confucius.jpgDoes being an expert mean you have to know more than everyone else?

Not according to Confucius. He once advised, When you do not know a thing, to allow that you do not know it-this is knowledge.” In other words, we should not only know what we know, but also what we don’t know. Hence, it’s in knowing what we don’t know that we find our expertise.

Yeah, I know, the dictionary defines an expert as a person who has a comprehensive and authoritative knowledge or skill in a particular area. Certainly, that’s an expert and I’m not going to argue with the dictionary.

But is there one, supreme expert for any topic you can think of? I can’t. Is there someone who knows more about cucumbers than any other human being? And if there were would it not mean that our cucumber expert would know every single detail and every fact that all other human being know? To say they’re the supreme expert, I would say so.

But is that really possible? I’m not so sure.

So what am I getting too here? The point I want to make is that there are no true experts in anything. At least not objectively. The only expert on a topic is the one you know. And that expert may not be the most knowledgeable person on the topic.

But to you, they are. And that’s the important point. If you have some knowledge in an area, it’s easy to deduce that while you don’t have as much knowledge as some, you do have more knowledge than others. And to those ‘others’ that makes you an expert.

Confucius also said, “Ability will never catch up with the demand for it.” And neither will knowledge. There will always be someone who knows something more or different than you know. But what you don’t know isn’t what’s important. It’s what you know that is.

I like how Seth Godin phrases it in The Dip. You want to be known as the Best in the World. “Best as in: best for them, right now, based on what they believe and what they know. And world as in: their world, the world they have access to.”

So to be an expert you don’t have to be at the top of the ladder. Nor do you even have to be in the middle. What you need to do is clearly carve your niche. Find the one problem you can help people solve better than anyone else for a specific group of people. Then go about solving the problem for them. That’s how you become an expert.

Remember, being an expert “is subjective. I (the consumer) get to decide, not you. World is selfish. It’s my definition, not yours. It’s the world I define, based on my convenience or my preferences.”

As Seth continues, “Be the best in my world and you have me, at a premium, right now.”

So know what you know AND what you don’t know. And make that your expert niche. And remember what our friend Confucius said, Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance.

What do you think? Are there things you think you need to know that your really don’t to be the best in the world?

Reader Interactions


  1. Carma Dutra says

    Hi Dawud,
    So true about the term expert being subjective. My husband is an expert repair plumber. Why? Because most people determine that by how many years he has been plumbing.

    But if he makes a mistake then he is no longer considered an expert by the same people who deemed him one when they first called him.

  2. Joanna Young says

    Dawud, thanks for further developing this theme – it’s fascinating.

    I think the Confucious point is spot on – knowing what you don’t know, and being okay with that. That perspective gets you learning (and stretching), connecting (to others who can help you learn) and keeps your feet firmly on the ground.


  3. Barry Welford says

    Some good points, Dawud. Perhaps I might also add an expert should have integrity. That means being completely honest with those who would like to use you as an expert. Ok at this moment and where they are you’re the best expert they can get. You then have to make sure that the resulting experience works well for them.

  4. Dawud Miracle says

    I know. I deal with clients like that almost daily. It’s so important to understand what you know and don’t know and then leverage that into the business you want. You do know enough…don’t you?

    Great example. For me, I don’t think anything is truly objective. Everything we witness and experience is done so through our own filters.

    How does your husband deal with those types of customers?


    It’s all in balance, I believe. There are some who think they know more than everyone and that makes them an expert. There are others who don’t believe they know enough, when they truly are experts in their niche. The most effective way, I feel, lies in the middle – knowing what you know and don’t know and using that to your (and your client’s) benefit.

    So, here’s a fun question, what don’t you know?

  5. Priscilla Palmer says

    You have been tagged for The Personal Development List. (See my site for details.) I would love to have you participate.

  6. Adam Kayce : Monk At Work says

    Interesting topic…

    I’ve found that as long as I look outside of me (years of experience, other people’s definitions, etc.), even if I qualify for ‘expert’ status in other people’s eyes, who cares?

    What matters to me is, “Do I feel solid in my own abilities/skills/knowing/etc.?”

    If you can look inside yourself, and can own, with solidity, what you see there, then you can fill Godin’s definition much easier. Because you may not be ‘the world’s best’, but you can be the best in your sphere of the world, simply by standing with integrity and confidence in who you are.

  7. Charles says

    Most people called experts are not. Simply being able to solve a problem better than others doesn’t mean one is an expert, and although many apply the label “expert” to others subjectively doesn’t mean that an expert, rare as that creature may be, is a subjective phenomenon. For a good introduction on what an expert is, I recommend Phillip Ross’s article in Scientific American, “The Expert Mind,” at

  8. Michael Repplinger says

    Good article. But I have the feeling that the connection you make between the original ‘knowing is not knowing’ and Godin’s ‘carve your niche’ is a bit forced. I’m not sure if a philosophy like that of Confucius is actually compatible with our modern perception of knowledge, which is strongly based on the virtue of (academic) specialization.

  9. LaurenMarie - CreativeCurio says

    Expert: Yet another one of those pesky labels that don’t really tell you anything! I loved all those quotes you used from Confucious and Godin, particularly the one from Godin about who is considered an expert is relative. I only have 3 years of experience in graphic design, but that’s 3 more years than most people have!

    And what Tony said in the first comment is so true, we take what we know for granted an assume everyone knows it. I think even “experts” can learn new things from the beginners in their fields.

  10. Dawud Miracle says

    Nice article. Thanks for sharing it. To everyone – a good read.

    That’s certainly one perspective. And expert is subjective. Yet, I’m left really exploring Seth Godin’s definition of expert – which he calls ‘best in the world.’ I don’t think it matters whether I’m the most knowledgeable. Rather, what matters is am I the most knowledgeable to my niche? Not necessarily even in my niche. But to my niche. That’s what I think is important when we’re considering having a successful business.

    What do you think?

    Absolutely. And I’m reminded how many business owners were once experts in something yet haven’t continue to learn and grow – hence making what they know obsolete.

    I don’t think time or knowledge, truly, makes an expert. I think experts are made in the relationship they have with their clients. Who cares how much graphics experience you have – you can still help all those who don’t. And to them, to that niche, that makes you an expert. Wouldn’t you agree?

    Thanks, checking it out.

    Spoken like a true sage, Mr. Monk at Work. But what do you do if you look inside yourself and you just don’t see the confidence? How do you work with it?

  11. David Zinger says

    I do think so much of my expertise is in my willingness to not know. Ignorance meands not knowing…it is a good place to start. Neil Postman once said, “children enter school as question marks and leave as periods.” What a terrible way to launch into lifelong learning.

    Your post also reminds me of Richard Saul Wurman who made a living based on his willingness not to know.

  12. Dawud Miracle says

    I’ve never liked that perspective on education either. To me, children – and adults – should remain question marks all their lives. Just that the question mark should become fuller and larger – more bold, if you will – because of all the knowledge and experience it absorbs.

    What do you think we can do to stay questioning as we age?

    Thanks for your insights. Yet, I don’t see any contradiction between Confucius and Seth. And when I speak of knowing, I’m not necessarily talking about academia. I consider life to be our biggest teacher – not schools. And we learn far more from people outside than inside a classroom. And the knowledge we gain is not just facts and constructs we’ve memorized or even been taught. Our knowledge – hence our expertise – is developed in how we synthesize what we learn.

    So from my perspective – and hopefully what I’ve tried to convey in my post – learning, living, growing and developing are each interconnected. So since Confucius was was a philosopher and Seth is an ‘idea man’ I see no contradiction in brining them together. Both have a unique perspective on business.

    I’d love to hear your thoughts…

  13. Phillip Chao says

    “Ability will never catch up with the demand for it.” by Confucious.

    How much can you know as a human being? We are such limited creatures even trying to know everything in one specialty area of study. I doubt the best M.D./Ph.D. in the world in one specialty are does not know everything of the specialty area of his/her study. The ability to catch up with the upgraded information is one of the most important thing in any profession but also it is the hardest thing to do with so much information are available in ever changing world from day to day. Let’s not forget about the daily demands from job, family, time,…etc…In conclusion, it is just a stupid title they have got to make them feel better so that they can make other people feel inferior. Oh well, let me know what you think.

  14. Believer in Balance says

    Great article! I’ve always been uncomfortable when people have referred to me as an expert. It’s such a relative term. I’ve been comparing myself to the experts in my field, but others have been comparing themselves to me and my education and experience.

  15. rob says

    I never trusted my dad when he told me that you have to be the best to be successful. I always believed the best possible result for the least possible effort was the optimal strategy.

  16. Dawud Miracle says

    So true. I think it’s important for us to look at the motivating factors behind any titles we give ourselves – or are given. If it’s filling a hole in us somewhere – that’s something to look at.

    Don’t you think that’s what happens with many people who cling to titles and labels?

    I find it rather silly. If we could only honor what we know – and don’t know – without comparison, it would be a much less troublesome world. Okay, so I’m speaking about utopia here. But all this comparison stuff is ridiculous.

    A plumber is a plumber is a plumber. Any plumber is an expert to a non-plumber. And yet there are some plumbers who are better at what they do than others – which might make them an expert among plumbers. But all are still experts to non-plumbers. If your toilet’s leaking, do you really care who’s fixing it as long as it’s done and done well?

    Interesting idea. I find a balance between the two works best for me. You?

  17. The Mortgage Maker says

    Years ago I was friendly with a gentleman who was an expert in direct mail marketing and he carved out a niche as an “expert in the direct mail marketing of financial services”. When I asked how he had attained this status he told me that he had simply proclaimed it. The other little tid bit he shared with me was the further away the consultants office is from the clients, the more of an expert he became. The best part is he practiced what he preached. he lived in New England, his clients were in The Carolinas, Georgia and Florida.

  18. Michael Sass says

    Interesting topic that can trigger self-worth and self esteem issues. Here’s my take…Clients work with us not because of what we know, but because of our ability to bridge the gap between what we know and what our clients know.We are experts and students of our given fields. We have gathered a great deal of information and experience, but remain open to learning. A master is an expert and a student at the same time. Standing on a mountain of information and experience, they remain open to the unknown, and are not fooled into believing they’re finished learning.

  19. Dawud Miracle says

    The relationship is important. As is your ability to share what you know. I know plenty of highly-trained, intelligent people who can’t effectively communicate what they know with others. I’ve always thought that made their knowledge a bit useless.

    Blogging Mix,
    Thanks for the Stumble. Stumble anything else you like.

    What do you think?

    Yes! Yes! Yes! Now you’re sounding a bit more like Confucius than Seth.

    What you describe is very close to what I think as well. Personally, I run a business that’s about knowing, learning and synthesizing a number of components – marketing, business development, strategic planning, copy writing, website development, usability, graphic design, social media – to help people grow their businesses through the internet. So not only do I need to know what I know, I also need to keep up with areas that are quickly and constantly changing. And because I coach and consult with my clients, if I can’t effectively communicate what I know, then what I know is virtually useless.

    Notice I didn’t say teach. I said communicate. Teachers often just spew out information (think of your TA’s in college) without much concern whether they’re doing so in the most effective way for people to learn. Communication, on the other hand, is about being understood. And the coaching is about helping people apply their new understandings.

    Does all this make me an expert? I don’t care, really or personally. All I care about is helping my clients ‘get it and use it.’

  20. David Dalka says

    This post should have major implications for the highly brand, experience, job title driven executive recruiting process.

    It needs to be turned upside and recruit people based on passions.

  21. Jean Browman--Cheerful Monk says

    Yep, for most people how much a person knows doesn’t count for much if he can’t help us. My husband and I tend to be suspicious of self-proclaimed experts. They tend to be feeding their egos rather than trying to make a contribution.

  22. Mita says

    Rarely do new inventions and innovations and breakthroughs come from experts, who base their opinions on past assumptions. Einstein said “the only thing that blocks my learning is my education.” So someone with a beginners mind can come up with a diagnosis or solution that the expert misses. Socrates arguably the wisest among philosophers said the only thing that gives him an advantage over other folks is that he knows what he does not know. Enjoyed it.

  23. Dawud Miracle says

    Ooh, ooh…what a great point to add. Thanks so much.

    I think you’re right – as was Einstein and Socrates, both. We’re often limited more by what we know than what we don’t.

    Count me in as well.

  24. Frank says

    Very interesting reading. I am 65 yrs.old. I have found that the better one is at their job or task at hand, the easier it looks to observers and should come with a “don’t try this at home” disclaimer…LOL. I used to own a sign installation company and when an installer would come in from a relatively easy installation and complain of Whew! I’m tired, I would think, sure you’re tired, you probably took 3 times as many steps in that installation than necessary.

  25. Rob says

    I sort of think its a roundabout way of saying that people who proport to be experts, but actually know jack shite are morons.

  26. dave says

    I’m an expert on Confucius: he was a genius! Never forget that you are unique, like everybody else… (another classic quote from Confucius)

  27. Jon-Paul McTavy says

    The relationship is important. As is your ability to share what you know. I know plenty of highly-trained, intelligent people who can’t effectively communicate what they know with others. I’ve always thought that made their knowledge a bit useless.

  28. Tine Tracy says

    To be successful business owner, we must build our business concept with niche market.Make differentiation to competitors! Thanks for sharing

  29. Business Apparel says

    You are right you do not need to an expert in every aspect of a particular field. You just need to know what you are best at doing. Your actions will always speak louder than words.

  30. Alan says

    It is impossible to know “everything” in an ever-changing world. An expert needs to have a level of knowledge that is above average. If there are any knowledge deficits, the expert knows where to find the information. An expert should be skilled in managing knowledge gaps i.e. mindful not to mislead people

  31. Plumbing Norwalk says

    On of my personal favourite quotes was from Socrates. “All I know, is that I know nothing.” A concept that the most arrogant people will never consider, leaving them ignorant to the fact that they will never know anything.

  32. Badges Guy says

    Well you have to admit it in order to be able to change it. So if you don’t act from the perspective of the ego, to admit you don’t know what you don’t know is perfectly fine!

  33. David says

    If you do not admit that you have weaknesses and face the fact that you do not know everything then you will finally fail, but if you admit that you are not the smartest man in the world and are always willing to learn then you will make it big time.

  34. kerryzuedy says

    Yeah..i think u r rite..i think the best thing we have to know the basic..Then we have to explore to get more n become expertise..

  35. Andy B - Mortgage Advisor says

    For years I have worked with sales people who brush over any hole in their knowledge as if in admitting that they don’t know something they would preclude themselves from being a worthy vendor.

    I personally can tell when someone is making it up on the spot and so I find them more knowledgeable and respectable when they have the confidence to say “you know what I’m not sure, I will have to look into that!”

    An expert is someone who can answer the majority of questions on a subject but when caught in the dark is inclined to find out the answer in my opinion!

  36. JohnV says

    I have developed a mindset that when I take some subject for work I try to get as much information as I can regarding the topic like time management or leadership skills and I can tell one thing, when you do not admit lack of knowledge in some area, your learning will suffer big time.

  37. Alan says

    I am a big fan of the type of mindset that Confucious advocates. Its slightly reminiscent of Popper’s falsificationism. The notion that we must always try to disprove (falsify) our theories, not find facts that reinforce them; and that we never have an absolute truth, just the strongest theory at the moment.

    Both of these positions keep you open to learning, which I would think is the cornerstone of long-term expertise.

  38. Lynn Costell says

    With all the blogs out there with material on them with a ton of junk it’s nice to find a blog whose admin takes the time to create good material. TY for the good article.

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  40. Owais @organizational management says

    Amazingly well written.Some amazing and creative ideas.Learnt a lot from these innovative words.Keep on writing the superb and quality content .I didn’t find usually internet to be as useful as you have shown


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