It’s true that we’re all learners, we’re learning all the time (let’s hope), but it’s also true that some of us just know about some things more than others.
I know more about writing and dialogue than my engineer friends. Olympic skiiers know more about skiing than I do. I remind myself of this whenever I get uncomfortable calling myself an expert.
I first realized I was uncomfortable with the word when I took The Op-Ed Project workshop last year with 20 to 25 other hugely accomplished women, most of whom felt an aversion to the word as well.
We all introduced ourselves, spoke about our work, told each other what we wrote about or wanted to write about, and then discussed this concept of “expertise.” Almost everyone cringed at the word. Our age, career, achievements, or level of experience didn’t seem to matter. And we all did this strange thing when we introduced ourselves. We downplayed our work. So it wasn’t only that we weren’t comfortable calling ourselves experts; we weren’t even comfortable letting our work stand for itself and be good.
We all had great confidence and felt a real need to cut our confidence back the moment we displayed it. Sitting in that circle, witnessing this “2 steps forward, 1 step back effect,” it hit me: maybe I’m not comfortable with the word expert for reasons I’m not consciously aware of! Maybe I’m not an expert on what I think I know about myself (and why I like certain words and don’t like others). Then we went on to get clear about what we know (what our actual expertise is), why it matters, and how we can use that knowledge to change the world and change the world’s conversation.
Words are funny things. They mean what they mean and they mean what we want them to mean. The first 500 times I heard the word expert, I heard arrogance and a deep disinterest in learning. I felt the damage “expertise” had done in the past. For example, George W. Bush’s expertise in leadership foreign policy when he invaded Iraq! I don’t hear the word expert the same way anymore. I hear it and think confidence and clarity. Expertise, as in, “I know about this thing. I have these skills. You can count on me.”
I like this idea of taking responsibility for what I know so I can be of use. And while my initial discomfort with the word “expert” was real and is still interesting to me, it’s not as interesting as the work I seek to do in the world, the knowledge and skills I have to offer and the knowledge and skills so many other people (many of them women) have to offer. I’m interested in women using their voices more than I’m interested in asking women to be wary of the word “expertise”, effectively giving them yet one more reason to question themselves… yet another reason to be humble, humble, humble. Most of us, too many of us, seem to just really have that down.
Whether or not you have any interest in writing op-eds, you’re going to want to take The Op-Ed project training. View upcoming workshop locations and sign up here. In their own words, “We define op-ed expansively. Op-ed offers a metaphor for thought leadership, a front door into the marketplace of ideas and public conversation (and thus a strategy for change).”
Interested in learning more? Join me for one of two webcasts, May 1st or June 26th to talk authentic leadership, influence, and power. You’ll leave with a new understanding of the difference between the three and learn how you can use principles of authentic leadership to advance your career or move your projects forward, whatever your field. This will be a highly interactive discussion. Join us!
Read more posts by Lex Schroeder.