Our Obsession With ‘Expertise’ Is Holding Us Back

You don’t need a credential to create useful work

Woman doing carpentry work.
Photo: Hinterhaus Productions/Getty Images

There are many instances where a credential — like a certificate, a license, or a degree — is essential. Nobody wants a knee surgeon who learned the craft by watching YouTube videos. But you don’t need a permit to speak up, to solve an interesting problem, or to lead. You don’t need a degree to write a lyric, or take responsibility, either.

You don’t need “expertise” to create useful work.

The modern credentialing system was designed to maintain the consistency of our industrial output. But over time, that system has expanded to create a roadblock. By relying on certificates and degrees to confer expertise, we slow down people who would otherwise make change happen by trying things out.

Think about the leaders you most respect, in any field. Find out what got them where they are. Was it a degree? Or did they get things done by simply doing the work?

The curse of institutions

There’s a myth that a “famous college” is the same thing as a “good college.” But there’s no evidence that the quality of an education depends on whether or not an institution is well-known.

Famous colleges rely on a perception of scarcity. We think “it’s hard to get into those schools,” and therefore value their credentials more. Our cooperation and belief is what builds their reputation. In exchange, we can see a degree from a famous school as a status symbol. They’re only famous because we want them to be famous. We want them to be famous because our society places greater value on credentials than ability.

From an early age, high achievers are taught to sacrifice independent thought for a good grade. We’re taught that compliance will be rewarded by “being picked.” And the biggest pick for many kids is the approval that comes from gaining admission into a famous college.

Our credential-obsessed society teaches high achievers to equate success with approval from an external authority. Unfortunately, this outlook undermines your ability to trust yourself.

It is a convenient place to hide from our own potential.

After all, if you haven’t “been picked,” you’re off the hook. And if you don’t have the means to apply or pay for the credential, you don’t even have to bother getting rejected, because you’ve already rejected yourself.

A better way to think about credentials

In the Wizard of Oz, when the Wizard gave the Scarecrow his diploma, he didn’t give him anything that he didn’t already have. The paper was unnecessary external validation that helped the Scarecrow find the trust he probably could have captured on his own. The Scarecrow already had what he needed.

Rejecting the trap of credentialing opens the door to fake experts. If no credential is needed — if everyone is qualified, leveraged, and able to do this job — aren’t we inviting hacks and charlatans in to do important work?

I think the opposite is true. Credentialing lulled us into false confidence about who was actually an expert. The fact that you have a degree doesn’t mean you have insight, experience, or concern. You’ve acquired a piece of paper, but that doesn’t mean you care.

Actions matter more today than ever before. We can see your work, hear your words, and understand your intent.

Today, we can go beyond the credential and actually see your impact. We can create a body of work and a community that understands the impact we’re capable of.

I’m not provoking you to become a charlatan (or to follow one). But we should all take the opportunity that’s available to engage in the long process of earning genuine expertise, in service of making a change.

From The Practice: Shipping Creative Work by Seth Godin, published by Portfolio, an imprint of the Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2020 by Do You Zoom Inc.

Founder of altMBA and Akimbo. Daily blogger, teacher, speaker, 20 bestsellers as well...

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