Experts vs Professionals

Working with professionals can be a joy. Not only can they solve your problem, they may help you see what problem you should solve. I’ve had several instances lately when I hired a pro to do something I’d attempted myself. In each case I was very pleased and wondered why I hadn’t done this sooner. Offhand I can’t think of an example where I regretted hiring a professional.

Strictly speaking, a professional in some area is simply someone who is paid to do it. But informally, we think of a professional as someone who not only is paid for their services, they’re also good at what they do. The two ideas are not far apart. People who are paid to do something are usually good at it, and the fact that they are paid is evidence that they know what they’re doing.

Experts, however, are not always so pleasant to work with.

Anyone can call himself an expert, and there’s no objective way to test this claim. But it’s usually obvious whether someone is a professional. When you walk into a barber shop, for example, it’s safe to assume the people standing behind the chairs are professional barbers.

Often the categories of “professional” and “expert” overlap. But it is suspicious when someone is an expert and not a professional. It implies that their knowledge is theoretical and untested. If someone says she is an expert in the stock market but not an investor, I wouldn’t ask her to invest my money. When I need my house painted, I don’t want to hire an expert on paint, I want a professional painter.

Sometimes experts appear to be professionals though they are not. Their expertise is in one area but their profession is something else. Political pundits are not politicians but journalists and entertainers. Heads of scientific agencies are not scientists but administrators. University presidents are not educators or researchers but fundraisers. In each case they may have once been practitioners in their perceived areas of expertise, though not necessarily.

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4 thoughts on “Experts vs Professionals

  1. In Shop Class as Soulcraft, Matthew Crawford proposes a similar argumentation. The act of doing a job, of confronting its direct problems head on while putting one’s pay and reputation on the line, pushes the professional in a feedback loop that generates hands-on, concrete expertise. Professionals do not have to wear the “I’m an expert” tag: they are quietly confident that they will satisfy your needs as they relate to their field.

    When your living immediately depends on your competence, you have to vault the bar. In contrast, as a pro, when you fail at some task, you have incentive as much as feedback to learn from it. This kind of concrete experience is easy to relate to, so people trust successful professionals easily.

  2. It’s definitely easier to be a professional at a craft you’re an expert in. To my mind, that means being willing to see things both ways: When you talk to customers, you take the pragmatic, effective, and solution-first approach, but you still need an autodidactic, theoretical and even pedantic mind within yourself and your team precisely so that you can have done the science (both theory and practice) and be able to get down to brass tacks with your customers. It doesn’t do for businesses to be so “customer focused” that they leave their development teams no resources to experiment and improve. They need to appreciate that their professionals are experts, too, and need to maintain their art.

  3. I always experienced a bit of cognitive dissonance at meetings were they went around the room introducing everyone and I heard myself described as Dr X, subject matter expert representing the interests of [name of government agency].

    Gee, back at the university, PhDs go by first names. And we go by Ms or Mr, not Dr. Now that I am older and wiser–and I have done the control experiment–I see that my team leader was trying to innoculate me against summary dismissal of my technical expertise because of my gender.

    Regardless of what I am called, I aim to maintain my “amateur spirit” and keep learning.

  4. This isn’t common in Academia though: My boss is quite a skilled crystallographer, but he has never worked as one. However, his research has heavily involved that for decades now. Similarly his senior grad student is very skilled at it, and would love a job in that field, but it is a bit saturated right now. On the other side of the coin, we have a registered crystallographer here who isn’t a professional crystallographer anymore, since he’d rather work in other areas, however there isn’t anyone who is going to say he isn’t an expert.

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