Expert (n,v): having, involving, or displaying special skill or knowledge derived from training or experience.
- Merriam-Webster dictionary
An expert is someone who knows more than you.
- Common saying
These definitions should already have your gears turning: an expert is not someone who knows everything about a particular topic. To be a Twitter expert, you need not have been an early adopter, or spend 80% of your time tweeting and twiddling. A marketing expert doesn't always have experience in the corporate, nonprofit, and government sectors, or working at an agency.
To be an expert, rather, you have to understand the big idea behind something and how to put it into practice. That's it. So how do you get there? By identifying the skill or knowledge you seek and taking the time to learn.
We often become accidental experts throughout our career, gleaning information from our experiences as we go. Sometimes, the need for expertise is more poignant--it will enable us to compete for an exciting new project, say, or stay cutting-edge with new marketing trends. In either case, we can learn from trusted sources of information, then understand by doing.
The information piece: it can be shockingly easy to find what you're looking for. Articles, presentations, webinars and e-books exist on every topic under the sun, and that's just on the web! Of course, it's a resource to use wisely--you have to know your content farms from your conscientious sources. But one good article can give you a solid, working understanding of a particular approach or new medium. I can honestly say that reading one e-book got me up to speed with aggregators, and I learned everything I know about nonprofit annual reports from nonprofitmarketingguide.com and gettingattention.com.
The other obvious source of "special skill or knowledge" is the rich network around you. As I mentioned in my last article on Reciprocity, most entrepreneurs are more than willing to share a piece of their knowledge with you. You can also take advantage of local continuing ed classes, conferences and individual coaching.
After you find the information you seek, the trick, of course, is applying it. Sorry--no shortcuts there. But don't apply an arbitrary timeline to becoming an expert. Some might say it takes a lifetime, others about six months. If it's a simple topic, it might take a weekend. The important part is not to oversell your skills before you are confident about them. Be honest about the body of knowledge you are developing--it will make you sound as enthusiastic and forward-thinking as you are--and go for it.
So are you an expert? Maybe! If you understand a concept well enough to truly help your client, then yes. If you have taken the time to learn and practice something (even if it can still be baffling sometimes) then yes. I will always advocate for experience being the best teacher, and I have the utmost respect for 20-year veterans of any field. However, you can start becoming a functional expert on a topic that matters to you now--don't let fear hold you back.