Recently I heard of a woman who made a lovely batch of lemonade out of a whole bunch of lemons. She had spent most of her working life in finance management. Through pluck and competence she moved up the ranks nicely. Then she was laid-off at the same time her son was diagnosed with behavioral issues. Like most of us, her stress behaviors began to kick into high gear. For her this meant organizing everything within her sight. She had always found organizing to be soothing and imbued the results with subtle sacred qualities. Growing up in a chaotic household and moving often as a child, she found order comforting. So she took the doors off her son’s closet, replaced all his drawers with clear boxes and organized and labeled him into a more focused kid. Her child’s teacher noticed the difference in his behavior, and a conversation resulted in other children’s rooms being organized by the ex-financial manager. Packing up her label maker and color coded files one day, she joked to her husband; “This is like a job.”
I think we all know where the story goes from here. But wait, there is one tiny hitch. This highly educated, super competent woman decided she needed credentials. She went off to the Organizing Institute (or something as ridiculous sounding) and got herself a certificate. I can picture the graduation ceremony: a row of color coordinated graduates holding their hand over the heart and pledging to banish randomness and clutter. Now that she’s certified does that mean she enjoys client/practitioner privilege? If she discovers a bloodied shirt and knife in an over-stuffed dresser drawer is she obligated to keep that information to herself? Why did this seemingly talented, smart, sophisticated woman feel the need to trot off to the wizard to get a doctorate in thinkology?
Could it be that we are now living in the age of expertise? You’ve heard of the the jazz age, the cold war age, the disco age? The age of expertise isn’t nearly that interesting or fashion specific. The expertise age may very well be the product of the perfect storm of populace insecurity and a global speaker’s corner. Whether people’s insecurities are innate, organic or the result of marketing susceptibility, the results are the same. Grown people walking around feeling shaky and out of step. They probably are perfectly happy (or happy enough) but are bombarded with messages about tablescapes, second homes in Tuscany, French parenting, Tiger’s mothering. Having not mastered the skill of tuning out, sooner or later these various messages boil down to one thing; “other people know more than I do.” Now, that is actually true. But the people who know more than most of us are not the ones telling us how to carve the perfect jack-o-lantern.
People achieving expert status without robust credentials is nothing new. Certainly we can think of at least one radio talk show “doctor” raking in the benefits. But the platforms for such expertise have expanded beyond computation. So we find ourselves with a huge audience for “experts” in fields which often have no history of formal certification. Everything, and I do mean everything, has become an area of expertise. In just one week I have heard of a woman whose specialty is herding cats, another who designs walls (she’s not a muralist or even a house painter, she tells you where to hang your artwork.) And the infant/child fetish is still skyrocketing: getting your baby to sleep through the night? 1-800-i’ll take your money is on the way! not sure how to toilet train? HaveM&MsWillTravel.com is at the ready. I think we can all agree that there are iPhone app experts being created everyday.
Is all of this malarkey a sign of the end of time? Hardly. Would anyone confuse another “it happened to me so it must be universal” book with actual sociology? Doubtful. If there is any harm it is merely that throwing around terms like “expert” and inculcating people as such is not helping anyone or anything. We’d be a lot further ahead to feel confident in our own abilities (to organize our sock draw, or teach our child to use the potty.) Secure confident people make better decisions, for themselves, their families and even at the polls.
*If I Only Had A Brain – Yip Harburg, Wizard of Oz (1939)