How Much Expertise Do You Have To Have To Specialize?

You need less than you think, but more than none.

We measure our expertise relative to the most accomplished expert in our domain, which leads to imposter syndrome. Our clients measure our expertise based on how much pain it helps them avoid or how much progress towards some important purpose is helps them make.

This means we assess our own expertise differently than our clients assess it, and this is a problem because it can hold us back from leaning all the way into ways we could serve our clients.

What is Expertise?

Because expertise is assessed in a relative way, it's hard to define. I think of skill as knowing how to do something, while expertise is knowing why to do it.

Alternately, skill is knowing how to do something, and expertise is understanding the context and the situation well enough to prescribe what should be done and explain why it sould be done. I'll readily admit this is far from a great definition, but I'm not sure anyone else has much more than an "I'll know it when I see it" way of defining expertise.

We practice an unlicensed profession, and so we don't have a standards body to certify expertise. The question of who writes the definitive book on Topic X often comes down to who is willing to do the work to think, write, possibly self-publish that book, and relentlessly promote that book.

We often operate within open, complex systems, and so attributring success to any one decision, action, or consultant is fraught with difficulty. This means that your track record is also not really proof of your expertise any more than it is proof of your luckyness or ability to survive long enough to be associated with success.

All this to say: I don't think it's possible to accurately define or measure expertise. Nevertheless, it is possible to say some things that are true about expertise, as I hope to in the rest of this article. :)

The Three Layers of Expertise

Expertise has three layers, just like the human skin.

The epidermis of expertise is thin and mostly dead. It is the domain of superficial understanding. You may be very good at knowing how to do something, but this is more like skill than expertise.

The dermis of expertise lies underneath the epidermis. It is thicker and more alive.

As you move deeper into expertise, you’ll see the ways in which skill alone is not enough to create the desired impact. You’ll learn from others who guide your skill using their expertise. You’ll see common failure points and learn to see them coming so you can avoid them in the future. You’ll get curious about what might create greater business impact, and this curiosity will lead to self-directed learning or research that expands your understanding of the context in which your skills operate. You’ll learn what stuff your clients tend to be blind to, or what assumptions turn out to be harmful later in the project when they’re harder to correct. All this happens at the dermis of expertise.

At the deepest layer of expertise -- the hypodermis -- is the domain of mastery. This is where your depth of experience and broad understanding of content blends into a systems-level understanding that includes second-order effects and predictive ability.

You can be at any of these three layers of expertise and specialize successfully. In fact, specializing is almost always required to pierce the epidermis of expertise and move into deeper layers of expertise.

Specializing functions like a hypodermic needle because it gives you the sharp focus necessary to get past the superficial questions of how and start exploring the questions of context, nuance, and systemic relationships. Unlike any hypodermic needle I've ever seen — which are always straight as an arrow — specializing can take you on a somewhat winding path after you pierce the epidermis of expertise.

Expertise and Your Potential Impact

Expertise is a tool that helps you create positive impact.

There are multiple ways you can think of impact, including:

  • Improving your client’s condition. This is Alan Weiss’ way of describing the goal of consulting, and it’s a helpful, broad way to think about impact.
  • Creating an observable – possibly measurable – change for your client. Often referred to as “moving the needle” for your client.
  • Reducing the risk of change, either a change the company has initiated (integrating new technology, for example), or external change the company is reacting to (complying with new government regulations, for example).
  • Helping a client create new opportunities, like entering a new market, for example.
  • Changing the broader culture of an industry or type of company. This is a change that’s bigger than any one business, and is often done from a position of thought leadership. As an example, you might think of how test-driven development has become a popular working method due to the work of multiple thought leaders repeatedly making a case for the value of this approach. Their thought leadership has been impactful in the world of software development.

As we cultivate deeper expertise, our ability to create positive impact also increases. Expertise alone is not enough, but it is a vital ingredient.

Deciding how to specialize is often a dance between your primary head start (the specialization beachhead that best leverages your current skill, expertise, credibility, and access) and a more aspirational or entreprenurial impulse you may be pursuing. Sometimes you'll have a great head start in terms of current skill, but you can't see a path from that beachhead to the kind of impact you're seeking.

This is the situation where you have to make a difficult decision that might lead you to discard a head start and pursue a more challenging specialization path.

Expertise and Your Current Credibility

Again, you can be at any of the three layers of expertise and specialize successfully. You do not need to be at the dermis or hypodermis of expertise in order to specialize.

Warning: If you are at the epidermis of expertise, do not compare yourself to those at the dermis or hypodermis. It will likely demoralize you, and make you feel like an un-credible fraud, and that will discourage you from specializing.

Instead, remember that your value as an expert comes from your ability to improve your clients condition, and even if you are only as expert as they are, your position as an empathetic, curious, smart outsider can often help them make better decisions.

Structural Intelligence

A good referee is structurally smarter than the players in the game. The ref is outside the action but close enough to it to observe infractions.

A good coach is structurally smarter than the player they're coaching. The coach is not inside the player's body, so they can see how unhelpful this motion or that response to a situation is and how it interferes with better performance.

A symphony conductor is structurally smarter than the first chair violinist -- or any other player. They can see and hear from a vantage point that is closer to the audience than any single player and can therefore... orchestrate... the orchestra better than any single player could.

This is structural intelligence, and it's part of what allows experts to improve their clients condition.

Being an outsider is not the same as being uninformed or willfully ignorant. It's just a different vantage point from which to see things, and it's one that often contributes to expertise. Outsiders need to work harder than insiders to overcome their structural lack of insider knowledge, but once they have they possess a real advantage over insiders.

Final Thoughts on Expertise and Specialization

You probably have sufficient skill or expertise to specialize because you don't need much expertise to specialize. In fact, specializing is the main way you would start to cultivate deeper expertise more quickly to move beyond the epidermis of expertise.

The main expertise-related issue that might prevent you from successfully specializing is a lack of enough client-facing experience. In that situation, you'll feel like you're choosing your focus blindly. You'll know what you're saying "yes" to, but you won't know what you're saying "no" to and so FOMO will prevent you from making a forceful, effective decision.

I hope that this article has helped you understand the relationship between specialization and expertise. If you're looking for more context and detail on specialization and positioning, then read my free guide to specialization for indie consultants.