Three years ago I almost made a huge mistake. I had been at Rice for a year training students to be leaders and wanted to break out and do more work outside of the university as a consultant. My only problem was that I lacked credibility outside of my immediate job. The obvious move, it seemed, was to go back to school and get a Ph.D. Then no one could deny my credibility and, combined with my strengths in presenting and teaching, I could be unstoppable.
I studied for the GMAT, began researching Ph.D. programs like a fiend, and set my sights on an August start-date for graduate school. Then I took the GMAT. I never felt totally invested in the Ph.D. idea but the GMAT was the kick in the face I needed to bag the idea. I remember walking away with such clarity that this was not the path for me. It wasn’t just the content of the GMAT. It was like all of my doubts and the incongruence I had buried came to the surface. I didn’t need a Ph.D. to be credible. I didn’t know what I needed, but I knew that wasn’t it.
I committed to pouring myself into my job, becoming an expert in my current sphere, and spreading the word about what I knew. Three things helped me build the credibility that I leveraged and continue to leverage for my current job:
1. I read a ton of content in my subject area. I read articles in leadership and management from both academic journals and from online sources like Forbes, HBR, GBJ, and others. I then shared these article, or at the very least the ideas, with anyone I could. By sharing what I found, people associated me with the content and naturally saw me as a source of expertise.
2. I quote experts in every presentation I do. There are two ways to get credentials: One is to actually get the certifications and degrees and the other is to quote the people who got the certifications and degrees. The result, at least as far as I’ve found, is that either way has the same effect. You become the expert. Here’s what this looks like in a presentation: “______ is what I experienced and this is what so-and-so said that confirms my experience…”
3. I get the word out. I’m terrible with Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter, and this undoubtedly limits my influence. But to the extent that I can I present as often as possible to groups, talk to as many people as I can, and spread the word through this blog that I have expertise that I would like to share. By simply taking the step of offering perspective and advice I am viewed as an expert.
Think about the people you consider to be experts. With the exception of a few who have dedicated their lives to studying a topic, most of them are simply people who 1. learned something, 2. applied it, 3. reflected on it, and 4. now share the results and what they learned along the way with others. It’s an amazing concept.
I love this quote: “In the land of the blind the one-eyed man is king.” When I was meeting with a friend recently who is interested in the field of leadership development he asked me how I got to where I was. What I told him was this: “The only thing that separates you and me is that I have read one more book than you, applied it, and now teach it to others.” He laughed and countered that I was underselling myself. He said, “I have a hard time believing that’s all it takes. I mean, aren’t these books available to all of us?” Before I could even answer he got it: “Yes, they are. And yet no one takes the time to read and apply them, let alone reflect on them and share the results and strategies with others?!” Really, though, isn’t this how we all get to where we are? Study, apply, reflect, share. Engineers? Study engineering, try it out, reflect on what’s working and not working, and share their skill set with their employer. Doctors? Study medicine, apply it in labs and on patients, reflect on what’s working and not working, and tell the world what they do through journals and presentations at conferences.
The formula is the same for establishing expertise no matter where you are. So if you want to be a content expert, learn about the area you are interested in, try it out in your own life first, reflect on the successes and failures and the strategies that could be applicable to others, and share it. And while you’re sharing, share this post with someone who could benefit!
Nine years ago I was pitching Beano to journalists for a living. Now I teach leadership development. How did I make the jump? I developed and practiced one simple habit, which I’ve detailed below, and it made all the difference in my career.
We often enter a career search with a fairly narrow idea of what jobs exist, brought on by theFunnel Effect. We don’t know what we don’t know! When we enter college we are presented with a limited number of departments to call home, perhaps six or seven. We declare a major, often blindly, and assume that our passion lies in one of these seven departments. Within that department we strive to narrow down our focus more, but at the end of the search we may end up with something slightly more narrow but still very broad. For example, I chose the Communications department because I enjoyed communicating and felt pretty adept at it. I then narrowed my focus to Public Relations, which, it turns out, is still a massive field that can take on a variety of appearances. In order to land where I am today, I needed to do the opposite — I needed to expand my awareness of the offerings and be more flexible. And the key to broadening our sense of what exists in the world is to develop a “habit of exploration.” But it took some time to figure this out.
Immediately after graduating I secured a job at a PR firm that gradually seemed to suck my joy. One year later, I could persist no longer. I quit my job, loaded a moving truck, eeny-meeny-miny-moe’d a map, and somewhat arbitrarily landed in Murray, Utah. We settled into a dumpy apartment and I quickly secured a job at Overstock.com as a low-level customer service representative. This job served several purposes: 1) It provided an income; 2) It felt mind-numbing and therefore drove me to earnestly seek a new profession; 3) It was simple and allowed me to store up enough energy and brainpower to spend my non-work hours vigorously exploring potential life-paths. In fact, I made a habit of informally interviewing every individual I could. I would generally ask some variation of the following questions:
The results of these conversations were fascinating and led to two very distinct outcomes: 1) They broadened my perspective of what was “out there” career-wise, and 2) I realized, and this is significant, that I was not alone. A jarring result of my dialogues was learning that virtually no one was content in their field. Many people did not feel like they were doing what they loved and an even greater number had no clue what they really wanted to do. Ironically, they would often turn the questions back on me, to which I would reply:
This “habit of exploration” was really a key to unlocking my future career path. In fact, it was while engaging in one of these conversations that I discovered the path that led me to teaching leadership at the university level and conducting training for companies and non-profit groups. An old friend introduced me to the field, arranged an informational interview, and set me on the path to where I am today.
The goal, then, with self-exploration and vocational searching is to take a rather wide spectrum of potential career paths, ranging from gardener to astro-physicist, and begin to reduce the options by filtering them through what you know to be your strengths. The end product is a fairly narrow range of possible paths, any of which will allow you to maximize your potential and all of which will yield a high degree of success and satisfaction.
So start today. Take every opportunity you get to ask people how they decided to do what they do. You’ll be fascinated by the results. Then cling to the options that seem to get your energy flowing and throw out the ones that sound lame. For what it’s worth, this habit of exploration also makes for a great conversation starter. Just today I asked my wife’s Ob/Gyn how she decided on her career path. For her, it was a volunteer position she took as a sophomore in college. Go figure.
So how did you decide you wanted to do what you are currently doing? I’m interested to hear. Drop a quick note in the comments and tell your story. You just may influence a fellow reader’s path.
Hi! I'm Dustin.
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