The first time anyone ever asked me what I wanted to do with my life was when I went to college. Sure, like most kids, I got the “what do you want to be when you grow up?” question occasionally. But I never took it seriously. Then, all of a sudden, at 19 years old, adults were asking me what kind of expert I intended to become. Yikes!
The truth was I didn’t have a f*cking clue what I wanted to do with my life when I was a sophomore in college (does anyone?) and I’m not sure I could have picked out an expert in a line up.
I was required to take either Philosophy 101 or Religion 101. I chose philosophy because I didn’t know what it was. That small choice opened up a great big world to me. Just like that, I had an answer: I would become a philosophy professor.
From there, the path was clear. I went to grad school. I finished grad school. I successfully defended my dissertation and got hooded (NOT an awful hazing ritual). I got a job and then another job and then another job. I published a couple of papers. I taught hundreds of students and graded all the crap I made them write. But I didn’t feel like an expert—all that work and I didn’t feel like an expert. How strange!
Now, as I look back, I am sort of obsessed with this question: why didn’t I feel like an expert? The best answer I’ve been able to come up with so far is that I didn’t know how to translate my expertise—hell, I didn’t even realize that I needed to translate my expertise. I assumed that other people would recognize and appreciate my brilliance for themselves. This was a critical error and one I (and you) can’t afford to make as a business owner.
What the hell is an expert anyway?
Yes, another question I’m obsessed with at the moment. There are important differences between being an expert, feeling like an expert, and being able to translate your expertise for others. But in the business world, these differences aren’t so stark.
You’ve probably heard of the “10,000 hour rule,” which is one way to measure expertise. Malcolm Gladwell didn’t invent the “10,000-hour rule,” but he certainly popularized it. The idea is that spending 20 hours per week for a decade practicing your craft will make you a master in your field. I certainly put in that kind of time studying philosophy. Maybe that makes me an expert. I think it’s clearly not just about putting in the time, though.
Certainly you can feel like an expert without spending 10,000 hours honing your craft. I haven’t spent nearly as much time ghostwriting business books as I spent being a professional philosopher and yet I feel more like an expert now than I ever have before.
Fortunately for me, in business, people are much more liberal with handing out the expert label than in academia. Or maybe it’s just that the label doesn’t mean as much as whether you can get the job done.
Of course, feeling like an expert is not the same as translating your expertise so that others see it. And translating your expertise is what really matters. So, the best answer I’ve been able to come up with here is if you can convince someone else that you’re an expert, then congratulations, you’re an expert!
Now, let’s think about how to translate your expertise.
Step 1: Own Your Expertise
Yep. That’s all it takes to be an expert: convince someone else that you’re an expert, then congratulations, you’re an expert! I stand by this claim. But in case this sounds too easy, convincing someone else you’re an expert also means owning your expertise and sometimes it’s harder to own it yourself than to convince others.
Wait! What about “fake it ‘til you make it,” though? Isn’t that the epitome of convincing someone else that you’re an expert? Yes, but what makes you an expert is not that someone else grants you expert status.
Academia is obsessed with credentialing. You get the BA or the BS. You get the MA and the PhD. You get a tenure-track job and you get tenure. Then you get to be an associate professor and then a full professor. In academia, there are lots of gatekeepers who decide when you’re an expert (and by the way, it’s way more than 10,000 hours in).
I would love to wave my magic wand and erase the idea of there being gatekeepers of expertise. Being the expert is about what you do to convince others and if what you’re doing convinces others, but not yourself, that spells trouble. Period.
ProTip for owning your expertise:
The next time you have an idea for a new product or service offering, test it out using the vocal validation method. Call up (yes, you need to speak to them, not text or email or post on social media) at least five people and ask them some key questions:
- What comes to mind first when you think of ______________?
- What’s slowing you down or stopping you from doing ______________?
- If you could get help with ______________, what would you want? What would that look like?
- What’s your biggest concern about ______________?
- Would you be interested in being part of the beta round for my new product or service offering ______________?
Vocal validation is the best method I’ve found for helping me figure out how to translate my expertise. The sooner into your launch process you use it, the better. Have an idea for a book? Vocal validation should be the first piece of research you do.
Step 2: Get Comfortable With Being Seen
One thing that stops us from owning our expertise is that declaring ourselves as the expert makes us feel exposed and vulnerable. It can be scary to be the expert they can’t ignore. As soon as you figure out how to translate your expertise, you’ve got to be ready to be seen for all that you are—the good, the bad, and the ugly.
I was asked recently during a yoga retreat to name one of my strongest aversions. I said, “I’m averse to being seen and averse to not being seen.” Feeling exposed and vulnerable is uncomfortable and in my mind, it’s equally uncomfortable to be ignored. But if you make the choice to be seen as the expert, you can’t also hope to fade into the background when sh*t hits the fan.
This all comes with the territory when you decide to show people your true expertise. Their expectations rise and you’ve got to be ready to exceed those expectations at every new level.
ProTip for getting comfortable with being seen:
Instead of agonizing over your elevator pitch (though you obviously want to have one of these too), test your comfort level as often as you can by having impromptu conversations with everyone you meet. Whenever you meet someone new (e.g., in line at Starbucks, the next time you take an Uber, etc.), ask them what they do. They’ll naturally reciprocate and viola, you’ve got a conversation going. Have enough of these low-stakes conversations with strangers and you’ll feel comfortable being seen as the expert you are.
Step 3: Know What You’re Willing to “Die in a Ditch” For
Philosophers make a living arguing for (and against) controversial claims. In fact, some even seem to make a sport out of arguing for claims they don’t believe to be true (Plato called them sophists, instead of philosophers, but that’s beside the point here). Eventually, though, you get to a belief that feels unshakable.
When you find that belief, it’s a line in the sand for you. It tells me something about your core values. You would die in a ditch (okay, maybe just metaphorically), rather than let that line be crossed. Think about the confidence it takes to be able to say that about a belief. This is the confidence it takes to translate your expertise.
Now, consider an expert you respect. I bet you can recite her “die in a ditch” belief (or beliefs):
- Suzanne Evans: Money makes everything easier.
- Brene Brown: Vulnerability is key to effective leadership.
- Simon Sinek: Leaders inspire action by focusing on why they do what they do.
- Amy Cuddy: Adopting an expansive posture makes us feel more powerful.
- Tara McMullin: Your business’s values can (and should) have a direct tie to how you actually do business.
Here’s mine: Freedom is being constrained only by boundaries you create for yourself.
I work with authors who have big ideas everyday. Often these ideas are unfamiliar to others and controversial and not always well-received by the gatekeepers because they challenge the conventional wisdom within the industry.
This realization can be scary for authors too. It’s one thing to write down your “die in a ditch” belief. It’s a whole other thing to be confronted with it and expected to defend it in a moment. Translating your expertise means putting on that game face and promoting your beliefs in the face of criticism. That’s what it means to be an expert. It means that you’re ready to plant your flag and stand alone at the top.
Also, it’s important to realize being an expert is not about never making a mistake, admitting you’re wrong, or getting others to agree with your controversial claims. Translating your expertise is in the skill of being able to defend controversial claims. Often these are hard won lessons you feel moved to share with others.
ProTip for finding your “die in a ditch” belief:
Try this quick writing exercise: Imagine you are talking to your past self early in your career or even before you discovered your current line of work. What would you say to her? What advice would you give? It may take a few writing sessions for you to discover your unshakable belief, but be patient and stick with it for as long as it takes.
Steve Martin said it best when giving advice to other comedians: “Be so good they can’t ignore you.” But this makes the same assumption I made when I was an academic: other people will recognize and appreciate your brilliance for themselves.
If you really want to be the expert they can’t ignore, translating your expertise is as important—if not more important—than being the expert. I’ll have more to say about this topic on March 8th during the Inspirational Storytelling event hosted by Oak City Productions. Won’t you join us? Register here!
Photo credit: Josep Suria