Define “recognized authority”—it’s almost a dare, isn’t it? It has the same tone as “Who do you think you are?”
There’s an adage that says you’re never a hero in your home town. Or, as Rodney Dangerfield would say, “I get no respect, I tell ya. No respect.”
Different fields have different standards and no standards are squishier than those of internet fame.
But I really bristle (and have been known to growl) when I hear someone say, “You’re an expert when you know more than the person you’re teaching” or that you can become an “instant expert.” Um. No. Being perceived as an expert does not make you one. Which is why so many big-name gurus are crying to expensive therapists.
Let’s break it down because there are really two components we are working with here: Recognized and Authority.
Recognition is Easy
The recognized part is fairly easy. It’s a matter of getting the word out about yourself. Where anyone can be anything on the internet, becoming a recognized authority is too often a matter of having good marketing.
I can rent a Lamborghini, park it in front of a mansion I’ve rented for the day, hire a gorgeous model (I’m going to call him Raul, just because), and do a photo shoot. Plaster those pictures all over my website, Instagram, Twitter, and do an ad spend on Facebook, and next thing you know, well, I’m the next big thing. It helps even more if you get some of your bro and sister-marketer friends to say how wonderful you are, but it’s not absolutely necessary.
These are the people you see who come out of nowhere and suddenly they are everywhere. They’ve written a book (and they’ll send it to you free with shipping and handling) or they have a brilliant online course that will make you rich and famous in 30 days. Sign up for their free webinar now.
Having written that down, I’m wondering why I don’t just do that. F*cking ethics.
So yeah. Take out ads, give speeches, write a book (or have someone ghostwrite it), publish articles, do workshops and trainings. All these things can bring you recognition. But they don’t make you an authority.
Authority Can’t Be Faked… For Long
There are some fields where sure, you can fake it til you make it. There’s a low barrier to entry. That means no one is standing at the gate checking to make sure you have a master’s degree in business or basket weaving.
It’s hard to fake being an authority on brain surgery. Or flying the Stealth Fighter. You have to put in the hours, do the work.
The idea that 10,000 hours of practice leads to “greatness” was popularized in Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers: The Story of Success. But it was, like most things, oversimplified and misinterpreted. (Here’s a cool article from The Guardian that explains it.) Practice does not make perfect. If you practice the wrong thing or if you practice the right thing wrong, you will not gain expertise. Ten thousand hours as a target goal is not written in stone. Some people gain expertise more quickly; some never gain it. It is often a matter of starting early (think of sports like ballet or gymnastics) or having the right coach and training program, a freakish ability to use oxygen efficiently, or in most of our cases, doing the actual research. Expertise can also depend on the intelligence of the person who wants to acquire it, their imagination and creativity. We can spend our lifetime studying the Theory of Relativity but could we have come up with it? Maybe you, but not me.
Becoming an authority takes education, whether it is from an institution, online course, or self-taught. It takes experience: actually doing the work, sometimes failing, figuring out the how and why you succeeded. It takes time. Maybe not 10,000 hours of time, Maybe 3,500 hours. Or 15,000 hours. It depends on what you’re becoming an authority in.
The Dunning-Kruger Effect
There was a lot of chatter about Dunning-Kruger Effect on social media the past few years, usually used to point out people who thought they knew something about a topic but in fact, did not. Basically, it was used to point out that stupid people don’t know they’re stupid because they’re stupid. (I love the circularity of that statement. No lie. It delights me in a stupid way.)
Dunning and Kruger hypothesized that all people, at all levels, are poor judges of their ability, for better or worse. (And yeah, the actual study really parses all aspects of this.)
But there’s a flipside to Dunning-Kruger. The Dark Side. (Cue: ominous music.)
The Dunning-Kruger Effect can also apply to people who are actually well-versed in a subject, but don’t think they know enough to be an authority. Imposter Syndrome, if you will. As it turns out, most people are pretty good judges of their own competence in relation to others. The other 6% are taking pictures in front of mansions and buying ads on Facebook.
Becoming a Recognized Authority
In my experience and in my tendency to over-generalize, too many totally unqualified people have no problem claiming they are recognized authorities and too many qualified people doubt themselves. In my own field, I have seen people publish one book independently, then put themselves out on the internet as book coaches and publishing mavens. I know others who have published well over twenty books and have been writing professionally for decades who don’t see their own expertise.
You don’t have to be the world’s top expert to put yourself out in public as an authority. You don’t need to have decades of experience. You don’t need to have made millions of dollars (unless you’re showing people how to make millions of dollars).
But you do have to know your business. You do need to have some training and experience. I tell my clients that writing a book helps you to be seen as an authority. (“There’s a reason why authority starts with author.”) But to write a book, you need to have enough knowledge to fill those pages. Most people who work with ghostwriters have the subject knowledge; they don’t have book writing expertise. That’s okay. You do you.
But there are others who hire someone to research and ghost a book on a topic they know nothing about and then they put themselves “out there” as an expert on that topic.
In today’s media landscape, when most people don’t know how to define recognized authority, becoming a recognized authority is easy to do. Often too easy. But for your sake and the sake of people who will put their trust in you, work on the authority part of the equation first.