There are tons of different professions that someone can pursue and find success in, but for this question, I'll be using my personal career as a photographer.
I've always been around the camera—whether as an actor or filmmaker. But over the past five years, I've transitioned into becoming a portrait photographer and working freelance for a variety of brands and private clients. I earn a nice living from this career, and from the success, I've been able to amass a strong support group for my work, as well as other revenue streams that feed into the overall growth of my abilities.
However, have I reached a point where I can officially call myself an expert in the field? Am I so confident in my skillset that I can dictate any price I want for a photo shoot and justify that price based on my experience? Regardless of being a photographer or whatever route you choose, does someone ever truly become an expert in something?
The definition of an "expert" is someone who has an authoritative knowledge of or skill in a particular area. But I would disagree with this statement.
Do you think that someone who is a banker should be considered a financial expert or a doctor should be considered a medical expert? There are tons of financial advisors in history who have ended up penniless. There are doctors who think that one drug is good for you, whereas another doctor would never prescribe something to a patient. Proclaiming to be an expert in something simply from the standpoint of having knowledge in a particular field does not make you an authority figure. Instead, what really makes someone an expert in any area of expertise is a combination of their skills and how they go about executing that skill under a variety of circumstances.
For example, I know how to operate a camera. I know how to load film and expose it for light and compose an aesthetic shot. But what about shooting an event with over 500 people running around? What about shooting flash photography in a dark nightclub? What if I'm shooting a celebrity who only has a limited amount of time, and I need to execute everything right the first time with no do-overs? A true expert can look at all of these different situations and still apply the same knowledge and technique without being intimidated or deterred. And it's this same understanding that makes freelancers such a powerful resource around the world.
Freelancers are experts in their own right because they have the ability to perform a variety of different jobs for different people.
The main reason why someone goes into freelancing in the first place is that they want the freedom to work for themselves. Freelancers want the sporadic, flexible, creative schedule that goes along with their artistic lives. And as a freelancer being highly skilled at what they do, they understand that there is always room for improvement.
I feel that a true expert freelancer is always looking for opportunities to hone their skills. Even for myself, I'm always interacting with other photographers to learn about their techniques and approaches to a subject. I love to see how another photographer shapes light within a setting. I'll ask them questions about what gear they're using or what types of photos they like, what photographers have influenced them—anything that can spark my own creativity and inspire me to keep learning new things.
The thirst for knowledge is what makes a freelancer so useful to others. People want to hire someone who can come in and solve the problem that they're facing—to offer a new perspective or approach to a situation. An expert freelancer does not act like an authority figure telling everyone what they're doing wrong; instead, they should bring collaboration and clarity to the table—a new direction that allows others to follow toward the desired outcome.
Now, you may be extremely proficient at what you do, but that doesn't mean you're ready to declare yourself an expert just yet. So you may be wondering how to become an expert altogether.
I certainly wouldn't consider myself an expert photographer. Just the other day, I was at the film shop buying some supplies, and I asked a young guy behind the counter about some chemicals I was considering buying for development. He gave me a good rundown of the equipment, and then he showed me some of his own photos that he developed using the same materials—I was blown away. Every photo was so clean and vibrant. He had a great understanding of lighting and composition with his subjects, and to boot, he developed and scanned the film himself! He had to have been at least five years younger than me, and here he was, teaching me about chemistry and how easy it is to use the gear. Of course, everyone's preference and style are different, but I was truly impressed with his work, and it only motivated me to keep learning my craft.
So how can you continue to develop your craft? Well, your best move is to surround yourself with people who keep you in a state of exploration and discovery.
One of the best ways to become an "expert" at something is to learn from someone who you consider to be an expert at what they do.
Admittedly, one of my mentors is Ansel Adams—one of the greatest landscape photographers ever—who is no longer alive. I've read every one of his books about photography, his biography, and his collected works, and he always inspires me and teaches me something new. Aside from him, I've learned a lot about photography from my best friend, Josh Wordel. Josh has always been using a camera, and since childhood, he has helped nurture that same interest and skill for me. We are constantly sharing ideas and using that knowledge to further develop our own personal perspectives, along with coming together to work on projects we believe in.
Who in your life can you learn from or reach out to and see if you can work alongside them? Is there a former boss or teacher who you respect and are eager to learn from? Are there any workshops you can sign up for online to better understand your professions or to learn a new skill? Are there other industry leaders you admire and who also inspire you to have a similar career path or success? Think about who in your life can help you become a better freelancer and continue to develop a relationship with them.
Other than finding a mentor to learn from, your next step is to continually practice your skills in your desired field.
This is where Malcolm Gladwell's 10,000 hours rule comes into play. Think of it this way—why is Serena Williams one of the best tennis players in the world? It's because no matter how good she thinks she is, she still practices more than everyone else. Now, she's already a top player, she doesn't have to practice if she doesn't want to, but in order for her to be the best, she knows that she has to stay sharp. The same rules apply to you.
Along with building experience on the job, you need to find ways to exercise your freelance muscles so that you're ready to deliver in a variety of situations. For instance, you can...
The amount of time you put in will dictate how much success and joy you get out of what you're doing. But even with 10,000 hours and dedication to what you're doing, can you still call yourself an expert?
Honestly, I would never call myself an expert in something.
I think there has to be a certain level of humility in what you do, and if you ever do reach a point where you feel that you are the best at something, that doesn't mean that there's not someone behind you nipping at your heels. This is certainly true in the freelance world.
As a photographer, I charge anywhere between $300 and $500 per hour for a photoshoot. For some clients, that's a doable price, but for others, it's way out of their price range. So what happens—those who can't or won't pay that price will look for a photographer that does fit within the budget of what they're willing to spend. The person they hire may not be an "expert" photographer, but their work and rates fit within the structure of what a client wants. It's that reason alone that freelancers do not need to be "experts" at what they do to book work—all you need is a body of consistent, reliable work that clients can connect with.
There are countless freelancers grinding away to build their success, and the pursuit of becoming an expert is more valuable and realistic than actually becoming one.
If you're a freelancer looking to boost your skills in a certain area, then Fiverr is a great place to start. Sign up for a freelancer account today and start building the career you want.