Performing a part (or, learning how to “expert”)

Inside of all us, there is a “Learner,” a curious part that learns and questions. There is also an “Expert,” a part that knows and has answers.

Here, I find myself wanting to turn “expert” into a verb that comes with some petite baggage:

  1. To show or contribute expertise in something
  2. To exude or make a public display of expertise in order to impress others or convince them that you are an expert

I remember taking a seminar on literary theory in college, a place that is presumably all about learning (if you’re the student). It seemed like so many of my worldly, confident classmates were already well-versed in “experting.” Even the questions they asked seemed concocted to convey pre-existing expertise. There didn’t seem to be any room left to convey the terrible feeling that nothing was making any sense to me.

In my early years in the consulting world, when I had very little idea of my own worth, I studied my new environment and saw that “expert” was clearly a part meant for other types. I would never be one of the older, more senior, male, designated “thought leaders” in comfy business casual layers with nice pens in functional pockets who so easily (and willingly) took command of a whiteboard or a conference call. Moreover, I worked with some truly brilliant thinkers who raised my bar for “expert” to impossible heights.

So it was baffling that whenever I was part of a team, presenting PowerPointed points of view to senior executive clients who were invariably older than I was, the implicit task was to perform expertly the role of “expert.” It felt deeply unnatural and uncomfortable. I would look around at my peers and managers and wonder, How are they so comfortable acting like they know so much?

The more I watched others being “experts,” the more I came to see “expert” as a packaged performance, a show of bravado to earn the label. It seemed everyone wanted (and still wants) to be seen as an expert with a TedX talk in their tagline. But the popular binary conception of “expert” (either you are or you aren’t), coupled with my reverence for “real experts,” troubled me. Ask me if I’m an expert about anything in which I could possibly, plausibly claim expertise—and I started waffling a half-sentence ago. I don’t know, am I?

Needless to say, I derived no confidence from playing an “Expert.” Attempts to “fake it” only ever left me feeling fake. Instead, I made the world of “Learner” my home. It is there that I’ve felt the most joy and, paradoxically, the most confidence in my life. In the places where there is no mastery, only heartfelt striving and discovery, I feel free.

Not surprisingly, coaching is one of those places for me. I can see now that I love coaching in part because it is a practice in which I can truly revel in being a learner. There are always more ways to learn and grow as a coach: among them, the work of finding my own way to embrace and integrate a part I’ve often evaded and shunned. (I owe a lot here to my study since 2021 of Inner Team Dialogue, founded by Paul Wyman and rooted in the parts-work method of Voice Dialogue.) After all, life requires not just pursuit of learning, but recognition of knowing. How do I find my own way of recognizing and sharing what I already know—just as I help clients recognize what they already know?

Performance has its place, not least as a natural way to experiment and learn. But I wonder if it’s the performing of any part that prevents you from truly getting to know it for yourself.

Where do you find yourself ‘performing’ in life? What part are you trying to perform? And if you stopped trying to perform that part—how would you play it?

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