Do You Shudder When They Call You “Expert?” Yeah, Me Too.

I am going into my 8th year of working full time in volunteer engagement and absolutely shudder anytime anyone refers to me as an expert, especially due to the many colleagues that have at least a decade of experience on me. I often question if I am even worthy enough to be in the same room, muchless share the same stage and/or platform with them.

Let me explain. To me, the word “expert” has always meant the person who knows the most or has experienced everything; essentially almost all knowing. My thought on the idea of the expert was experts built the Titanic and Noah (an amateur) built the arc… and we see how those stories turned out.

What also contributes to my disdain for the word is when people refer to me as the “expert” but then question EVERYTHING I suggest and /or recommend. Then, to me the term is internalized as condescending, further reinforcing my own internal belief that an expert I am not; becuase if I was, why would they be questioning literally EVERYTHING? Hmmm that may be a completely different blog post entirely, but I digress.

Don’t get me wrong, I am ok with being questioned. I actually welcome it, even if uncomfortable, because it is an opportunity to prove (more to myself than anyone else I think) that I actually do know what I am talking about… especially when what seems like a logical answer/solution to me in many situations, isn’t always apparent to others. Why? Because I have been through the ringer 1000 times, so the solution is clear, crystal clear in fact…to the point where it just becomes muscle memory and that helps me make my case when necessary.

Anyway, in the past few years, I have heard the term “expert” used to describe me from colleagues and even close friends. Everytime it was used, I would inwardly shrink away from it, and outwardly deny it. I would rather someone say I have expertise in something. Yes I know it sounds absurd, but in my head, it meant I have a lot of experience on the subject matter, but I am still learning. In my head, expert just sounds so final; like an expert knows about everything on the subject, where expertise left room for growth. The more I heard “expert” in reference to myself, the more I was determined to prove others wrong by looking up the definition to set them straight.

Young Black women with curly hair in yellow sweater & yellow background with a look of confusion on her face

To my surprise, and let’s be frank, to my dismay, I realized I am the one that is wrong. The literal actual definition of an expert (and I looked up several different ones becuase I didn’t like that the first definition didn’t back me up) is having, involving, or displaying special skill or knowledge derived from training or experience. What’s even worse is the definition of expertise is literally the same thing. Insert eye roll here.

So, with my new traumatic discovery, I had to then ask myself, “What triggers the disdain I have for the word?” I mean after all, if you called me knowledgable, experienced or a savant even, all synonyms for the word expert, I would be totally ok with it, embrace it even. So why does the word “expert” get me in such a tizzy?

Perhaps it is due to the fact that my understanding of the word for almost 50 years equated to perfect, and that is something I know I am most certainly not.

What I recognize now is, that although it has only been 8 years in the profession, the challenges are cyclical and the solutions are pretty similar; but most importantly, the same guiding principles apply in each and every situation. So even in a new situation (and believe me, at this point nothing really surprises me anymore) the packaging may be different, but the root cause is almost always the same. I have developed the skill to look past the packaging and detect the root of the problem so providing the solution gets easier. Thank you for opening my eyes to that CCVA.

I also realize the battle scars (bumps, bruises, tears cried, rejection, difficult conversations I endured), lessons learned and unimaginable successes are badges I wear proudly as momentos becuase they are the reminders, and more importantly, the reason I am the leader I am today.

In addition, I understand now, that what makes me an “expert” is not only my experiences, but those derived from my network, my community. Even if I haven’t experienced every situation under the sun, I can call upon those in my network who have had 5–10 more years of experience than I have had in similar AND different industries as mine and can get answers and solutions. So even if at the moment, I don’t know, I can draw on the well of knowledge of my network.

It doesn’t matter what industry (arts and culture, social service, healthcare, animal welfare), or what country what my colleagues reside in (Ireland, England, Romania, Australia, Canada), it is a fascinating eye opening experience to be in the room of my colleagues, no matter how long we have been in the field, what industry we represent, what country we come from, to discover that the challenges, basic principles and solutions in the profession of volunteer engagement are still the same. In addition, as we share our experiences, we sharpen and equip each other.

So, I conclude that this is what, dare I say, makes me an expert (ugh the internal cringe I just felt even typing that) in the eyes of others. Not only my first hand experience, but the collective knowledge and backing of my colleagues as well.

So with that, allow me to re- introduce myself:

My name is Nicole Smith and I am an expert in Volunteer Engagement.

I have earned it.

(yeah that was still hard to say)

Nicole (@nicolersmithnet) is a Panamanian-American, workforce development specialist, performer, motivational speaker and published author of Game On! Relentlessly Pursue Your Dreams and the 101 Affirmations Journal Series. She attended Oral Roberts University on a Division I full-ride track scholarship. After graduating, she founded Step It Up! Inc., a non-profit dance organization. Her experience in sports and entertainment, radio, TV, the performing arts and social service has spanned nearly 20 years covering the Chicago, Houston and Miami/Ft. Lauderdale markets. She has danced and cheered for four Professional and Semi-Professional sports teams, has prepared more than 800 interns to enter the workforce and has inspired crowds upwards of 2000. She received the Emerging Leaders ALIVE Impact Award, was listed as one of WLRN’s “Local Women Who Inspire You” , and was selected as one of Legacy Miami’s MOST PROMINENT AND INFLUENTIAL BLACK WOMEN IN BUSINESS AND INDUSTRY OF 2019. She sits on the Board of the Association of Leaders In Volunteer Management and Ageless Chic Magazine.




Nicole is a Panamanian-American, single mom, workforce development specialist, published author, dancer, and motivational speaker. Her experience spans 20 yrs.

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Nicole R. Smith

Nicole R. Smith

Nicole is a Panamanian-American, single mom, workforce development specialist, published author, dancer, and motivational speaker. Her experience spans 20 yrs.

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