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Branding & Marketing

Understanding How to Frame Your Creative Expertise

You don't need to be all-knowing to make a meaningful contribution to your team.

Again and again I see talented people with ideas they want to share – books they want to write, talks they want to give, businesses they want to launch – holding back because they think they “don’t know enough” about their topic.

“After all,” they reason, “there are real experts on this out there – and I’m not one of them.” They’re thinking about the people with advanced degrees and decades of deep experience working in the field.

In fact, that’s just one type of expert — “the specialist.” There are three other kinds of experts that make world-changing contributions, without specialist training.

You are likely one of these four types of expert, when it comes to the work you most want to do. As you read, identify which type (or types) of expertise you could bring to the projects you are currently pursuing as well as those that you want to pursue:

1. The Survivor

You’ve been through something, learned a heck of a lot along the way, and now you are on fire to share what you’ve learned. Maybe, like best-selling author Kris Carr, you lived through cancer and want to write about your path to health. Maybe, like Jonathan Fields, you’ve started a few businesses and want to share insights about entrepreneurship.

“Survivors” often worry that their personal experience is not enough to earn them credibility or allow them to make a meaningful contribution, but consider these powerful strengths of this source of authority: You have an ability to move and connect with your audience that most formal experts on your topic don’t have. You can provide inspiration and role-modeling– not just information. You have insider insights that will help you create a more compelling offering for your audience.

But, be careful, here’s where you could get in your own way: it’s easy to over-generalize from your experience to that of others. If “survivor” is your source of expertise, tell your story as powerfully as you can, and pass on your lessons learned as just that – without making claims on having the truth or the solutions for everyone. People will listen up simply because you are honestly sharing what did and didn’t work for you.

You have an ability to move and connect with your audience that most formal experts on your topic don’t have.

2. The Cross Trainer

When an athlete cross-trains,they “train in a sport other than the one that they compete in, with a goal of improving overall performance.” In our context, the “cross trainer” is the physicist who takes a look at a problem in medicine, the family therapist who writes about fixing dysfunctional teams at work. Cross trainers have deep expertise in field “x,” and bring ways of thinking from field “x” to bear as they look at field “y.” Business leaders Whitney Johnson and Clay Christensen each apply theories on business development to personal development. Tom Ford applied his expertise in fashion design to cinematography when he created the stunning film, A Single Man.

Cross trainers make interdisciplinary connections and drive innovation. They see the blind spots of the conventional thinking in the field they’ve turned their attention to.

However, if you are a cross trainer, here’s where to watch out: you may miss seeing how insights from your field of expertise are not applicable to your new topic. For example, many MBAs have hindered nonprofits by assuming that all the planning tools and metrics used in a business should be applied to nonprofits to make them more efficient.

For cross-trainers, the charge is to be bold in asking provocative questions and making interdisciplinary leaps, but humble about the applicability of anything across fields. Focus on starting new conversations and prototyping cross-training-based solutions without assumptionsabout what will in fact apply across fields.

3. The Called

Then there are those people that dive into a project out of a sense of calling. They feel an inner, mysterious sense of “this work is mine to do.” Jessica Jackley felt outraged that conventional charity didn’t empower the poor to help themselves, and out of a persistent frustration with that status quo, and a sense of calling, began developing, now the world’s largest microfinance platform.

The called bring many gifts to their work.  They have sustainable passion. They have vision and – perhaps most important – ardent dissatisfaction with the status quo where insiders may have become resigned.

The challenge for the called is to trust their sense of calling. That is particularly difficult when they can’t find a logical reason why they’re attracted to a project, or qualified for it. The called generally feel that they don’t have what they need – and they aren’t who they need to be – to complete their calling.

Their charge is to start anyway in whatever partial way they can. They also need to gather mentors to fill in knowledge gaps –those who support (and aren’t threatened by) an outsider bringing new ideas and vision.

The challenge for the called is to trust their sense of calling.

4. The Specialist

In our culture, this type of authority is most validated and embraced. The specialist has formal training (degrees, certifications) or lots of work experience in the area of their project. They might also achieve their specialist knowledge by conducting extensive research on their topic.

Brene Brown, a professor of Social Work spent years conducting research on shame and vulnerability and now speaks and writes widely on these topics. Dr. Harriet Lerner honed her expertise with hundreds of clients in her private psychology practice before writing her best-selling books on our emotional lives.

The pluses of this kind of expertise are many: specialists have a sense of the standard industry knowledge on their topic. They have the benefit of industry networks. Because they’ve seen so many examples over the years, they can tell apart the trends and the outliers.

The downside? Specialists often get stuck in inside-the-box thinking. They can also get distracted with the politics of their field or in debates about minutiae. To avoid that, specialists must talk regularly with colleagues from related but different disciplines, and seek out rebels and dissidents at the margin of their fields, listening to their perspectives with an open mind.


Immeasurable contributions are lost because many of us think that #4 – formal training/work experience – is the only kind of legitimate authority. We usually don’t hold that belief when it applies to other people – we are thrilled to read that nonfiction book based on someone’s personal journey or to listen to the interesting TED talk by a cross trainer. But for ourselves? We think we don’t know enough.

To be sure, specialists are extremely important. We benefit enormously from living in an age when there is so much information available, when formal education is becoming more and more accessible, and when there are people with deep, specialized knowledge. All of that is invaluable – but it is not the only kind of value.

Identify which source – or sources – of expertise you bring to your current project. Leverage its strengths. Most of all, trust that it is enough – not because it enables you to know everything, but because it enables you to make the contribution you are uniquely qualified to make.

How about you?

How have you successfully framed your expertise?

Comments (105)
  • Tara Sophia Mohr


  • Tara Sophia Mohr

    yes, totally, that is a whole separate part of my work – dealing with the self doubt that comes up for any of these types!

  • Tara Sophia Mohr

    thanks karen!

  • CMDoran

    What was great about your writing was that you called attention to the challenges for each type.

    I think I’m a specialist that is becoming a cross-trainer (w/o the physical fitness). Many challenges ahead, indeed. All the best, and thank you for your truth-telling.

  • Joel D Canfield

    Ooh, so Tara, when is your book with more detail and next steps gonna be here to fascinate and educate?

    Oh; you’re not? Well, you should.

  • Sarah Woolley

    What if you are all four, but you STILL feel insecure about doing what you feel you’re “called” to do?!?!?!?

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  • Marinda Jansen van Rensburg

    “The called generally feel that they don’t have what they need – and they aren’t who they need to be – to complete their calling.”

    So true, and I’m going to do it anyway! Brilliant article Tara, everything you mentioned for “the called” rings true 🙂

  • Marinda Jansen van Rensburg

    Me too, excellent article! I think sometimes the specialist undermine the rest of the other types of experts here.

  • Marinda Jansen van Rensburg

    HAHA 🙂

  • Frat Yuai

    Brilliant read. Thank you!

  • Ann Marie

    Just what I needed to read this morning. Wonderful!

  • Tara Sophia Mohr

    Sarah – that’s why I do so much writing about how to deal with the inner critic and with self-doubt. Come over to and you’ll find many more resources there.

  • Tara Sophia Mohr

    thanks Joel! I appreciate that.

  • Meenakshi

    Eye Opener…!Good Read

  • Sean Blanda

    Ask and ye shall receive! Check the illustration now.

  • Sean Blanda

    Sure thing! Just link back to the original, please.

  • Sean Blanda

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  • Kim Tso


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  • Dangerous Meredith

    This article is excellent and has definitely helped me to clarify how to market my survivor / cross trainer experience. Thanks Tara!

  • Federico Montemurro

    Superb reading Tara. What’s your advice when you, as a Cross Trainer, have to deal with specialists defending their territory? Thank you for your time with my post.

  • Aaron

    Thank you for this article. I have a pretty diverse background and often struggle with how to sum it up in a positive, relevant way. These categories give me a couple new frames.

  • Clinton Coker

    As a consultant, this article is enlightening. Thank you for sharing. This will be passed on to many others.

  • Sarah

    Because of the nature of my startup (we’re breaking into an established industry that’s very focused on credentials) it’s very common to get pushback of the form “What gives you amateurs the right to do this? You have no credibility. You’re not the ‘real thing’, you’re a bunch of kids.” I used to get very embarrassed by that kind of feedback.

    The other day I noticed I actually responded well to skepticism by focusing on integrity. I’m not trying to pose as an “expert” in anything I don’t have expertise in. (I can play up the fields I *do* have expertise in.) I’m not trying to promise miracles I can’t deliver. (I can describe the concrete things I’ve accomplished.) If I explain, with perfect honesty, what I do and why I have reason to believe it’s valuable, then I have nothing to be ashamed of. If some people don’t find it appealing, that’s their business. And if people assume I must be some kind of shyster because they haven’t heard of my business model before, maybe I need to explain what I do explicitly to help them understand.

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