Are you an expert in your craft, or the system?

In my previous job, I was an expert. I was the first employee. I knew the ins and outs of the system. I helped the company grow. I was often the most senior person in the room. But in truth, I knew nothing. So, I quit.

Around that time, I read a post by Charity Majors. These lines stood out:

“There is a world of distance between being expert in this system and being an actual expert in your chosen craft. The second is seniority. The first is merely familiarity.”

I was an expert, but in the system, not in my craft. Not as a leader.

That recognition has stuck with me. These days I pay attention to the difference. Here’s a few things I’ve learnt about becoming an expert in my craft.

Find what’s right, not just what “works here”

No two workplaces are the same. Nor are two teams. To be successful over the long run, you need to make that success repeatable. Find the principles, find what works in general, and apply that to new situations. This is the essence of being an expert in the craft, rather than the system.

Here’s one big reason I coach leaders: we learn what our managers have told us, not what is necessarily right. Why do you run 1:1s the way you do? Why do you delegate this way? Why do you give the type of feedback you do? Likely because it’s what your managers have done to you. Does that mean it’s right?

Even if you don’t change your environment, you’re not immune from the need for change. To quote the Greek philosopher Heraclitus: “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it is not the same river and he is not the same man.” Stay still long enough and the river will change around you. The system in which you are an expert has changed. What are you the expert in now?

Learn from others

Another reason I moved jobs? To learn from those with far more, and different experiences than me. When you learn from others, you take their experiences and add them to your own. What clashes with your existing knowledge? What causes you to rethink your way of working? Knowledge isn’t purely additive. It can be transformative.

This is also where coaches and mentors come in. It’s often difficult to find the coaching and mentorship you need in your day-to-day work. Managers are too busy. Or they’re not able to provide what you need. I’m grateful for the support I’ve received in the past, and I try to give back. I share what I know with founders and early-stage employees. And I coach leaders to become the leaders they want to be.

And learn from working with others who aren’t like you. I’m a middle-class white male in a male-dominated field. It’s easy to find people who look like me and think like me. This is comfortable. But it’s not challenging. I can become an expert in, and perpetuate, the system of privilege. Or I can become a true expert in my field and help to elevate diverse voices. This is a choice.

Be wary of comfort

Comfort is easy. A comfortable job, a comfortable routine, a comfortable life.

Comfort is good for the experiencing self. But not for the remembering self. When you look back on your life, what do you remember? It’s not the unchanging, comfortable days. You remember the periods of change and growth.

The most important moments of my life have been the uncomfortable ones. When I started a new role or left one. When I’ve failed — in work, in sport, in my relationships. When I’ve needed to put the effort to learn a new skill, train for a race, or prepare for a difficult conversation. Facing the discomfort led me to something new.

If you feel yourself getting too comfortable, consider: is it time for change?

What works here may not work always. Are you an expert in your craft, or your system?

© Braden Moore.RSS