As Good As You Say You Are

My family and I spent the last several days of our vacation last month with friends in Northampton, Massachusetts, a little town located about 100 miles west of Boston.

Northampton is a funky, artsy kind of place, and in the evening during the summer you can hardly open your car door without banging into one of the many street performers set up on the sidewalk (I know, because I did).

It’s a fun atmosphere, and after watching these folks for a couple of days, I half-jokingly suggested to my 11 year old son Evan that he could probably do pretty well if he stood out there one night and did some of his juggling. To my surprise he took me up on it, and so that very evening (with the rest of the family cleverly pretending we didn’t know him), Evan found a spot in front of an art gallery, dropped his baseball cap upside down on the ground, and went to work.

To my complete shock, somebody threw a handful of change into his hat within about 15 seconds. He did so well in fact over the next 30 minutes, that I began wondering if maybe juggling was a better career path than E-Newsletters.

Then something really interesting happened. One of the spectators asked him, “How long have you been a professional?”

Evan responded by launching into a humble explanation of how he really wasn’t a professional, and that he still had a long way to go. The man just smiled and said, “Kid, if you’re earning money, you’re a professional.”

As we walked back to our car that night, it occurred to me that Evan had learned an important lesson about being a sole proprietor: Performing on the street is a great way to avoid paying income tax. No, ha, ha, I am of course just kidding. What he learned was that when you work on your own (as more and more of us are choosing to do every day), you become “certified” as a professional as soon as somebody is willing to pay you.

No university or company or governing body is going to show up one day and tell you that you’ve earned the right to set up a business doing whatever it is you do. You simply have to claim it for yourself.

Interestingly, I’ve discovered that a tendency to view oneself as, “not yet good enough,” is not the exclusive realm of 6th grade jugglers.

I had lunch at the beginning of the summer with my friend Jennifer, a few weeks after she decided to take the plunge and set herself up as a business consultant. If you were to take out a blank sheet of paper and write down the ideal qualifications for a consultant in Jennifer’s industry, you’d end up describing her: Fifteen years of industry-specific experience; ability to spot trends before other people; Harvard MBA; great with numbers; articulate speaker; common sense; reliable; friendly, etc., etc.

She had every possible box checked, and yet when we had lunch that day, what was holding her back was doubts about her own qualifications.

I can assure you that Jennifer is not the exception.

I get frequent invitations to share coffee with friends, colleagues and others who have left or are considering leaving the corporate world, and who want to talk with someone who has already made the leap. The one thing they tend to have in common — regardless of what their credentials might be — is that most people just starting out question their right to call themselves “expert.”

Maybe you’re reading this as you consider your own new career as a sole proprietor. If so, I’d like to offer you the same advice I offer everybody who joins me for that cup of coffee (and in the process, maybe save you six months of mental anguish): You’re good enough to call yourself a professional at whatever it is you do. I guarantee it.

Whatever obstacles might arise in-between where you are and where you want to go, your skill level is not going to be one of them. People don’t hire professional service providers based on an objective evaluation of their skills.

Do you really have any idea how technically capable your attorney is? Are the medical skills of your doctor better or worse than those of the guy down the street? Who knows?! The fact is, unless you’re on trial for murder, or awaiting a heart transplant, it really doesn’t matter. Prospective clients know that most professionals in a given field (E-Newsletter consultants not withstanding) can get the job done just fine.

When it comes to growing your business therefore, you needn’t worry about being good enough (you already are). Your attention should be on sharpening your focus; gaining visibility; differentiating your services and learning how to persuade people that you can do something to help them fix their problems.

Bottom Line: Don’t waste any more precious time waiting for someone to show up and give you permission to call yourself an expert. Write your newsletters, give your speeches, share your opinions and do your juggling as the industry-leading professional that you are, and it will be true.

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