Dear experts, ninjas and gurus … are you really?

23 Nov

Hi, I’m Heidi, and I’m not an expert.

Which makes me part of the 0.0001% of all people currently blogging, tweeting, posting and consulting—that is, the tiny minority of folks who don’t claim to be experts.

Or ninjas. Or gurus. Don’t even get me started on how clichéd these labels are.

My friend Nancy Brady pointed out that virtually everyone on social media claims to be an expert on social media (she, by the way, is one modest exception). But in the next 15 minutes, let’s look at three ways of establishing expertise:

10,000 hours – In Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, he points to both the Beatles and Bill Gates as success stories because they amassed 10,000 hours of practice and experimentation in their chosen fields.

The 10,000 Hour Rule is usually attributed to the research done by Dr. Anders Ericsson in the early 1990s. He and his team divided students into three groups ranked by excellence at the Berlin Academy of Music and then correlated achievement with hours of practice.

They discovered that the elite had all put in about 10,000 hours of practice, the good 8,000 and the average 4,000 hours. No one had fast-tracked. This rule was then applied to other disciplines and Ericsson found that it proved valid. (Learn more about this in the complete article.)

I can’t claim to be an expert in social media based on this metric, and so I don’t (I really don’t think playing on Facebook counts). Regardless of my Klout score, I’m still an explorer seeking new knowledge, not a master with nothing more to learn.

I will, however, claim to be an expert writer—in seven years as a journalist, I wrote about 1,400 stories. Add to that a novel and a half, a media relations handbook, poetry, short fiction and scores of letters and personal correspondence, and I’m confident I’m well over the 10,000 hour mark.

Nineteen books – some claim that to become a subject matter expert, you must read at least nineteen books within that given area of expertise. That makes sense—consider what you are expected to absorb in college.

I’d heard of this line long ago, so when I changed my career focus from journalism to marketing, I dove in, intent on digesting at least nineteen books immediately.

This paid off—I was immediately able to speak a language that I hadn’t learned in my journalism classes. I kept track of the books I’d read (now well over forty titles), and then I supplemented the most significant books with dozens of five-page book digests from getAbstract (thanks to Colliers University). The five pages are more than enough to pull out key ideas and help me decide whether to read them in greater depth.

I also used the same strategy—choosing 20 core books and reading abstracts on others—to quickly ramp up my knowledge of customer service for my company’s service excellence initiative. And I did the same thing before becoming a parent for the first time.

When people look to you as the expert on a subject, you’d better be a well-rounded one—it’s not enough to be that teacher who simply stays one chapter ahead of the class.

Knowledge + Skill – True expertise is a combination of both what you know (information you absorb through learning) and what you practice (abilities you hone by doing). So it’s not just nineteen books’ worth of knowledge, or 10,000 hours of practice to create skill—I think expertise must be a combination of both.

Would I be a writing expert if I had 10,000 hours of practice but no formal training in grammar? I don’t think so. Would I be a marketing expert if I’d read nineteen books, but had never worked in the field? Fuhgettaboutit.

Expertise is knowledge and skill. It’s learning the body of work that came before you and then applying it with your own creative talents. Are you an expert? It’s a tall order, I know, but nothing’s stopping you from gaining more information and practice to be able to eventually—legitimately—claim that title. GO

P.S. I’ve seen professionals approach their local marketing staff and say, “I want to be an expert in Green Building. Can you make me a flyer that says that?”

Once my laughter dies down (ahem, you want a print flyer to advertise your green practice?) I really want to make the point that you can’t market yourself into being an expert. One blog advises, in How to Position Yourself as a Subject Matter Expert, that you should focus on networking, social media, blogging, newsletters and “Offer exciting promotions!”

Hold your horses. While I support communicating your market identity to the world—it’s critical to your success—I would hope we all spent at least ten times as much effort actually building our expertise. Copyblogger has a great post about becoming and expert, or try eHow’s suggestions.

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