So You Think You’re an Expert

June 27, 2011 by
Filed under: Leadership, Mentoring 

Sometimes it appears as though there are a lot of people who revel in boasting about their expertise in whatever topic they claim to be an expert in. This seems to be the case whether it’s cars, interrelationship skills, clothes, arts and crafts, or a sport. You name it; there will be an “expert” who can be found for it. Experts who can help others become better at that particular skill or hobby. In today’s world of ultra-competition this can be a blessing for those of us who need to develop ourselves in one of those areas. But what does it really mean to be an expert? If a person chooses to become better at something, and eventually be looked upon as an expert, having a basic understanding of what it means to be an expert will certainly be helpful in achieving that goal.

Joseph and Harry’s Window

In my humble opinion, the Johari Window is one of the most useful tools that helps describe the process of human interaction. Created by Joseph Luft and Harry Ingham in 1955 in the United States, a “Johari Window” is a cognitive psychological tool used to help people better understand interpersonal communication and relationships.

  • The Arena or Open/Free Area is the part of us that is known by ourselves and that others see of ourselves.
  • The Blind Spot is also known as the “Shadow Area” and it”s the part that is seen by others but not known by us.
  • The Façade is known by ourselves but not seen by others. It’s the hidden area that we keep to ourselves.
  • The Unknown is the mystery section that is unknown both by ourselves and not seen by others.

One of the interesting characteristics of the Johari Window is that the boundaries are not static. Communication is the key to the movement of the boundaries. Whenever we disclose or give feedback or when we ask for feedback, the boundaries between the windows move into the unknown areas. Increasing the size of the known areas. As you may have guessed it, whenever we choose to not share or not communicate with others, the boundaries can move in the opposite direction. Increasing the size of the hidden, shadow and unknown areas of the window. 

So What Does This Have to do with Expertise?

Originally used to help improve communication, the Johari Window is also useful to help understand the process of developing expertise. I’ll use the game of golf to elaborate my point:

(1)    Unconscious Incompetence (novice) – You do not know what you do not know. If you’ve never picked up a golf club, you likely will not be aware of the basic fundamentals such as grip, posture, and proper stance.

(2)    Conscious Incompetence (trainee) – You know what you do not know. Ok, you’ve started taking golf lessons. When you take your first lesson, your instructor makes you aware of the importance of grip, posture, and stance to help your golf swing. You will know what you need to learn.

(3)    Conscious Competence (proficient) – You know what it takes to perform the task at hand efficiently (but in order to perform the task, you have to think about every step). After several lessons, you’ve become aware of what you need to do in order to have a consistent golf swing. You have to really think about what you’re doing though. It hasn’t become second nature for you yet. But you are able to explain to others what works and why it works. You haven’t yet become an expert.

(4)    Unconscious Competence (expert) – You do not know what you do know. You’ve been working on your golf swing for years now. You are able to swing the club with great velocity and consistency. When faced with adversity, you automatically know how to handle it. You have difficulty in sharing your strategy with others because it’s so automatic for you now. You are not consciously aware of why it works for you.

Please note a very important point I’m making here:

Just because a person is an expert at something, doesn’t mean that they are automatically good at teaching it.”


This is a very simplistic view of what it means to be a novice, trainee, proficient or expert. Do you think that I’m spot on or do you think the above shows too much a one-dimensional view of expertise? Would you consider yourself an “expert” at something?  If so, what at and why? Do you know of someone who is an expert? Why do you think so? Share them here…we’d love to hear your thoughts!


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