look at the idea of "skill or knowledge of a certain subject." With a doctor, that subject is "medical science as currently taught in medical schools and books." This does not automatically mean a doctor is skilled in determining "what is best for this particular patient," nor is his knowledge about "health solutions outside of mainstream medicine." Many people (including myself) solve their own health problems even when regular doctors have no workable solution, because their training is very limited.

Notice how an authority on stocks can be certain you should put your money in stocks, while a real estate expert will be sure you should invest in rental real estate? They each see from their own perspective, and we have to ask honestly if it is likely either will ask us enough questions to know which path is best suited for us. They may absolutely know what they are talking about when they stick to their subjects, but their area of expertise does not include "what is best for a particular person according to all of his or her skills, goals, values and circumstances."

The bottom line is that experts don't know you! Never abdicate your mind to their ideas about what is right for you or your situation. Could an expert on cars, with all the knowledge possible, walk up to you as a stranger and say for certain which car is right for you? Not likely.

Even a doctor who knows every treatment possible for arthritis cannot say for sure which is best for you. He or she cannot balance the possible options against all factors, like lifestyle, the cost and inconvenience of each treatment, and what those would mean to you. With the wisest experts available, in the end you still have to decide for yourself.

The Care and Use of Experts

What are experts for then? Use them for their skills and skills. For example, it's my decision what to do about my computer problem, but I need to know what my options are. For that I ask someone who knows more than I - an expert. If I decide to fix it rather than replace it, I'll certainly pay an expert for that, but whether to repair or replace it is not something they can say much about. In other words, use them for their skills and knowledge, but don't think they know what your decision should be.

Experts are often very limited or biased in their thinking and approach to problems. Seek out their knowledge, but be aware that they are not necessarily very skilled nor knowledgeable when they go beyond their area of expertise, which is especially clear when they try to predict things based on their supposed "authority." Notice how stock experts generally do about as well as monkeys when choosing stocks over the years?

A builder I knew had a ton of knowledge about construction, yet he almost always underestimated the time a project would take. My mechanic friend can tell me what it will take to repair my car, but always guesses too low for the cost. These people are experts in their subjects, but their expertise doesn't include prognostication.

You can still use their knowledge in these cases. Just make adjustments to their predictions. I know very little about construction costs, for example, but if I ask the contractor for a best guess and then add 30%, the resulting figure is far closer to the real costs than either his own estimate or my uninformed guess would have been. The same is true in the case of the mechanic; I ask what it will likely cost and then add $150 to that to get a better guess.

Adjust for the known tendencies of "authorities" in order to predict the future better than they are able to. Probably you already do this with a friend who is always late for everything. He or she certainly should be more of an expert about herself than you, but you can add ten minutes to her estimated time of arrival to more accurately predict it.

This "adjustment for known tendencies" is just one of the tricks to properly using experts. It isn't meant to denigrate their knowledge or skill. It's about tapping into it in better ways than they do. Some questions to ask when gathering "authoritative advice" or information:

- What would other experts say about this?

- What factors about you or your situation are not clearly known by this authority?

- Are there biases or known tendencies apparent in their thinking or approach?

It makes sense to respect people for their knowledge. Let them feel appreciated and so be inclined to be helpful to you. At the same time you should respectfully decline the suggestion that experts know what is best for you. After all, you have your own mind for a reason, don't you?


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