How to become an expert

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How to become an expert

 

How to become and expert textbook

WARNING: This is only for those who don’t confidently know everything (and want to know how to become an expert).

 

If you sometimes second guess yourself, check and re-check your facts, and always update your knowledge, you may actually be MORE competent than those who are uber-confident!

Let’s step into our ideal clients’ shoes for a moment. You want help to solve a problem or reach a goal. You are motivated and are willing to invest in the right expert to help you. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of “experts” available. How do you choose who you want to work with?

Would you choose an expert based on the

  • best logo and branding colours?
  • most engaging social media feeds?
  • prettiest website?
  • slickest sales page?
  • techniques they use to help us “overcome objections”?

What would you—as a potential client—look for as signs that a person is expert enough to help you?

For me, it’s “Do they know how to solve my problem or help me reach my goal?”

Seriously! When you look past all of the marketing and persuasion techniques used to try to get you to invest with them, your success truly comes down to whether that person can help you solve your problem or reach your goal.

Competence, credibility, and expertise make the difference between wasted time and resources, or success.

If I’m serious about hiring someone to help me, I want to know that the person knows how to do it. They’re not going to send me off on a wild goose chase with their random personal theories. They’re not going to recommend something that won’t work; or worse, make my problem bigger or my goal harder to reach.

So, in this growing market of professionals, how do YOU become and stand out as THE expert in your field?

I’m not saying that logos, social media, website design, and sales pages are not important—they are! And, it’s possible (likely?) that many people see the pretty and slick marketing shiz and impulsively click the “buy now” button. But, to truly give your clients and patients the results they want and need, and to build and uphold your reputation, your advice has to hold some water. People’s health is in your hands. You NEED to be an expert.

NOTE: I have GOOD NEWS for you if you’re not 100% confident in what you do!

So, how do you become an expert?

Who really are the experts?

When we graduate from our programs and proudly display our new titles or letters after our names, we’re awesome! We have a new skill set we can use to help our clients with their health goals.

And, we may create or purchase client management software or a 12-week program that we can take our clients through to get their results.

We can be pretty successful with this and be proud of our clients’ accomplishments and how our advice and support helped them.

We also know that the world is changing. Our clients’ and patients’ needs may have changed due to the pandemic. New health research is published daily. Sensational (sometimes fake) headlines abound. There is no shortage of non-experts who are quick to share their “hot takes.” Our clients, patients, and followers ask us tough questions.

Here is one of my favourite commentaries on “hot takes”:

Of course, not everything is a “hot take.” There are so many times when people make statements and openly admit that they’re not sure. They use words like “can” or “may” cause X in “some” people. They tell us that “more research is needed” or that “investigations are starting.” Those caveats are people adding context and being honest that they can’t say for sure that something is 100% true or beyond a shadow of a doubt.

People who say these things are the ones who I trust more.

Plus, I think we can agree that no matter where we went to school and what program (or programs) we graduated from, there’s always more to know. Always!

No matter where we went to school and what program we graduated from, there's always more to know. Always! #Health #Knowledge #Credibility Click To Tweet

Especially once we choose an area of expertise and niche—we really need to dive deeper into that information to expand our knowledge in that area.

How do we become experts?

If you’re like me, you want to keep up-to-date with the research, while being cautiously skeptical of new information and are sure to vet it before adopting a new position. We want to know what advances are being made in our field that are relevant to our health practices. We want to be curators of expert knowledge that can help our clients and patients, not just sharers of hot takes, news, and random information.

Oftentimes, there isn’t a clear line as to what information to trust. We may follow thought leaders and our online mentors and see what they say on the topics.

But you can become a frontline mentor and thought leader yourself!

When we follow people, we can find out where they get their information from and look at it for ourselves. (ALWAYS ask for references!) Are their sources credible and trustworthy? Are the sources from the research itself or are they someone else’s opinion or hot take? Are the studies they cite peer-reviewed and published in legit journals? Do the sources actually prove what they’re saying with proper context? Is this just clickbait of breaking news or rumors, or is this truly deepening our knowledge on the topic?

There is a difference between a “hot take” on some new, cheap information, versus looking for context and high-quality background data to slowly and carefully inform and evolve our knowledge.

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Want more confidence? You’re probably more competent than you think!

Studies show that people who second-guess their knowledge and feel a bit less secure about what they know may actually know more than those who are uber-confident!

This is called the “Dunning-Krueger Effect.”

Here’s how it works.

Let’s say there is a continuum of knowledge. On one extreme there are those who know little to nothing about the depth and breadth of a topic. They are definitely not experts. At the other extreme are the real experts who live and breathe that one single topic every day. These experts are constantly learning more, challenging their knowledge, and are on the leading edge of research. That combined with a lot of experience makes them true experts. They’re rare!

The funny thing is that both of these groups of people tend to exude A LOT of confidence!

Yep, the people new to a field, who have done little research on a topic, or are convinced that their gut or their personal experience (or the experience of a few people they’ve seen online) is enough to inform them what everyone should be doing; the people who maybe saw a few documentaries, immersed themselves in a YouTube channel or two, or read a bestseller. These non-experts confidently parrot the information that they are convinced is correct, without really having a deep understanding of the topic at all. These people who know next to nothing about a topic are often just as confident as those real true (rare) experts.

But, what about the majority of people in the middle? The people who feel they might know “enough”? People like you and me. We’re interested in a topic, love to expand our knowledge, and second-guess ourselves as we keep learning. The people in the middle with us are open to new information, even that which may disagree with our initial viewpoints because we’d rather know something for sure than go with someone’s hot take.

Those people in the middle with us who aren’t quite as confident as others are often more competent than the uber-confident “parrots.”

How can this even be?

People who don’t know a lot but think they do, simply can’t see their own incompetence. They know so little about a topic that they honestly don’t know what they don’t know. But they often speak with such certainty and confidence. They often think something is so very simple (and we know how amazingly complex human physiology really is) or they dismiss other evidence that refutes their position. When new evidence shows up to disprove their position, they may not even understand its significance or how it fits into the current body of evidence.

Of course, this has nothing to do with intelligence, only with expertise. Some really, really smart people who are experts in one area may not realize all there is to become an expert in another area.

(We’re talking about expertise here, not smarts. There are a ton of smart people, but not everyone is an expert in all areas they communicate with confidence.)

People who don’t know much about a topic but truly believe they are experts may be lacking in something called intellectual humility: correctly calibrating the strength of your beliefs to the evidence you’ve gathered and the limitations you face. People with more intellectual humility are more curious and interested in learning more, they’re also interested in information that opposed their viewpoints, and are more likely to spend time fact-checking sources. People with more intellectual humility may also have better relationships because they are seen as warm, friendly, and generous. How? Because they are more open-minded, ask more questions, use less negative language, provide more reasons to support their viewpoints, and show more empathy and altruism.

The more people learn, the more they realize how much more there always is to know. And that dose of humility may increase competence and be a sign of expertise!

The more people learn, the more they realize how much more there always is to know. And that dose of humility may increase competence! #Dunning-Krueger #Bias #Confidence #Competence Click To Tweet

Dunning (who first documented this effect with Krueger) says:

“If you’re incompetent, you can’t know you’re incompetent. . . . The skills you need to produce a right answer are exactly the skills you need to recognize what a right answer is.”

Don’t worry – I share an example below where I swallowed my pride and changed my position on a very popular health “fact” based on new, more robust research!

Let’s be honest, though. It can be very uncomfortable to challenge your knowledge. It can feel like a blow to accept that maybe, just maybe, we latched on to a hot take or unproven hypothesis that then turns out to be incorrect. Especially if we were really attached to that position in the first place.

We would still be skeptical of the new information and only change our position if it truly was better quality and more robust than what we knew beforehand. The last thing we want is to jump on the newest bandwagon.

The good news is that studies show that embracing that discomfort helps us progress and grow. In fact, seeking out some discomfort can be motivating and turn the negative feelings of discomfort into a positive result! It is similar to stress: we need some stress to take positive action in our lives, just like some discomfort can help us understand more and become better experts.

sliced citrus fruits to represent vitamin C

Yep! We now know way more about health than we ever did

Are we ever really done learning about our area of expertise?

Nope. Not a chance!

The reason is because health information evolves. More research papers are published now than ever before. The body of evidence in every area is simply growing. The “best guesses” at the time still needed to be proven or disproven.

(This is why I pay attention when people say “more research is needed”!)

Do the fundamentals of our body’s anatomy and physiology change? Will we ever refute the health-promoting effects of vegetables, physical activity, or sleep? Probably not because there are hundreds, if not thousands, of studies done that support these. There is a huge body of evidence that has built our knowledge in these areas.

But, with new studies, we learn more about the nuances and complexity of the human body.

Here are some examples of research that updated our knowledge about health:

1 – The discovery of vitamins and the first clinical trial

Waaay back (centuries ago), we used to think that scurvy was caused by “foul vapours” or “imbalance in bodily humours.” Then in 1797 Dr. James Lind conducted the very first randomized clinical trial and found that the sailors with signs of scurvy who had citrus fruit added to their rations improved.

Now we know about the importance of not just vitamin C, but a bunch of essential nutrients!

2 – The spread of bacterial disease between people through sewage

Here’s a more recent example. Before the mid-1800s cholera outbreaks were rampant in Europe. In 1849 Dr. James Snow in London, England officially discounted the hypothesis that it was caused by “noxious air.” He went on to map out cholera outbreaks to try to figure out the source.  In 1854 he associated the latest outbreak with a water pump that was just three feet from an old cesspit of fecal waste.

Now we have proper plumbing, sanitation, and water treatment for clean drinking water.

3 – The spread of bacterial disease between people through unwashed hands

Here’s a third example from history about bacteria and handwashing.  That’s also a relatively new concept, and one of the absolute best stories from medical history.

Dr. Ignasz Semmelweis is my favourite scientist of all time! He not only figured out that it was physicians who were spreading “childbed fever” to women in labour, but he was condemned for bringing up such a world-changing viewpoint. A viewpoint that has proven over and over again to be one of the most effective methods to prevent the spread of infections . . . handwashing!

Where would we be if we still didn’t know about nutrients, believe in bacteria or viruses, and didn’t understand the massive value of proper handwashing?

Ya, these are examples from over a century ago, but guess what? I have a few doozeys from the last two decades! 😉

word healthcare written in scrabble pieces

4 – That time I swallowed my pride and realized I was wrong . . .

I have a personal story where seeing new research totally changed my perspective on the gut microbiome. And, if you know me, I’ve lived health science for decades. I:

  • studied Biomedical Toxicology at the University of Guelph in the 1990s,
  • earned my Master of Science in Toxicology and Nutrition in 2000,
  • worked in the health products industry for 12 years,
  • went back to school to study more nutrition in the 2000s
  • created a research-based health writing business.

I thought I knew a lot about health. BUT, I was open to being proved wrong (with enough evidence, of course!).

I thought I knew a lot about health. BUT, I was open to being proved wrong (with enough evidence, of course!). #Health #Science #Evidence Click To Tweet

Here’s where it started. We’ve been told that we’re “10x more bacteria than human,” or “we’re only 10% human,” right? This is because of the estimated number of tiny bacteria and other microbes that live in our guts.

(Those sayings sure make catchy headlines, don’t they?)

This is all good because our knowledge expands as more and more studies are done. So, as with COVID-19, we can only base our understanding on the best research at the time. And back in 1977, that 10:1 ratio was the first estimate of the numbers of microbial:human cells.

That was the best research at the time!

As you know, the field of research into the gut microbiome has exploded in the past two decades. Since technology has advanced, we can collect thousands of times more data about the complexity of the communities of living microbes in our gut than we ever could before.

And with new technology, a ton of new research, and some intellectual humility we can learn SO. MUCH. MORE. about the nuances and complexities of the human body.

With new technology, a tonne of new research, and an open mind we can learn SO. MUCH. MORE. #Health #Science #OpenMind Click To Tweet

Spoiler alert: New estimates in 2016 show that we don’t have 10x more microbial cells than human cells, the two numbers are about the same. More sophisticated technology shows that it’s more like a 1:1 ratio. We are “50% human.” 🙂

Honestly, when I first heard that I didn’t believe it myself. I knew that “everyone and their brother” had said that we have 10x the number of microbes in our gut than we have human cells in our whole bodies.

I asked myself: “WHY SHOULD I TRUST THIS NEW RESEARCH?”

So, in my #ResearchNerd style, I went and read the actual study. Not hot takes on it, but the study itself. Wow, they seemed pretty legit! In fact, it wasn’t just that the new studies seemed legit, but they pointed out what we didn’t know just a few decades ago.

The actual studies seemed legit and pointed out what we didn't know just a few decades ago. #Health #Research #Studies Click To Tweet

When we know better, we do better, right?

If you’re interested in a quick fact-check of 19 nutrition claims, see the post linked here. And, if you want to dive deep into two examples of high quality nutrition studies (randomized control trials), see my post on the science of nutrition here.

The last example I have for you is from less than 20 years ago.

sketches of bones spine skull hand foot

5 – Fascinating example about protein and your bones

If you’ve ever heard that protein is good for our bones but it’s also bad for them, here is the story behind this supposed contradiction. (Hint: getting enough protein is essential for overall health and bone health.)

This idea that high-protein diets were bad for bones came from studies, starting in 1920, that showed that after eating a high-protein meal, higher levels of calcium were measured in the urine (called calciuria).

(You’ll note that there was no scientific link to bone health here—the only links found by these studies were that eating protein and calcium tended to increase the urinary excretion of calcium.)

This is still true to this day! When we eat more protein we DO excrete more calcium . . .  but the calcium isn’t from where we originally thought it was from. #ThanksScience

After this correlation was observed (eat protein with calcium, then excrete calcium), the question then was, “Where did this higher-than-normal urinary calcium come from?” And that was a great question!

Of course, one of the main hypotheses (“best guesses”) at the time, was that the calcium came from the body’s main storage of calcium, namely bone. Since our bones store the vast majority of the body’s calcium, that’s a logical place where this calciuria may very well be coming from. This “bone effect” observation of calciuria still needed to be confirmed with further studies. (Plus, even more guesses were layered upon this, including one about the acid-alkaline balance).

(This is a classic mistake of: if A = B and B = C, then does A = C?)

What we knew for sure via experimental clinical studies was that eating more protein (A) equals higher urinary calcium (B). That was true. What caused that to happen inside our bodies was still not proven. Yet, this hypothesis got many, many people on board with the idea that high protein consumption contributes to loss of bone density (C), even though the connection between bone density and calciuria was never confirmed.

So, how can we test if this hypothesis is true? How can we figure out what the actual cause of the hypercalciuria was? Where exactly did that urinary calcium come from?

We can test the “protein causes calciuria by ripping calcium out of the bones” hypothesis by doing an experiment radioactively labeled calcium!

So, back in 2005, a study was published that solved this mystery using safe levels of non-harmful radiation. Researchers found a group of participants and for 10 days they were on either a moderate or a high-protein diet, while also ingesting 600 mg of calcium per day. Then they ate a meal with radiolabeled calcium so they could measure (via the radiation) where that calcium from the meal actually went.

The calcium in the body was not radiolabelled, so by labelling the calcium in that one meal and tracing where that calcium went, researchers can confirm what happens to the calcium in the meal when people eat a high-protein diet.

They found that the urine was radioactive! In fact, most of the increased calcium in the urine was radioactive. This means that almost all of the calcium in the urine came from the meal, not from the bones! In fact, this proved that a high-protein diet decreased the amount of calcium excreted in the urine that came from the bones (most came from the newly eaten meal itself).

Well, this is when we learned that eating calcium with protein increases the body’s absorption of calcium, from the normal level of about 19%, up to 26%.

Here’s exactly what they say:

“The high-protein diet caused a significant reduction in the fraction of urinary calcium of bone origin . . .”

So, by eating more protein with a calcium-containing meal, you can help absorb more of that calcium from the meal and reduce the amount of bone calcium being excreted in the urine.

How does the calcium from the meal get into the urine?

The calcium is absorbed into the body by the digestive system, circulated around in the blood, and excess calcium is filtered out into the urine by the kidneys. Your kidneys are always doing their job to regulate your blood so it’s always just about perfect—its pH, electrolytes, mineral concentrations, etc. So, when you have enough calcium in your blood at the moment (because you just absorbed a whole lot of it from your high protein meal), your kidneys filter some of that excess calcium out into the urine so as to maintain perfect blood levels of calcium.

So, what we learned was that protein helps us to absorb more calcium from our meals and preserves the calcium in the bones!

Protein in the meal helps to increase the absorption of calcium from that meal, which allows the kidneys to flush some of the excess out, and explains why people who eat more protein have better bone health. #bonehealth #calcium… Click To Tweet

This also explains the apparent paradox of why people who eat higher protein diets have stronger bones.

In case you’re wondering, it’s often prudent to wait for more studies to see if they confirm the new information. Studies are done in so many different ways that they can look at something from a different angle. In this case of protein bone health, other studies have also shown that high protein diets do not negatively affect bone health and lower fracture risk! Especially when those people are also consuming enough calcium. In fact, in one large study, the people who ingested the most protein and at least 800 mg/day of calcium had an 85% reduced risk of fracture compared with those who ate the lowest amount of protein!

So, staying curious and keeping up with new research keeps shedding more light on how our bodies work and it builds on our knowledge.

This is how to become an expert!

 

Textbook with note saying from the real experts

How to find expert health information you can trust

If you have the time, energy, and background to find, read, understand, and critically evaluate all the new studies in your field as they’re published, then you may be one of those rare true experts. And you know where to go to get those studies: PubMed!

But, what if you don’t? Where can you go to find up-to-date health information you can trust? Information that’s based on the best research-based information we have at the time?

I compiled a list of over 50 credible research-based websites that you can trust to get accurate health information. You can download it here:

Credible Health Research

Download this list of credible health resources and tips on where to research health topics.

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Conclusion

If you sometimes feel a bit less confident in your knowledge and you seek more information (even info that challenges your views), you’re quite possibly more of an expert than many uber-confident people who simply don’t know what they don’t know.

Keep learning. Keep being open-minded and having intellectual humility. Know where to go for credible health knowledge!

 

Signing off and toasting: To becoming an expert in your field!

 

Over to you

Were you surprised that confidence often means INcompetence? Are you continuously open-mindedly learning more and more about your area of expertise? Is it making you a bit more (but not too) confident? 😉

I’d love to know your thoughts on how to become an expert in the comments below!

Originally published April 2018; updated with even more awesomeness in July 2022.

 

References

Cao, J. J., Johnson, L. K., & Hunt, J. R. (2011). A Diet High in Meat Protein and Potential Renal Acid Load Increases Fractional Calcium Absorption and Urinary Calcium Excretion without Affecting Markers of Bone Resorption or Formation in Postmenopausal Women. The Journal of Nutrition, 141(3), 391–397, https://doi.org/10.3945/jn.110.129361
https://academic.oup.com/jn/article/141/3/391/4743585

Kerstetter, J. E., O’Brien, K. O., Caseria, D. M., Wall, D. E., & Insogna, K. L. (2005). The impact of dietary protein on calcium absorption and kinetic measures of bone turnover in women. The Journal of clinical endocrinology and metabolism, 90(1), 26–31. https://doi.org/10.1210/jc.2004-0179
https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/15546911/
https://academic.oup.com/jcem/article/90/1/26/3058015?login=false

Sahni, S., Cupples, L. A., McLean, R. R., Tucker, K. L., Broe, K. E., Kiel, D. P., & Hannan, M. T. (2010). Protective effect of high protein and calcium intake on the risk of hip fracture in the Framingham offspring cohort. Journal of bone and mineral research : the official journal of the American Society for Bone and Mineral Research, 25(12), 2770–2776. https://doi.org/10.1002/jbmr.194
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3179277/

Sender, R., Fuchs, S. & Milo, R. (2016). Revised Estimates for the Number of Human and Bacteria Cells in the Body. PLoS Biol 14(8): e1002533. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pbio.1002533
http://journals.plos.org/plosbiology/article?id=10.1371/journal.pbio.1002533

 

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I’m Leesa Klich, MSc., R.H.N.
Health writer – Blogging expert – Research nerd.

I help health and wellness professionals build their authority with scientific health content. They want to stand out in the crowded, often unqualified, market of entrepreneurs. I help them establish trust with their audiences, add credibility to their services, and save them a ton of time so they don’t have to do the research or writing themselves. To work with me, click here.

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