A business coach I admire recently wrote that calling oneself an expert in one’s field is, well, unattractive. Quickly (and perhaps impulsively), I immediately removed the words “relationship expert” from all of my business materials. I certainly didn’t want to be the jerky self-promoter this coach was implying I might be.
In the months since, I’ve wrestled with this decision. What’s really so wrong with proclaiming your expertise so long as you have the cred to back it up?
Don’t we look for a person who has comprehensive knowledge of or skill in a particular area (thank you, Oxford Dictionaries) when we’re seeking help? Various online sources claim the word “expert” is from the Latin “expertus,” which means, loosely, having tested, proved or experienced. And that’s just what we expect from experts — that they learn and discover better ways to do things we can’t do ourselves.
“I don’t mind if my obstetrician isn’t up to speed on the latest advances in medical technology,” said no one, ever. And don’t we want electricians to be experts in safely wiring our homes? And how about the folks who work for the FDA? Aren’t they experts in the ingredients of the foods we eat and the drugs we take? And I, for one, am quite happy with a hairstylist who is expert at cutting hair.
I’m assuming it’s not actually being the expert this coach took issue with. Maybe it’s the calling oneself an expert that feels icky to her. Maybe you shouldn’t have to tell people you’re an expert — you should just quietly go about the business of being one. And I understand that sentiment. I really do.
But there are many ways we tell the world we’re experts. Police, firefighters, judges and nurses wear clothing that distinguish them as experts. Doctors indicate their level of proficiency by the length of their white coats. Conversely, the saleswoman I approached at a home improvement store recently wore a “Trainee” tag, identifying her as someone who might not yet be able to provide the level of help customers need. We recognize other professionals — architects, therapists, lawyers, and accountants, to name a few — by the jumble of letters following their names on their business cards. And thank goodness. Those jumbled letters mean a lot when we’re looking for someone with a particular expertise.
So perhaps this business coach’s words tapped into something that went a bit deeper and darker for me than I’d care to admit. I mean, she got me thinking, “Who am I to call myself an expert?” I’m not really good or smart enough to be an expert on anything. Right? They kind of set me back a notch or two in that endless battle against self-doubt.
A client of mine is currently going for her doctorate in nuclear engineering. She’s otherworldly brilliant. But she’s nervous she won’t be granted her Ph.D. “Who am I to think I deserve this?” she asks. Why? Because she’s vulnerable to the small voice that comes from that doubting, smirking place in all of us. And nothing can tap into that place like someone asking just who the heck you think you are calling yourself an expert.
Identifying yourself as an expert isn’t the end game. It’s not the self-congratulatory final nail in your personal or professional growth. It’s simply a way of telling others you have spent countless hours of your life working toward a level of knowledge — and yes, expertise — you hope can serve them in some way. Claiming you’re an expert at something is a way of extending a proverbial helping hand. And, if we’ve lived long enough, we’re all expert at something.
Calling myself a relationship expert in no way means I believe I know everything about relationships. I never will — nor do I imagine that’s even possible. But I spend more time studying them, writing about them and researching them than the woman who owns that amazing cupcake shop down the street. And every day I’m in the trenches working with individuals and couples helping them figure theirs out. And, yes, I have to guess that makes me more of an expert on relationships than my neighbor, the website developer.
I’m not yet back to publicly calling myself an expert. That may take some time. But in the meantime, I want to thank all of those who make everyday life possible and better and safer through their expertise. And a special shout-out to all you expert air traffic controllers. Seriously, you people rock.