Lately there’s been a lot of murmuring online and at industry gatherings about this whole concept of what really makes an expert. To be blunt, the freewheeling use of the term is getting pretty out of control.
Everyone seems to be an expert in something these days. Whether it’s technology, social media, fitness, foreclosures…I’m pretty sure this explosive growth of authority figures is pretty universal among industries. My guess as to why is not just because people are looking for an edge, and some sort of competitive advantage, or unique identity that sets them apart, but the rise of citizen journalism and infopreneuring has something to do with it too. Millions of people now publish blogs, they self publish books, give seminars, start new departments for their companies…bottom line, they make money from packaging themselves as such. And more power to them for that!
Without pointing fingers or passing judgment (any further that is), I wanted to start to open a dialogue about what true expertise really means, so we can start holding all of ourselves to a higher standard, or, at very least, some minimal standards. It’s for the good of us all, seriously.
I’ll never forget the day I saw the caption under a big photo of myself in US News & World Report back in the mid 90s. I gasped. It said, “Talking About Her Generation – Guru: Get Ready for Change”. It was an article about my perspective on how our generation (Generation X) was inventing their own rules in business. (Little could we have imagined back then the tidal wave of change the Millennials would bring about a decade later!)
Despite the incredible endorsement from one of the most prestigious business magazines in the world, the innuendo that I was a “guru”, let alone an “expert” sent me into a panic. Who was I to be called a guru? How could I show my face around other, older, more established people? Sure, I’d been amassing a lot of experience over the preceding three or four years, was working with my peers from dozens of countries, had been consulting for big companies, doing a bunch of speaking engagements, working with a non profit or two, and was just getting started on my first book…but I was still so young and new to the field.
These are the principles that I’ve followed. I don’t expect others to live by the same standards, but this is what I did and it has certainly served me well in my career.
For whatever it’s worth, I studied (and lived by) this concept for years for my own sake, to ensure that no one ever questioned my own authority. Because I was just 19 when I started this career, gaining credibility and respect was a huge hurdle for me to overcome.
In an attempt to start to make people think more seriously about who they entrust with their time, money, health, well being and businesses, and for all of those who are building their expertise, or already holding themselves out as experts, I humbly offer this list. Consider this a guideline, an inspiration, or even a personal challenge. I know the definition of expertise is highly subjective, but allow me to set the bar high for us all.
1. Experience: You can’t build expertise without experience doing the actual work you talk about. Malcom Gladwell said it takes 10,000 hours. Other say it takes at least 3 to 5 years. But perhaps very significant experiences in a compact period of time can count for a lot too.
2. Education: A lot of fields require practitioners to complete certain academic courses, earn certificates or degrees, or complete a particular amount of training. The hours, month or years involved varies widely across industries. Know what’s relevant to you and comply as much as you can or make sure that your experience is compelling and substantive enough to compensate for a lack of formal training.
3. Being Paid: If you haven’t been paid for what you know, how can you validate that it’s valuable to others? Having clients or employers invest in you as a solution says a lot, especially when the outcome makes them happy and saves or makes them money. The more money you make from selling your expertise, the more credibility you gain.
4. Peer Recognition: Everyone is part of an industry, if not several different ones. If people in your industry vouch for you by endorsing your work, mentioning you in theirs, or inviting you into exclusive clubs or events, that’s substantive. The more prestigious and experienced the people who acknowledge you, the more meaningful it will be for many.
5. Media: Being quoted, profiled or featured by the media speaks volumes to thousands, if not millions, depending on the reach and respect of the medium. This is another third party endorsement that not only carries a lot of weight, but has high visibility and lends credibility from a trusted source.
6. Being Published: From blogs to podcasts, articles to books, there are lots of ways to package and promote your expertise. The more you do this and the more people who read and respond to your work, the bigger the outlets/publishers that will be eager to grant you access to their platform.
7. Exposure: How many people have read about you, come to see you speak, bought your products or services? How many know about you and your work? Gaining exposure is easier than ever if you leverage social media, but if no one knows about you, or can find you online, it’s easy to have your true authority questioned.
8. Authenticity: It should go without saying, but if you’re going to call yourself, or allow others to call you an expert, have the goods to back it up. If you live what you preach, it says as much about your integrity as your authority. There are far too many people in the world who attempt to teach others what they themselves have never accomplished or sell promises that they know will never or rarely be realized. Marketing is marketing, but worse than being a faux-expert is being a fraud. If you do nothing else, be authentic, honest and conduct your life and business with integrity.
There are lots of ways to build experience and earn credibility as an expert. Think about it. Consider your options and opportunities carefully. And take your definitions of expertise more seriously. Whether you’re a consumer relying on an expert, or the expert offering your services, everyone wins when relationships have a foundation of substance and demonstrable value.