Career Power-UpCareer Skills

Subject Matter Experts Don’t Make These Three Mistakes

By Paige Kassalen

Being recognized as an expert is an exciting career milestone. You’ve put in the time, learned as much as you could, and now you are ready to share your wisdom with the world.

Many times, young professionals strive to be generalists early in their career. This creates a solid foundation while you’re exploring all the directions your career can go. As you gain more experience and start to move down a certain career path, you build up your level of expertise.

Eventually, we will all be known as experts in some aspect of our careers, but reaching that level can come with challenges. We spend decades of our lives working, so we need to make sure the path we are on to become an expert is going to set us up for success.

On the journey of becoming an expert, it is important to avoid making these three mistakes:

Getting Pigeonholed in the Wrong Domain

Just because we can do something doesn’t mean we have to, especially if it is not in line with our career goals.

It is important to strategically think about the recurring responsibilities we take on, because we can become the go-to expert in something without even realizing it.

In one job, I took on a recurring task of generating quarterly reports for my team. It was not a hard task, but it was something that needed to get done, so I was happy to help.

The first couple of reports were learning opportunities, because I had to think through the best ways to automate data gathering and present the information in a digestible way.

The problem was that I started to notice a lot of people would send me documents that were not finished and requested that I help them make it look better because they “weren’t good at that.” I started feeling a bit pigeonholed as an expert in an area I was not passionate about.

Being pigeonholed is not a bad thing if you’re passionate about it and it is in line with your career goals. As you are working to become an expert, take the time to reflect on the direction you’re moving, and if it will set you up for the career you want.

Having an Ego

Being an expert is great, but having an ego is not.

It’s important to be aware of your ego, because it can limit the reach your expertise can have. We’ve probably all been in scenarios where someone makes us feel “less-than” because they are using highly technical terms the average person wouldn’t understand, even when asked to simplify their message. Another scenario is when you’re in a meeting, just trying to accomplish a certain task, but someone keeps bringing up millions of obscure nuances on a topic in which they are an expert.

These situations are not productive, and usually result in lack of collaboration with experts.

When I start getting the urge to chime into a conversation, I first ask myself, “why do I want to share this piece of information?” If the answer is ever “because I want people to know that I know a lot about the topic,” then I quickly put myself back on mute.

Awareness is the first step to prevent your ego from slipping through. As experts, our goal is to share our expertise, so we need to make sure we are someone others want to collaborate with.

Getting Too Comfortable

The Institute for the Future published finding showing that “85% of jobs that will exist in 2030 haven’t been invented yet.” If 85% of future jobs have not been invented yet, what does that mean for the experts of today?

As you go through your journey of becoming an expert, you are placing a bet that your expertise is going to be valued over the course of your career. The good thing is that these needs do not change overnight, so it’s important to look out for signals and prepare yourself in advance for what you’ll do if your expertise is no longer valued in the same ways.

Do your research and stay on top of industry trends. Also, attending conferences and networking with other like-minded people can help you get a sense of when it might be time to pivot, and provide you with the network needed to do so.

We will all become experts in our own domains, and we want to look back on our careers being happy with the decisions we made and the impact we had.

Don’t let yourself get pushed into developing expertise in a field you’re not passionate about, maximize your reach by controlling your ego, and make sure you are aware of industry changes that could impact the value of your expertise.

Paige Kassalen

Paige Kassalen loves to put her creativity to use by solving problems in emerging technical fields, and has been an IEEE member since 2012. After graduating with a degree in electrical engineering from Virginia Tech in 2015, Kassalen began her career with Covestro LLC. in 2015, and soon became the only American engineer working with Solar Impulse 2, the first solar-powered airplane to circumnavigate the globe. This role landed Kassalen a spot on the 2017 Forbes 30 Under 30 list along with feature articles in Glamour, Fast Company and the Huffington Post. After Solar Impulse, Kassalen has helped Covestro and JPMorgan Chase develop and implement strategies to embrace a range of emerging technology trends from autonomous vehicles to machine learning. In 2020, Kassalen received a Master of Information Systems Management degree from Carnegie Mellon University and now uses her problem-solving skills at an artificial intelligence startup, CrowdAI, where she leads the implementation of computer vision solutions for existing commercial customers.

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