Skills vs. expertise: a 12-month thought experiment

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I used to be an expert in marketing. And yesterday, I skipped the Super Bowl and didn’t watch a single $5 million commercial. I must be a fraud.

Here’s a secret: I don’t know all that much about marketing. (Shh, don’t tell anyone.)

So how the heck did I get to be an “expert?”

I started my career with good mathematical and writing skills. My job history looked like this: math grad student, technical writer, product management at a startup mathematical software company, print production manager at a publishing company, CD-ROM developer. That last led to being an analyst at a research company.

It turned out (this was 1995) that the research clients had little interest in CD-ROMs. So I analyzed media and consumer behavior. I fell into analyzing the TV industry, and got pretty good at that.

Then I collaborated with an actual social media expert on a book about social media, and became a social media analyst. When she left the company, I became the social media expert at the research company. And since most of the people using social media were in marketing, I ended up talking to a lot of marketers.

How did we persuade marketers to pay good money to listen to somebody who never took a marketing course — or even a business course? How did I end up speaking at marketing conferences?

12 months to expertise

Here’s a thought experiment. Someone tells you that you will have to give a big speech at a conference on a specific topic that you don’t know much about, and then take questions and eventually build a career around it. It could be marketing (if, like me, you were not trained as a marketer), or it could be cancer treatments, or socialism, or American football.

You have twelve months to prepare. During that time you will be very well paid and can do whatever you want. But after your big moment, you will either have a successful career, or you will be unemployed with no prospects, all based on how well you do in your big speech. What would you do with those twelve months?

Read books and blogs on the topic. Maybe take a course or two.

Obsessively read the news on your topic.

Talk to other experts. Lots of other experts. Watch them work with clients. Listen not just to the answers, but to the questions.

Talk to many practitioners. Figure out what they’re concerned about right now. Find the unsolvable problems. Make it your job to learn all about those unsolvable problems, and develop some ideas about a solution.

Write about your ideas. Get criticized for being wrong in obvious ways. Figure out how and why you were wrong, and create better ideas.

Get a partner who knows more about the topic. Develop your ideas into a speech. The partner will tell you what is wrong in your speech, and what is too obvious to include; take what remains, and refine it.

Practice. Practice. Try the speech out on some actual practitioners. Take note of their questions, what they respond to or don’t. Refine. Improve.

Now the day arrives. Get up there and fake it like your life depends on it.

Except for one thing. You’re not really faking it. You did the research. You listened to people who were just like those in the audience. You developed and refined your ideas. You had something to say, and you said it. You may not be the world’s foremost expert, but you are an expert. How do you think the actual experts got that way? They learned, just like you. The only thing that can get in your way is imposter syndrome, and if you can hold that off for a little while, everyone will believe in you.

Skills matter more than knowledge

Remember at the start of this piece when I said I was good at writing and math? That was actually the important part about how I became a marketing expert.

In my whole career, I concentrated on solving problems. I did plenty of research and logical reasoning around those problems. I also did a lot of writing. The writing and the problem-solving went hand-in-hand.

When I became an analyst, the main thing that changed is that I was solving other people’s problems, not my own or my company’s. But the process was the same — identify the problems, do primary research, assemble lots of information, analyze it, and write about the solution.

I needed to add two skills to the mathematical reasoning and the writing. I needed to learn to listen. You cannot learn without listening. If your mouth is moving, you’re not learning.

And I needed to learn to present in front of a group.

But with reasoning, writing, listening, and speaking, you can do just about anything — because you are now skilled at problem solving and sharing your solutions.

I learned to run a print production department at a publishing company.

I learned to analyze the TV industry.

I learned to help marketers.

I learned to write books.

And in the last five years, I have learned to help authors.

Here’s the thing about expertise: it fades. You need to keep honing it. I still know enough about marketing that I ghost wrote a book about it, but realistically, I’m no longer a marketing expert.

But being an expert in the same thing for decades sounds pretty boring to me.

On the other hand, if you learn how to develop expertise, you’ll have an endlessly interesting journey. I’ve been an expert in software startups, publishing, the TV industry, consumer research, social media, marketing, writing, and non-fiction authoring. It’s been endlessly fascinating.

Nobody doubts my expertise because I put in the work — I learn from every experience and I write and speak about it.

Expertise fades, yes. But skills persist: skills lead to learning, which leads to new kinds of expertise.

You could make a career out of thinking like that.

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