Do you think of yourself as an expert in your industry? You may be more of one than you realize. In an engaging TEDx Talk, marketing consultant, Google mentor, and psychology PhD David Mitroff picks apart the question of what it takes to be an expert at something and when you should start saying that you are -- because if you don't, no one else will.
Mitroff began thinking about this after he gave a talk and two old men came up to him and said, "You're really funny. You should be a standup comic."
He wasn't so sure, but he looked up the definition of a standup comic, and read that it was someone who interacts with the audience and is dynamic and fun. "I do that," he thought. So he decided to put "standup comic" in his LinkedIn profile. After all, he figured, people who eat ice cream and post about it call themselves food bloggers, so why not?
The town where he'd met the old men asked him to return and give a second talk. On the basis of his previous talk and his LinkedIn profile, they promoted this new event calling him a consultant and standup comic. The presentation went well and the audience laughed. But an old friend of Mitroff's called him up insisting that he couldn't call himself a standup comic because he hadn't performed at places like The Improv. Mitroff pointed out that if you Googled the name of the (small) town where he'd spoken and the term "standup comic," results one through 10 were about him, on account of the promotion for his talk.
"So when are you an expert?" Mitroff asks. "Is it when others say you are? Is it when two old guys say you are or your friend says you're not? Is it when you say you are?"
We all know the reasons for not calling ourselves an expert. There's imposter syndrome, the feeling that your accomplishments are the result of luck and that you're in constant danger of being exposed as a fraud. If you believe this, then claiming to be an expert only increases your danger of being called out as a fake.
More rationally, you may also be concerned about the Dunning-Kruger effect, a well-known and widespread phenomenon in which people believe themselves to be more expert than they are. "As you start learning something more and more, you realize you know less and less and less," Mitroff says. "You've got to learn more and more skills about it."
Mitroff is not suggesting that you should declare yourself an expert on fly-fishing, for instance, after one successful fishing trip. Instead, he says, if you want to become an expert at something, do these three things:
1. Spend three years learning your topic.
"After a lot of research, and a lot of time and pain, I believe it takes three years to become an expert," he says. (He's leaving aside fields where there's a set certification path, for instance the four years of medical school followed by a residency required to become a physician.)
"Now does that mean you just wait three years and then say, 'OK, I'm an expert now'? No, you actually have to do stuff," he says. Begin by acquiring knowledge, and then keep on learning. "The research shows that experts continue to learn and educate themselves more and more and more, and they surround themselves with other people to become even more expert," he says. "You don't just become an expert and stop learning."
Think about the smartest people you know. I'm willing to bet most of them do just this. Or think about some of the smartest and most iconic entrepreneurs, such as Bill Gates and Warren Buffett. They spend much of their time reading, studying, and talking to other experts to continue expanding their expertise. If, after decades of constant learning, these guys still don't know everything they need to, chances are you won't either.
2. Build your confidence.
Being an expert won't do you much good if you never tell anyone about it. "You have to believe in yourself," Mitroff says. "You have to believe in your product, or believe in your service. You have to believe in your community, and you have to believe in what you're doing."
If you've followed the first step and put in the time to learn your topic and practice your skills, then you've already gone at least some of the way to becoming an expert. Being an expert doesn't mean that you're never wrong, it doesn't mean you know absolutely everything, and it doesn't mean that other experts will always agree with you. It means you've put in the time and work to learn as much about your topic as you can, and that you're continuing to learn more every day.
So if you've put in that time and you've learned a lot, own it! Declare yourself an expert. Don't let naysayers like Mitroff's friend get inside your head and shake that confidence.
3. Take action.
Your expertise will be of no use to anyone if all you do is sit around saying what an expert you are. So put your expertise to practical use.
As a marketing consultant, Mitroff made an astute observation: Most people who are nominated for awards don't win them, but the mere fact of being nominated brings them visibility and prestige. Armed with that knowledge, he began nominating his clients and other people he knew for awards in their fields. "Why not?" he says. "They might accidentally win sometimes, but if they don't win it doesn't matter."
Others began nominating Mitroff for awards in return, and he also began nominating himself. Along the way, he got nominated for an award as a changemaker in the city of Oakland, California, a nomination that made sense because, he says, he's given free presentations to aspiring entrepreneurs and small-business owners at Oakland City Hall more than 60 times.
Did he win the award? No. But, he says, that nomination may have led directly to his being chosen for the very TEDx Talk he was now giving.
What about you? What good things do you think might happen to you if you put in the work to become an expert, owned your expertise, and then took action?