Expert Terrain

Did your mom ever tell you that you were special? Did she hang your pictures up on the fridge? Did your dad tell you that you could do anything you wanted if you just set your mind to it?

Maybe you are special. But you know what? So are a lot of other people. I’m not kidding. Have you spent any time on this thing the kids these days are calling the “interweb”? There is so much talent out there it’s not even funny.

If you’re a writer, photographer, designer, content creator, or purveyor of fine video content, it’s a little daunting. You may have been hot stuff in your 5th grade story contest, but this is the world wide web, baby. You’re not playing with the farm team anymore.

It should scare you a little bit. Spend some time on the ubiquitous amateur photo and art sites, read some of the better blogs out there, get a read on the competition. Many of them are better than you at what you do, and they’re not even professionals. They have day jobs as statisticians and nail technicians, whatever the hell that means.

Am I talking to myself? Absolutely. There are some people out there that I just can’t help wishing I could be when I grow up. I remember one time – one shameful time – I watched a special effects video a kid put together on his home computer and I just walked away from the screen with angry tears in my eyes. That flipping kid wasn’t even out of high school yet, and I had spent four years getting my BA in Communications with a Radio & TV production concentration. I flat out did not have the skills to do what he had done. I was so pissed. That’s probably because I felt entitled.

Not anymore. Now I just work harder. I work longer. There’s no time left in my day for things like TV. Or how about video games? Man, how many years of my life have I spent chasing down a sense of virtual accomplishment at the business end of a rendered weapon. At the expense of real accomplishment. The clearer my goals become, the more stuff I push out of my schedule to make room to pursue them.

For example, I’m writing a blog post on Saturday afternoon. Who reads blogs on Saturday? Not many people. You can look at a stats chart for just about any website and see the dip on the weekend. But it doesn’t matter. I want to be writing every day, or as close to it as I can be.  I want to develop my following and my knowledge. I want people to find my content because it’s searchable and interesting. I want to be seen as an expert.

And that’s the point. None of us live in a small town world anymore. We live in a world where the bar is constantly raised by people we’ve never met. Not just people in New York, or Los Angeles, but people in St. Louis and Omaha and Aukland and Windhoek for all I know. (Windhoek is the capital of Namibia. Don’t feel bad if you had to look it up. I did too.)

Remember when everybody told you to get a college education to succeed in your career? Remember when you discovered that now that everyone else has a college education, you’re not ahead of the game, you’re just on par? Well this is just like that. Expert is the new normal. Talented people have more tools at their disposal to make their work get noticed and make a living doing what they love than ever before. And they’re out there doing it while you’re eating Fritos and watching a Chuck marathon. (It’s a great show, but SNAP OUT OF IT, MAN!!)

Mediocrity is just so…mediocre. If you want to coast in life, you can probably get by, but I’ve tried it and the results are (unsurprisingly) not very exciting. If you want a life less ordinary, a life filled with satisfaction and success, I suggest that you bust some ass and develop your expertise in something. Hopefully something that you love. Eat it, sleep it, breathe it, read about it until your eyes bleed. Talk about it. Challenge your assumptions. Be bold and go out there and make predictions and stake your claim and get noticed. Don’t pretend to be an expert and don’t you dare go calling yourself one. Prove it. Let your work speak louder than your resume. If you’re doing the right things, your CV is searchable and thus, demonstrable.

Yesterday, I participated in a workshop on crisis communications. I was in a room full of communications professionals. For most of them, communications was their full-time job. (For me, it’s only a part of what I do.) We were handed a crisis scenario and told to come up with a plan. I was nervous. I felt I didn’t have enough information. I didn’t know any of the people I was working with, and in fact was only introducing myself as the assignment was being handed out. I wanted to analyze, to hold back, to make notes and re-organize. Admittedly, I sometimes favor a defensive strategy, (nerd metaphor alert) fortifying my castle and preparing for the siege rather than scorching the earth and searching for plunder. But I saw a lack of leadership in my group and I decided I had might as well go out of my comfort zone and step up. I took the reigns, and started organizing everyone’s contributions. I wrote up a list of action items and divided it into categories (internal plan and external messages). Sensing that the pressure was off of them, the group turned to me to be the spokesman as each team presented their approach.

When I was finished, the next group that went started out by saying, “We came to many of the same conclusions you did, though we couldn’t articulate them nearly as well…” It felt good. I liked knowing I had command of the room, for just a few minutes. Like people were listening to me because I knew what I was talking about. I saw the presenters smiling at me and nodding, like when a teacher is particularly proud of a student. The woman running the workshop stopped me at the end to compliment me and thank me for my contribution.

My initial inclination had been to hang back quietly out of the worry that I wasn’t good enough, wasn’t up to the task. I usually have very good instincts, and so I tend to listen to them. But this instinct in particular has never done anything for me but keep me from achieving the things I really want. So I’ve learned to stop listening to it. And now I’m getting things done. I’m earning those little successes that build your confidence and make it easier to take a risk the next time. Everybody needs those. On the road to becoming a champion, you can afford a few losses as long as you rack up enough wins.

So my question to you is: are you ready to be an expert? To do outstanding work? To accomplish things – small and big – instead of just talking about doing it?

If not, what’s holding you back?

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