Have you ever wanted to take a client by the collar, shake them around vigorously and demand that they take you seriously because you are the expert? If so, you are not alone. Whether you consider yourself an expert and want recognition or are looking to one day become one, you need to step back and ask why being perceived in that way is important.
Why We All Want To Be Seen As An Expert
Many of us desire to be seen as experts because we would like our opinions to be taken seriously. Others want to be respected and valued, partly to satisfy our own ego, but largely due to a belief that we know best and that things should be done our way.
However, as we will see later, being an expert is more than about getting people to listen. If that is all you can manage, then they will see through this shallow desire and not give you the status that you believe you deserve.
Respect is not the only thing we expect from being regarded as an expert. Many of us also think that we would be able to charge more and that people will line up to hire us. Unfortunately, that is not always the case. Many experts are largely unknown, even within their field, and do not demand high salaries. Being an unheard-of expert is of little value to your career.
In spite of all this, being perceived as an expert can be helpful when working with clients, and it does create the potential to attract better-quality work.
What, then, does it take to become an expert?
What Does It Take To Become An Expert?
In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell suggests that becoming an expert in any particular field takes approximately 10,000 hours of practice. For most full-time Web designers, this equates to almost four years’ worth of work.
I find this figure of 10,000 hours dubious. While I can see how this would apply to something like playing a musical instrument or a sport, I am not sure it applies to a field as diverse as Web design. 10,000 hours of Photoshop experience, for example, would not make you an expert in Web design. At most, you would be a Photoshop expert.
That said, Gladwell’s claim is right in one respect. To become an expert, you need time and experience.
Many people claim to be experts, but only few invest thousands of hours of work to become one. Image by Brett Jordan.
Time and Experience
There can be no doubt that expertise only comes with time and perseverance. It does not happen overnight, and there are no shortcuts to achieving a high level of expertise. The longer you do the job, the more you’ll see and the less likely you’ll be surprised by new scenarios.
One could argue that things move so quickly in Web design that lessons learned four years ago do not apply today. But I’m not convinced that is the case. In my experience, although technology changes, people do not. The majority of unexpected issues that arise when developing a website relates either to human error or to some element of user experience. Also, years of experience will improve your ability to solve problems. Even if the challenges are new, the fact that you have tackled so many before makes you more proficient at overcoming problems. Your methodologies and processes make you better equipped. Therefore, lessons learned years ago still stand today.
I’m not suggesting that only experience matters. For instance, I don’t believe you should require a certain number of years of experience when employing somebody. Instead, look for a desire to learn, an ability to work in your company’s culture and, most of all, passion.
I began my career working at IBM and can attest that years served is not a reflection of expertise. Too many of the people I worked with coasted through the years with no passion for their work. Without passion, they had no desire to learn new things or push boundaries.
I believe that an almost obsessive passion for Web design is required to be a true expert.
In addition, my colleagues at IBM never took risks. Experimenting and making mistakes are crucial if experts are to establish their credibility.
The Importance Of Making Mistakes
At the heart of being a true expert lies one universal truth: you need to be willing to make mistakes, and a lot of them.
Unfortunately, we don’t live in a culture that celebrates failure. We want winners, people who succeed. But success comes down not to inspiration, but perspiration. Winston Churchill put it best:
Success is going from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.
Succeeding in your chosen career and becoming a true expert requires that you fail not just once or twice, but again and again.
Failure is a crucial part of the journey to becoming an expert. As Charles Willson once said:
The definition of an expert is someone who knows what not to do.
Without failure, we cannot hope to learn the best way to do things. Although learning from the failures of others is possible, nothing beats experiencing failure first-hand.
We need to overcome our aversion of failure. We should go as far as celebrating it. Being willing to fail is a sign of maturity, bravery and a desire to do better.
Most importantly, we need to learn to face our failures. When a project goes wrong, people tend to react in one of two ways. Some of us carry on regardless, denying the issue. We pour good money and effort after bad. Knowing when to let go is so important. The others get rid of the problem as quickly as possible and pretend it never happened. But this route means that you will never learn from your mistakes. We need to take time at the end of a disastrous project to review where things went wrong and learn from it. This path can be a hard, especially when you have to deal with an unhappy client.
Those who are never seen to fail are either too timid to try, for fear of public ridicule, or simply do not desire success enough to endure the sting of failure.
You may be concerned that public failure undermines the perception of you as an expert. Although this is certainly a possibility, the public’s perception of you is shaped by more than whether you succeed or fail at a particular endeavour.
How To Ensure You Are Perceived As An Expert
Being an expert though never being appreciated as such is possible. Being knowledgeable is not enough; one also needs to be recognized for that knowledge.
This is a common problem and one you may be experiencing. You have done your 10,000 hours, made mistakes and learned your lessons. Nevertheless, your clients or boss fail to recognize the knowledge and experience you have accumulated.
How do you convince them that you are an expert and that they should take your opinion seriously?
Show Some Humility
The first step to being recognized as an expert is to stop insisting that you are one. People who are generally regarded as experts are often the last to call themselves one. In fact, they often go to great lengths to point out the limitations of their knowledge and to encourage others not to take their opinion as gospel.
People are suspicious of those who claim to be experts. Allow your knowledge to speak for itself, rather than insisting that people pay attention. But while saying that you are an expert is not wise, you could imply it in a number of ways. One of the most powerful ways is context.
Use Context to Your Advantage
If you took some modern art out of a gallery and hung it in a primary school, it could be mistaken for children’s painting. This is because context influences how it is perceived. The same is true with expertise.
Witness how managers take the opinions of consultants more seriously than their staff, even if both are saying the same thing. Consultants are paid more, and so their opinions are more highly valued.
You might not have much room to change your rate; nonetheless, you can change your context so that people value you more highly.
Like a work of art in a gallery, your expertise will be recognized if it is experienced in the right context. For example, people will give your comments more weight if you are standing on a conference stage than if you are in a pub. Likewise, your expertise will be taken more seriously if it is read in a book than shared around a conference-room table.
I often get mistaken for an expert simply because I stand on stage. Photo by Marc Thiele.
Getting a speaking engagement or a book deal requires that you first convince someone of your expertise. Conference organizers and publishers act as guardians of quality, and if these guardians have approved you, then people will assume you know what you’re talking about.
Not all of us can secure book deals and speaking slots. In this case, self-publishing, podcasting, blogging and participating in open-source projects are just a few alternatives. Standing out as an expert is easier than you think.
Not that context is everything. It’s also about what you say and how you say it.
Style and Substance
Another reason that books, presentations, blogs and podcasts are more effective than mere conversations could be that the arguments in them are better structured and more thoughtful.
How you articulate yourself is critical. While something might seem obvious to you, it is not always clear to others, particularly if the issue is recurring. When a client asks you to make their logo bigger or to fill up white space that you have so carefully crafted, being dismissive and irritable is easy because you have heard the request so many times before. Rather, carefully structure your response so that it is as convincing as possible.
That said, it is not just about substance, but also the style in which you present your arguments. An expert should speak with a quiet confidence. The truly great have little to prove, and so talk with a certain presence and authority. They don’t get flustered when someone disagrees with them. Instead, they seamlessly switch to a different approach.
If you want to be perceived as an expert, know yourself, be relaxed and present with confidence.
Unfortunately, problems will arise if the other party in the relationship already has certain preconceptions.
Establishing yourself as an expert with your current boss or client can be a challenge. When you are seen as a junior member of the staff, their opinion won’t change overnight. Fortunately, you can do a couple of things to help shift that perception.
First, present evidence to support your positions. If your boss is worried about content being below the fold, show them a report on scrolling behavior.
Secondly, quote established experts who support your case. Jakob Nielsen, for one, has written extensively on the topic of scrolling.
These techniques have benefits beyond just supporting your argument. They also demonstrate how well read you are in your field. Also, by demonstrating that your position is in line with that of other experts, you build your credibility by way of association. Their expertise rubs off on you!
Unfortunately, there is no quick way to overcome biases. This is hard for those who work regularly with the same people. But over time, by consistently demonstrating your expertise and using the techniques mentioned above, you can change their view.
With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility
The focus of this article is on becoming an expert. But before concluding, I want to say a word about what happens when you finally achieve your aim.
Once you gain the respect of your clients, boss or peers, what next? Becoming an expert has to be about more than having an ego trip. Rather, it should always be about serving others. You become an expert so that you can do a better job for your clients, provide more value to your organization and help others establish best practice in your industry. Ultimately, if all you want is to be loved and respected, you will never achieve your aim. People can detect that kind of narcissism a mile away and will dismiss you as vain.
That said, being taken seriously is important in our line of work. If we are not taken seriously, then good websites can go bad. I am sure you will share in the comments stories of how Web projects have gone wrong because people didn’t listen to you. But hearing some experiences of how you convinced bosses and clients to take you seriously would also be nice.
Cover image credit: Aural Asia
© Paul Boag for Smashing Magazine, 2011.