During a recent visit to the dentist, my
hygienist Anne asked about my recent speaking tour in California. When I
told Anne I'd spoken on the Impostor Syndrome to over 600 people at four
universities, including Stanford, her response was, "Wow, you must be a real
expert." While that term doesn't always resonate with me, I suppose I am an
But what does it mean to be an "expert"?
Naturally you do need to know something about the topic at hand. But how
much knowledge do you actually need to consider yourself an expert?
The Expert Trap
If you've ever read a job description and
automatically disqualified yourself because you didn't have one or two out
of a long line of competencies or the necessary experience, passed on an opportunity to
speak on or otherwise showcase your knowledge because you "don't know
enough," or not started your own business because you are not yet "an
expert" then you may have fallen into the Expert Trap.
The common belief that you need to know 150
percent before you're remotely qualified to step up the plate is a huge
dream stopper. Striving to be THE expert is the knowledge version of
perfectionism. And as with perfectionism, going for total knowledge can at
best slow you down and at worst bring your dream to a screeching halt.
The problem for people who fall into the
Expert Trap is that they suffer under the misconception that there's some
clear line of demarcation between expert and non-expert and that they'll
somehow know when they've reached it. We tell ourselves, "If I can
just get enough knowledge, experience, or training, then I'll be an
And herein lies the rub you can never know
it all. It's like the commercial where a man beams that he's reached the end
of the Internet. What makes the ad funny is its absurdity. The Internet is
so vast and ever-changing that if you lived a thousand years you'd never
reach the "end." It's the same with knowledge. There is no end. You can
add to your understanding of a subject but there will always more to
You're especially prone to the Expert Trap if
you mistakenly believe that competence and expertise are one and the same.
The belief that, "If I were really competent, intelligent, qualified... I
would know more" keeps far too many people from striking out on their own.
A lot of men fall victim to this same
self-limiting thinking. Yet my early research, coupled with twenty-plus
years of anecdotal evidence, suggests women are more prone to equate
competence with knowing it all.
Apparently I'm not alone. A few years back I
wrote a letter to the editor. In it I described how a man who finds himself
confronted with something he's never done before is more likely to "wing it"
while a woman in the same situation often expects herself to know it all up
A week after my letter appeared I got this
email from Dan Pink, author of Free Agent Nation and A Whole New
I just read your letter-to-the-editor in
Fast Company. Great work! My hunch
speaking as a male all too willing to opine without sufficient facts is
that you're spot-on. That at least is what I discovered during several
hundred interviews with independent workers over the last two years...kudos
again on telling it like it is!
Just to be clear expertise in and of itself
is not a myth. After all, we all know people who are undisputable experts in
their respective fields. The myth is:
believing that being an expert means you
have to know everything there possibly is to know about a subject
believing you will someday be able to
announce triumphantly that you have reached the end of knowledge and are
believing that if you don't know
everything there is to know, then you know nothing at all
believing our inner voice when it says,
"If I were really smart, then I would know how to do this."
Not only is it humanly impossible to "know it
all," but the misguided pursuit to do so can kill a dream before it ever
begins. As Suzanne Falter-Barns asks, "How many of us linger forever in
endless training and classes, waiting to get really good at something before
we plunge a single toe into the submission/rejection pool?"
Just as with perfection, the pursuit of
expertise can become a convenient excuse for never moving forward. The
reality, says Falter-Barnes, is that "You cannot become a master until you
actually take the leap, do the work, make several thousand mistakes, and
live to tell about it." Adding, "Experience is truly the only thing that
makes experts so expert."
Finally, next time you're rattled by not knowing it all, let yourself off
the hook by remembering the wise words of Mark Twain who said: "I
was gratified to be able to answer promptly. I said, I don't know.'"
Click here to read part 2 of this 2 part series.
like this article?
Read more free articles about Changing Course.
About the Author
"Profiting From Your Passions®" expert Valerie Young abandoned her corporate cubicle to become the Dreamer in Residence at ChangingCourse.com offering resources to help you discover your life mission and live it. Her career change tips have been cited in Kiplinger's, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today Weekend, Woman's Day, and elsewhere and on-line at MSN, CareerBuilder, and iVillage.com. An expert on the Impostor Syndrome, Valerie has spoken on the topic of How to Feel as Bright and Capable as Everyone Seems to Think You Are to such diverse organizations as Daimler Chrysler, Bristol-Meyers Squibb, Harvard, and American Women in Radio and Television.
You may re-print these articles electronically, in print, or on your website providing the
byline appears at the end of each
A courtesy copy of your publication would be appreciated. If your publication is sent via email send a copy to
publication is mailed, please mail to Changing Course,
7 Ripley Road, Montague, MA 01351. If you publish the article(s)
on a website, please email us a link to the article.