How to Take Ownership of Your Expertise
Harnessing your knowledge to help others
If you’re anything like me, there’s a good chance that at some point (or perhaps quite frequently) you’ve deferred to someone else whose title or credentials made them more of an “expert” than you, even though you knew the answer.
The tendency to do so is entirely natural. After all, we typically understand that someone who is considered an expert has earned the right– either through pedigree or experience — to be an authority in their field.
Yet, as natural as this tendency may be, it’s also a surefire way to undermine your self-confidence, limit your opportunities for learning, and diminish the influence that you can have in a given situation. When you learn to take ownership of your expertise, you flip this paradigm on its head. Owning your expertise is a process of learning to trust yourself, asserting yourself with confidence, and leaning into opportunities for growth.
What it Looks Like to Own Your Expertise
At my day job, I work for a tech company. We use Slack to connect global offices and remote employees, and it is our primary method of knowledge sharing. When someone encounters a customer question that they aren’t able to answer on their own, they post the question in Slack in hopes that someone else will have the knowledge or experience necessary to solve it.
For months, I would watch as questions came in about blogging tools. I used that part of our software constantly, and it would have been fair to say that I knew it inside-out. And yet, even when I was reasonably sure that I could answer someone’s question, I refrained. More than once, I would type up an answer only to erase it before hitting submit. There was a nagging voice in the back of my mind reminding me that there were Specialists and Experts for that part of the tool, and it was their place to provide the answer, not mine.
It became a habit to read questions, formulate the answer in my mind, and then silently defer to someone whose title made them better suited to provide a solution.
Because I did not see myself as an expert, I did not see myself as being qualified to help even though I knew I could. As a result, I found that I was also second-guessing myself with the same questions when I would work with customers. If I didn’t see myself as qualified to help one of my colleagues with an issue, why should I see myself as qualified to help myself with the same question?
Luckily, one of my colleagues is a master at positive peer pressure, and when a position to be an Expert opened up, she convinced me to apply. It was like someone had flipped a switch. I could envision myself as an expert in that field, and I no longer hesitated to jump in and provide assistance. If I saw a question I knew the answer to– or knew how to figure it out — I was there to help. My workday suddenly shifted; I structured my day in a way that I was spending as much time helping my colleagues as I was helping my customers.
Throughout this period of seeing myself as a potential expert, I was pursuing expertise, and this pursuit of knowledge superseded my fears that I wasn’t qualified. As a result,
- I Learned a ton about my field. I felt confident enough to dig deep into questions and expanded the scope of my knowledge into territories I would have never been exposed to otherwise.
- I felt more confident in all aspects of my job. Rather than feeling like I needed to default to someone else with difficult questions, I felt empowered to explore and uncover the answers on my own.
- I grew my brand. I work remotely, so I don’t get to spend time directly interacting with my colleagues. It’s easy to fall off of others’ radars when you don’t see them regularly, and yet because of my involvement and willingness to provide support to my colleagues, I developed an in-office reputation. I even had people messaging me to ask if they could come by my desk to ask me a question, not realizing that I wasn’t there with them.
Nothing about me had changed. I hadn’t gone back to school for courses in computer science or marketing, and I didn’t even have the title of Expert (I do now, however). Instead, I saw myself as someone who could be an expert, and my actions aligned with pursuing expertise and growth.
When we claim our expertise and pursue mastery within our lives, we break down the mental barriers we’ve subconsciously put in place that limit our growth. We can’t expect to grow if we see challenges as tasks that someone else should accomplish. By deferring to someone else when we can step in, we are creating a narrative for ourselves that we can only climb so high; that there’s a threshold of success that we cannot cross.
Claiming your expertise is about leaping gleefully across that threshold and declaring to yourself that you have as much potential and capability as anyone else.
The Three Key Steps to Claiming Your Expertise
Whether you want to feel more confident in the workplace (like I was), struggling to get in shape, wanting to be a better parent, or trying to become a novelist, the more you reject your expertise, the longer you’re going to remain a novice and doubt in your abilities.
If you want to embrace and develop your expertise, here are the steps you should be taking:
- Reframe mistakes and knowledge gaps. At the core of claiming your expertise is adopting a growth mindset. With a growth mindset, making a mistake or encountering a question you don’t know how to answer isn’t a setback. Instead, it’s an opportunity to utilize your resources, conduct research, and experiment until you’re able to come up with the answer. In my office, I have a felt letterboard with the message “Be Wrong More” for this very reason. Leaving reminders like that for yourself can be a great way to start breaking down that voice of ego that dreads being wrong and replacing it with a gentler voice that reminds you to grow.
- Never skip an opportunity to grow. Your opportunities to grow aren’t always going to present themselves as mistakes or questions you can’t answer. Sometimes, you also have to seek them out, and being proactive about finding these opportunities is easier than you may initially think. If you want to develop your project management skills, for example, ask your manager if there are any department projects on the backburner that you can spearhead– in my experience, managers are thrilled when one of their employees wants to do more to help the department. If you find that you’re plateauing at the gym because you don’t feel confident trying out new or more challenging exercises, do a quick Google search to learn about the targeted muscle groups and the correct form. That way, you can practice strengthening those muscles through other exercises, or you can attempt a few sets with a naked barbell to get used to the motions. Whatever the target destination, if you don’t take steps in that direction, you’re never going to get there. So start taking action.
- Integrate it into Your Identity While this is the most nebulous step, it’s also the most important. At the core of claiming your expertise is to start seeing yourself as an expert. You may not have the experience or credentials of an expert in the traditional sense, but if you use that as an excuse not to view yourself as an expert, you’re only further limiting your growth. Begin to embrace the fact that you know what you’re doing, and that you’re willing to learn when you don’t know. Your growth mindset is your pedigree; your aptitude for learning is your resume. You have permission to celebrate your strengths, and in embracing them and seeing yourself as who you want to be, you’ll find that you’re naturally becoming that very person.
None of this is to say that someone can walk in off the street and perform brain surgery because they believe in themselves, or that you’ll be able to get rich overnight because you see yourself as a millionaire. Instead, it is the key to excelling in the areas of your life where you’ve already begun investing time and energy. It’s a method for taking the skills that you have and energizing the learning process. In doing so, you challenge yourself and awaken excitement for the tasks you may currently find dull.
So, how will you claim your expertise? What are the areas of your life about to get a lot more interesting?