Workopolis, a popular Canadian job posting and company review site, published an article in 2014 exposing five words you should never use to describe yourself. Of the five, “expert” was number 3. As someone who works in online marketing, I’ve seen the “expert” title used a lot recently and have grown to hate it.
I got my start designing websites for local businesses. My first client was a small plumbing company outside Washington D.C. Before I got my hands on the site, it consisted of a phone number and a pixelated image of a faucet leaking into a puddle. In short, it was terrible.
During the redesign, I did everything – from the layout to the graphics to the web copy to the hosting. As someone with no formal training, I taught myself everything.
Since then, the scope of my services has grown substantially. I’ve developed email marketing campaigns, managed social media accounts, produced a podcast, created ecommerce stores, and managed online advertising. While these are just some of the skills in my portfolio, I couldn’t even begin to count the hours I’ve spent working to become better at my craft.
Even though I have more experience in my field than most millennial marketers who claim to be “experts,” you’ll never hear me refer to myself as an expert.
“It takes 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to become an expert.” – Malcolm Gladwell
I never knew my great-grandfather, but I’m told he spent his entire life working on the family farm. By Gladwell’s standard, my great-grandfather was an expert in farming.
However, if you were to have asked him if he’s an expert at farming, he probably would have said he knows what he knows and nothing more. He didn’t need to label himself as an “expert” in farming because his reputation spoke for itself.
“Wherever you are in your life now right, you are an expert.” – Russell Brunson
Russell Brunson, co-founder of the popular SaaS platform Clickfunnels, is also the author of the online strategy book Expert Secrets: The Underground Playbook For Creating A Mass Movement Of People Who Will Pay For Your Advice. To promote his book (and drive you further into his sales funnel), Brunson makes the claim that no matter where you are in your life journey, you are an expert in something.
While provocative and thought-provoking, Brunson is pandering to a disturbing trend within the marketing industry. These days, it seems as though people can call themselves “experts” simply because they have a little more experience than the person sitting next to them.
If this is the industry standard, then everyone can be considered an expert. And if everyone is an expert, then no one is an expert…
A baby who just took her first step is an expert compared to one that can’t yet walk. Does that mean she an expert in bipedalism?
If I can pop out a dent from my car door and you can’t, does that make me an expert in auto-body repair, or does it simply mean I know how to type a few keywords into the search bar?
There is a subtle, yet powerful, difference between an authority and an expert.
In his article titled Calling Yourself an Expert Doesn’t Make You One, prolific writer and entrepreneur Jeff Goins clarifies what it means to be an expert.
“Expertise doesn’t mean you know more than your neighbors about a certain topic. It means you know more than most people about a certain topic. It means you’ve studied your field, that you’ve spent thousands of hours mastering a craft before even beginning to tell someone else how to do it.”
I’m not saying you shouldn’t try to make money off your knowledge, nor am I saying you have to be exceptionally skilled at something to be worthy of instructing others.
What I am saying, however, is that the trend of self-described “experts” is worrisome because it has lead to a painful rise in snake oil salesmen and has eroded the integrity of what it means to truly have expertise in something.
According to Forbes.com, you need only four things to become an expert in your field:
- Teach a class
- Write a guest blog
- Talk publicly
Nowhere in this article does the author say you should change your LinkedIn title or Instagram account to include the word “expert.” Rather, the writer clarifies that the four steps can be used to “position yourself as an authority in your industry and promote your brand.” This is much different than labeling yourself as an expert.
The progression of expertise
In a night you can learn something significant that has a tremendous impact on your business. But to become an expert, in anything, you have to put in the work and have a rich history of producing results. This is a process that typically takes several years.
As the graphs show, there is an upward progression to expertise. You can’t call yourself a specialist without producing tangible results. You can’t be an authority if no one knows who you are. And you can’t be an expert without countless years of experience under your belt.
If a client refers me to a friend as his digital marketing expert, that’s fine. I’m totally okay with people bragging about my work and my accomplishments because, in their eyes, I’ve earned it. But without the experience, results and feedback to back it up, labeling myself as an expert would only risk coming off as a “total douche.”
“Sit down, be humble.” – Kendrick Lamar
In my experience, the most credible and respected people are some of the humble humans you’ll ever meet. They don’t need to label themselves as “thought leaders” or “influencers” because they let their results and reputation do the talking for them.
That’s the approach I’ve taken in my business. I don’t need to call myself an expert to drum up business or convince someone that I’m worthy of a job. My work speaks for itself, and so do testimonials from satisfied clients. Humility is not an outdated quality; rather it should be a pillar of successful businesses. People don’t trust you because you’ve labeled yourself as an “expert.” People trust you because you get them results.