Revisiting the Idea of Being a “Student of…” (Not an “Expert in…”)

The idea of being a lifelong learner in your field – a “student of…” rather than an “expert in…” – has come up in a variety of contexts recently, so this seemed like a good time to revisit this article, originally posted in 2021.

Have you ever started a conversation with a friend or family member about a topic you rarely think about, only to find out that the person you’re talking to clearly knows more about this topic than 99.9% of people in the world? Maybe you saw them light up as they got a chance to talk about something they care about deeply. Maybe it was even surprising to you to discover how much of an expert they were. Perhaps you’ve even been that person that has surprised others with your deep knowledge and wisdom about a topic (once in a while people in my life are shocked by my deep encyclopedic knowledge of Prince).

Recently I was speaking to a client about their work in organizational leadership – an area they’ve been working in for decades, and in which most people who were familiar with my client would call them experts. And yet, in talking about how they see themselves, they described themselves as “students of…” rather than experts in…” the field of organizational leadership. This distinction resonated with me, and I wonder if it will resonate with you also.

The difference is simply one of your own internal perspective. Others may see you as an expert – an authority to be trusted – and you may be introduced as such when speaking in a context outside your daily life. But the term carries with it an implication that you know everything there is to know; that your work in the area is complete. Of course, this could not possibly be the case. If it’s something that holds great interest for you, you are bound to spend time studying and learning about the topic – perhaps more than ever. This is true with academics, athletes, chess players, gardeners, and yes, Prince aficionados.

Being a student brings humility, and the understanding that you can always learn more. And when you do, what you learn may alter your previously-held opinions and views – either like a sculptor adding nuance and detail to a work of art, or, in rare cases, fundamental shifts that alter the course of your work. (Peter Benchley, a student of the ocean and the writer of Jaws, turned his primary focus to the conservation of great white sharks after seeing how the cultural impact of his most famous work led to them being feared and hunted in massive numbers.)

So how can this distinction between “student of…” and “expert in…” be helpful this week?

This Week’s Tip:

Try on the concept of being a “student of…” in your workplace this week:

  1. Stay in a growth mindset. Conduct research before making decisions, even if it’s in an area you think you know well.
  2. Be humble. You may know a lot, but none of us know everything. Listen to those around you, even if they don’t know the area as deeply as you do. Maybe they have a valuable different perspective to offer?
  3. Be a “model” student. Take on the traits that successful students carry with them: amass experiences and learn from failures; be consistent and persistent; set goals; and connect your learning to your life.
  4. Be a “transparent” student. Be open about the fact that you are learning more, and encourage others who might want to do the same.

Try these out this week, and let us know how it goes! We’d love to hear from you.

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Published by Ian Jackson

Ian Jackson is the founder of Building Bridges Leadership, which works with individuals, teams, and organizations to create authentic community in the workplace. He also writes children's fiction and teaches creative writing.

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