It’s popular these days to pick some trend you’ve read about and start calling yourself a guru. I’ve seen it in LinkedIn profiles, resumes, email signature blocks and plenty of other places. People like to use the word guru to showcase their expertise in a subject. But technically speaking, it’s not really proper to give yourself the title of guru.

Guru is a given title, an honorary designation. It is granted to you by evangelical followers who voluntarily and selflessly spread your knowledge and techniques. Actual gurus do not call themselves by that title… It’s their followers that call them it.

This doesn’t mean you can’t still become a guru! You just need to position yourself differently. A more realistic goal is this: become and promote yourself as an expert. And guess what? Experts can become gurus.

So what makes an expert? It comes down to three things: Specificity, skills and respect.

Specificity

First of all, decide on a topic for your expertise. You simply can’t and won’t be an expert in everything, so narrow your laser beam onto one area. Yes, it better be something you’re passionate about. For example, you can’t be an expert in “Computers.” Symmetric multiprocessing system architecture? That’s better. How do you know if you’re specific enough? Here’s a rule of thumb:

  • Could an expert write a daily blog article about your topic that people might actually read?
  • Could an expert potentially teach a day class or write a white paper expanding, in-depth, on each article?

If your specialty meets those two criteria, you probably have a good level of specificity selected for your area of expertise.

Skills

To be an expert, you’ve got to be good. Really good. I’m talking “skillz” with a “z” good. I’m not talking about knowledge, which you can get by reading Wikipedia all day. Skills are knowledge buffered with practical experience. So learn the theories and concepts, but don’t forget to actually put them to use yourself.

You know what it really comes down to? Practice. You might be familiar with Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule from his book Outliers: The Story of Success. Based on research by Dr. Anders Ericsson, he says to be truly phenomenal at something you have to have 10,000 hours of deliberate practice. People often misquote this rule, saying you need to do something 10,000 hours to be an expert. What it really says is 10,000 hours doesn’t make you an expert, it makes you Peyton Manning. It makes you freakishly ridiculous good. In reality, the level of practice you need isn’t based on quantity of hours, and certainly doesn’t require you to practice 20 hours a week for 10 years to be an expert. You don’t need to devote your entire life to a skill, but don’t underestimate real life application of it.

Respect

Finally, you need the respect of your peers to be an expert. If you’re specifically skilled, and not a jerk, this should come pretty easily given time. You just have to position yourself to share your expertise with the world. Start a blog or podcast. Speak at events. Get published. Brand yourself as an expert in your area. In time, people will come to you for help and advice… And if you’re truly good at what you do, your advice will be excellent, leading to more exposure and more respect.

Sooner or later, as you continually refine your specificity, skills and respect… People might start admiring you. Devotionally following you. Defending you, and obsessively advocating on your behalf. Congratulations, you’re now a guru.

Just don’t call yourself one.

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