Is it ever safe to call yourself an expert?

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Of all the overused, hyped-up marketing nouns out there, “expert” has to be near the top of the heap.  It is used so often that people have (rightfully so) become very suspect of the word.

An interesting thing happens, however, to many perspective entrepreneurs … they feel so frightened about calling themselves an expert that they think they have to obtain 20 years of experience and a post-doctorate to even be considered credible.  I think this is counter-productive, as most successful entrepreneurs build expertise and credibility bit by bit.

So to shake you out of your “I’m not worthy” mode, here are some alternative “expert” definitions:

The “no one would call them an expert because they are too young but they really are an expert” expert

John Trosko (more on him in a minute) showcased a perfect example of this on his blog, featuring the very enthusiastic “folding expert” Ben Zweig (The original source was from Lifehacker.)  What Ben lacks in years on the planet, he makes up with exuberance, charm and a true knack for making a great instructional video.

(BTW, this is the first time I have ever inserted a video into my blog and I am really stoked I figured it out!)

The “low on training or formal education but high on results” expert

30-minute meal cooking phenomenon Rachel Ray is a perfect example of this.  She was not formally trained at an elite cooking school or 5-star restaurant, she honed her skills while preparing food demonstrations in a mall.  I am sure there are Cordon Bleu-trained chefs who watch her show and cringe.  In the meantime, she perkily flings food around her kitchen on her way to a multi-media empire.  It doesn’t hurt to have Oprah as a backer, but I do believe that it was a lot of her own ganas (inner fire, drive) that got her noticed by major media.  She is a master at being open, friendly, accessible and practical, and this adds to her appeal.  While I may not call her an expert chef, I would call her an expert at bringing simple, quick and healthy food preparation to the masses.

The “been there done that” expert

This kind of expert has learned a tremendous amount from real life experience, not formal education.  They often share their expertise through analogies and examples, not textbook citations.  Sometimes the experts from this area gain experience in areas outside of work, for example the child abuse expert who grew up in an abusive household.

The “been to the right schools and has the right advanced academic degrees” expert

They do exist, and thank goodness.  There is real value in seasoned, well-read and analytical experts who know volumes about their subject matter.  The caveat I would propose for experts with this pedigree in the business world is that they should be able to demonstrate results from all of their book smarts.  All of us have probably come across a cultured genius with more letters after their name than in their name who is also a tremendous windbag.  The key is not just knowing a lot about a given field, but knowing how to apply what you know in a practical business situation.

The “has a combination of academic and ‘been there done that’ experience along with a boatload of enthusiasm” expert

This is where John Trosko of Organizing LA serves as a good example.  It is clear from his bio that he has lots of professional experience, but the vibe that comes off his blog by virtue of the colors and images is of high energy and enthusiasm.  I am an organizing nerd by nature and a Virgo to boot (which means I give anally retentive a new meaning), but even if I wasn’t, I think I would enjoy reading John’s thoughts on organizing.

My aim at giving some texture to the definition of the word “expert” is to encourage new entrepreneurs to expand their view of what it means to be credible.  It is ok to stand up and say with pride “I really do know and care a lot about this subject and you should listen to me!”  If you have the results to back it up, you have just as much right to say this as does a post-doctorate from Stanford.

10 Responses to “Is it ever safe to call yourself an expert?”

  1. Tig Wallis says:

    I’m reminded of the words of Jeffrey Gitomer: “I’m not an expert on sales, I’m an AUTHORITY on sales.”

  2. Different Types of Experts

    Pamela Slim has an interesting post in her blog Escape from Cubicle Nation talking about different types of experts. These alternate definitions describe entrepreneurs and professionals that may not have extensive academic background or d…

  3. Kian Ann says:

    Nice one! Hahas… and its true. Everyone is calling themself and “expert”! And I love your categorizing!

    That said, I think it works for marketing isn’t it? Afterall, if one party says he is a “wiget repair expert”, and another says he is a “experienced widget repair man”, which sounds better?

  4. Pam this is an excellent post and inline with my thoughts on personal branding on my blog (my typekey profile doesn’t work, http://www.JibberJobber.com/blog). I agree with the comments even though they may seem conflicting. But I love how, in your last paragraph you switch from “expert” to “credibility”… I encourage people to develop credibility, and the title of expert or guru will follow… and if you really are an expert, you will be uncomfortable when people call you an expert (that’s how I am, anyway).

  5. John Trosko says:

    Hi Pamela!

    Thank you for including me on your conversation– great topic!

    I’ve really looked at this “expert” thing and I agree with what you say, and I also agree with some of the comments. I sought out early in my small business career to align myself with experts and to become one myself. I’ve worked hard. But the longer I’ve been in business, the more I realize what I DON’T know. And that need to become an Expert (rather than just being one) is that you keeps me pushing and growing. So I agree with Michael’s Henry Ford quote above.

    Michael Port wrote an article recently on his blog about the Wall Street Journal calling him a Marketing “Guru” and he was very uncomfortable with that title.

    It’s a quick read– and worth the two seconds:

    http://blog.bookyourselfsolid.com/2006/09/wall_street_jou.html

    — John

  6. I always liked, what Henry Ford had to say about the issue:

    None of our men are “experts.” We have most unfortunately found it necessary to get rid of a man as soon as he thinks himself an expert — because no one ever considers himself expert if he really knows his job. A man who knows a job sees so much more to be done than he has done, that he is always pressing forward and never gives up an instant of thought to how good and how efficient he is. Thinking always ahead, thinking always of trying to do more, brings a
    state of mind in which nothing is impossible. The moment one gets into the”expert” state of mind a great number of things become impossible.

  7. Lee Cockrell says:

    On the other hand, at least in technology, calling yourself an expert is a surefire way to a) paint a target on your back, and b) encourage people to ask you the hardest, most obscure questions they can.

  8. Great post, Pam. I’m always intrigued by how relatively little it takes to be called an expert on a particular topic. These days, it seems, all you need is a book or a blog. I think it’s important to look at the total set of credentials when considering taking an expert’s advice, including education, experience (work and life), and current activities.

  9. PunditMom says:

    Great info and inspiration this morning, Pam. I often wonder as I’m writing, “But what do I have to offer in the way of expertise?” I need to remind myself more often that it doesn’take a Ph.D in a certain topic to be an “expert.”

  10. NLG says:

    Hi Pam, thanks for the article, very informative and as usual, very encouraging to the young entrepreneurs out there!

    I guess the next step is to stop doubting oneself. If you beleive in what you know, and are confident about it, thinking of yourself as an expert should come naturally.

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