There are two types of expertise: functional expertise and accorded expertise. You can be an expert, then, by acquiring either functional expertise or accorded expertise, and neither one is better than the other, depending on what you’re trying to do.
Functional expertise is accrued through study, deliberate practice, and experience. While you don’t necessarily have to have mastery of a skill or domain to be a functional expert in that skill or domain, we most often associate functional expertise with mastery.
Accorded expertise, on the other hand, is accrued because some other person, organization, or institution grants you the title of expert. If you have a degree, license, or certificate from any educational organization, you have accorded expertise. I’m aware that we could get into a semantic discussion here about whether accorded expertise is really expertise or just recognition, but I think that would betray our real-world experience that we’re prone to accept someone as an expert just because someone else points to them as an expert.
Where this all goes south on us is that functional experts sometimes aren’t accorded experts and accorded experts sometimes aren’t functional experts. Many MBAs find out the hard way that they have no idea how to run a business, especially their own. Many functional experts find out the hard way that trying to get accorded expertise for what they already know is a disappointing waste of time.
And the more your life or career is off the beaten path, the more likely you are to have functional expertise that you won’t be awarded for. (Tweet this.) This simple fact explains why so many otherwise successful entrepreneurs, creatives, professionals, and leaders are so insecure about their capabilities, even when they have a track record of doing amazing things, compared to other, less successful people who have the degree, title, or stamp of legitimacy from someone else.
In the most ideal case, though, you’re an expert because you have both types of expertise. You’re good at what you do or you know what you know, and people know that you’re good at what you do or know what you know because others have said so. Alas that the world doesn’t always line up so nicely with what would be ideal.
If you’re a functional expert but not an accorded expert:
- Don’t downplay your value and expertise because you don’t have the degree, license, or certificate. Be especially mindful about undervaluing yourself because of a lack of accorded expertise.
- As best you can, pick projects that touch a lot of other people — it’s more likely that connectors and salespeople will notice your capabilities and start according you expertise.
- Understand that a degree, license, or certificate can be valuable just because it opens doors for you — it doesn’t need to make you a better functional expert for it to be worth your while to pursue.
- Last point notwithstanding, be curious about what you might learn as you go through a formal education or training program. Being curious about what you’ll learn is a sure bet that you’ll learn a lot more than you will if you’ve already decided you’re a functional expert.
If you’re an accorded expert but not a functional expert:
- Get some projects under your belt pronto. Leveraging real-world success and know-how with your accorded expertise will be a huge win.
- Be patient with yourself if you’re feeling like all of your training, education, or preparation isn’t the predictor of your success that you thought it would be. If you feel like you have no idea what you’re doing, you’re part of a very big club of people in the same boat. See #1 above.
- Network with people who have more real-world experience than you do so you can figure out how the game is really played.
- Leverage the network power of your accorded expertise. Who are other alums, graduates, participants, or candidates that you can connect with to get your foot in the door at places you otherwise might not?
Which type of expert are you? Do you want to develop more in one area than in the other?