But we all strive to excel at something, and be perceived as doing so. The trick is how you demonstrate expertise and accomplishment without being christened with titles like “douchebag”. If you’re good at what you do, there are ways to communicate and exemplify your good work without having to rely on a flashy few words and adjectives to convey it.
And when you do it right, you won’t need to call yourself an expert, because other people will do it for you.
Here’s my list, but I’d love to hear from you, too.
1. Keep a Welcoming Home for Your Ideas
Keeping a home requires two things: building it, and nurturing it.
That could be a blog. It might be a forum or community you build. But the point is to give your ideas somewhere to take root, to reside, so that it’s yours to keep and tend, and for others to visit. And not unlike the home you live in, it takes constant work, investment, and elbow grease to keep it in tip-top shape. Don’t skimp. Give stuff away. Try other stuff. Put into your work every bit as much as you expect to get out of it. And invite people to join you with genuine welcome.
2. Let Them Spread.
Grabbing onto your ideas for dear life doesn’t give them wings. With the exception of blatant plagiarism, consider sharing your content and ideas liberally. Let them grow legs (check out things like Creative Commons attribution to help set the boundaries).
Don’t sweat minor misattribution, and celebrate it when ideas find purchase with someone and inspire new ideas of their own. There’s nothing new under the sun, so your ideas aren’t that original. Give them breathing room, and worry about your body of work for the long haul, not your ownership for the short term. (Unless you’re patenting flying cars. That one I’d keep to myself.)
3. Get Comfy With Individuality.
Don’t be a copycat.
Find your own voice, your own identity, your niche or your speciality. Some might even say you should get comfortable being unpopular. And wallow in YOU, up to your neck. Stop struggling to be the “next whoever”, and be the first and last someone like you. It’s okay to play in a familiar sandbox, it’s okay to collaborate with peers and be part of a community, but relish the building of your own sandcastle and the work that it takes to get there. The notables stand out. They never completely blend in.
4. Focus on the Right Accolades
A self-bestowed title isn’t where the magic is.
Be clever if you want, and if being the Director of Awesome turns your crank, give it a shot. But remember that it’s not what you call yourself that matters, but eventually, how other people remark about your work and character, and what they’re willing to tell others about you. Titles and trappings are easy to manufacture. Reputation and trust are bestowed by others, and carry much more lasting value.
5. Practice the Hard Stuff.
We love to spend time on the things we do best, because it makes us feel good, empowered, accomplished. The best in their field spend time working on the things they’re not so good at, too.
It’s a matter of balance: the honing of strengths alongside the mitigation of weaknesses. And sometimes, getting out of your comfort zone is enough to gain some momentum in a new place. Stagnation is the enemy if expertise and authority are part of your quest, because you simply never find breakthroughs when you practice the stuff you already know best.
6. Exercise Humility and Graciousness.
Even the experts don’t know it all. The most respected ones not only know that, but say so, openly. And they’re gracious about thoughtful feedback (even if they don’t agree), they’re open to new perspectives, and they embrace the notion that there’s always something left to learn.
They hunger for knowledge, and seek it out regularly. Expertise to them is a state of mind and a never-ending journey, not a finite destination, and certainly not a laurel upon which they’ll ever rest. Recognize that there are perspectives other than your own, be thankful and polite when people share with you in return, and get rid of the notion that the loudest mouth gets the most ears.
7. Share the Stage.
You’ve heard the adage that a rising tide lifts all ships, and it’s true. Share the credit. Welcome the competition and let it drive you. Share your ideas, and promote the work of others lots more than you promote your own.
Being seen as an expert is as much because you’re a gateway to information – a librarian, perhaps – rather than a miser hoarding and meting out the information all by yourself. There’s so much out there for the taking that you can’t possibly be the only source of good things, and if you’re stingy and above it all, the community will go somewhere else to get it. Demonstrate how much you value collaboration by shining a spotlight on good work in your field wherever you find it.
And more than occasionally, turn down the volume about yourself or your work. You don’t need to tap dance for attention in order for people to appreciate your work. I promise. Great resources create magnetic attraction.
8. Let Work Go Sometimes.
If you’re all about work, all the time, you become really uninteresting.
Remember, being respected is about more than being able to regurgitate facts and information. It’s about being the kind of person that other people can draw inspiration from, and that doesn’t always have to be in a professional sense. Have a sense of humor. Laugh at yourself, and be careful at whom you laugh in return. Share your personality, your interests, the dimensions of you that make you different from everyone else. Never take it too seriously all of the time. Enjoy the adventure a bit, and make people feel as though they’re along for the ride.
9. Work your Butt Off (and Be Patient)
Experts are made, not born. And they’re made over years, not weeks or months. They’re devoted to what they do, to a degree that most people are never willing to invest.
Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers, calls it the 10,000 hour rule. That’s 1.14 years. 416 days. Of dedicated time on your chosen focus, exclusively. Which means that there ain’t no such thing as just-add-water expertise. You have to work at it. Relentlessly. So instead of talking about it, you do it. A lot. You screw it up, you learn, and you do it some more. Expertise and influence based on same is a slow burn, not a flash in the pan aided by a clever campaign. It’s one helpful bit of information taught at a time, to the people that need and appreciate it, in between bouts of practice. Over, and over, and over again.
That’s my list. I think you can be outstanding and what you do, as well as respected in your field for your knowledge and your character. Expertise exists, and we all need experts in fields that are not our own. Becoming one? Hard work, devotion, practical application, and the patience to understand the breaking point between expertise that is claimed, and that which is truly earned.
What do you think?
This post is from the BTT archives, back in the good ‘ol days (sometimes before this site was even BTT). From time to time I’ll be updating and posting a few of these when the content stands the test of time and fresh commentary will undoubtedly make it as useful as ever.