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The Best-Kept Secret for Building a Career With a Useless Degree? Become a Thought Leader

So you have a useless degree. It’s okay, I do too. No judgement.

Obviously this is a bit tongue in cheek. You might argue that there’s no such thing as a truly useless degree. And you’d be right.

But my BA in history felt next to useless. So did my PhD in religious studies. And with an overall underemployment rate of 42% from all college degrees, and that’s before the pandemic, there are a lot of university grads who are asking themselves, “Why did I bother?”

We’re living in an age where some degrees no longer lead to careers. And, after dropping tens of thousands of dollars on a degree, students are left drowning in debt and lacking direction.

So how can thought leadership fix this?

My first exposure to thought leaders came while I was working for a think tank. These were policy leaders whose names were synonymous with expertise in their particular area. The economy seemed to work for them, they got invited everywhere to give their expertise. They billed a lot of money for it.

Whether experts in education policy or immigration, these were thought leaders.

And, as I worked hourly like a chump, I realized that thought leadership is a path to becoming well-paid and in-demand in the knowledge economy. And I liked that.

What is a thought leader?

In a 2012 Forbes article, Shel Israel defined a thought leader as follows:

A thought leader is someone who looks at the future and sets a course for it that others will follow. Thought leaders look at existing best practices then come up with better practices. They foment change, often causing great disruption.

Human communities have always had leaders. But we are witnessing an explosion of leaders in all areas of knowledge. This messiah economy is always looking for the next thinker, and if it’s you, your personal brand and your voice can be worth bank.

On Instagram, the leaders are influencers.

In YouTube, it’s viral vloggers.

In the knowledge economy, it’s thought leaders.

Now these are not mutually exclusive, and the boundaries are pretty murky. Here are some examples of people who might be considered thought leaders:

  • The political strategist who advises parties and appears on the news as an expert
  • The personal-development blogger who writes about maximizing your health
  • The engineer or architect with known expertise in green construction
  • The columnist in your local newspaper
  • The science expert who explains biology on YouTube
  • The executive who transformed a company with unique strategic leadership

All of these could be thought leaders.

Why do you need to be a thought leader?

Thought leaders are in demand. The world is always looking for them.

  • Business people always want the next growth hack.
  • Leaders always want the latest leadership wisdom.
  • Media people want fresh perspectives on issues.
  • Organizations want people with big ideas.
  • People want to make their lives better with the latest knowledge.

In a world where lots of people with good education are unemployed, thought leaders get paid handsomely for their knowledge. Work comes to them without applying for it. They command top rates.

Without a doubt, thought leaders are a fixture in our economy and will continue to be.

What do you need to be a thought leader?

1. Experience and/or Knowledge

To be a thought leader, you need to have expertise in an area. This expert knowledge can be gained by study, experience, or a combination of the two, but it does need to be there.

If you have a degree in the subject you want to talk about, that’s great. But it’s not an absolute requirement.

My PhD is in religious studies, not careers or labor policy.

You just need to have some knowledge to share.

Book knowledge is great but learned experience is also great. As a society, we love to celebrate people who have executed something successfully: built a company, launched a brand or product, anything that suggests they have a secret sauce that we need.

Whatever you have, I’m guessing you probably have some knowledge you could share with someone who doesn’t know it.

2. Innovation

Knowledge is vital, but the best thought leaders have some new ideas.

Or, at least, they can package old ideas in exciting and interesting new ways.

Google was not the world’s first search engine. But it clearly did something better than Yahoo or AskJeeves that made those two obsolete. There are always ways to make existing ideas better.

This is innovation, and you can bring it to an area that interests you.

Innovation is becoming a key component of thought leadership. If you built the biggest new company, the world will want to know how you did it.

But since you, like me, may not have built an enormous company or discovered something new, you’ll need to find a different way to be innovative with how you present information and become a thought leader.

The world is hungry for your good ideas.

3. Platform

Brené Brown is one of my favorite academics, and she also happens to be a thought leader.

Or is she a thought leader who happens to be an academic?

Either way, she’s built a movement by talking about her research on shame and vulnerability, launched from TED talks in 2010 and 2012.

Brené Brown talks about the power of vulnerability

I talk to a lot of academics about career transitions. All of them are well-educated —very few are thought leaders.

In fact, a lot of them are precariously employed by the university and are forced to step into the world beyond, where they are certain that underemployment waits.

So what does Brené Brown’s story teach people with advanced degrees?

Well, she’s knowledgeable and innovative for sure. But she also has created a platform. This is especially impressive since many academics are trained, either implicitly or explicitly, to turn up their nose at public engagement—as if communicating ideas with those outside of your field makes you less of a scholar.

You need a platform of some sort, you need to be a known commodity, if you want to be a thought leader.

This doesn’t necessarily mean international fame. You might be the person in your company who talks about workplace wellness and teaches new meditation techniques. This is thought leadership too.

Find how you want to grow your thought leadership and step into it.

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4. Brand

The final piece to this is your personal brand. A thought leader builds a personal brand around being an expert in their subject, communicating consistently and in a way that attracts people to them.

A brand gives someone a feeling, an impression, and for thought leaders your personal brand should convey trust and credibility.

(Check out this related post on building a personal brand.)

Be the person who consistently shares credible information about your field and you’ll be on your way to becoming a thought leader.

Finally, why HigherEd hurts thought leadership . . .

Yeah, I went there.

This blog is dedicated to students making career transitions, and there are a lot of readers with advanced degrees.

You’d think that these would be the most obvious people to be thought leaders.

Funny thing. Highly educated people don’t often jump into thought leadership right away. For a whole bunch of reasons, from the confidence destruction that comes with advanced study to the snobbery around entering the public eye, many well-educated people are not becoming thought leaders.

Now I’ve read a few articles suggesting that academics should run far away from thought leadership, such as this one that claims we should be public intellectuals instead.

This is a really nice vision if you’re a tenured prof who can write thought pieces for The New Yorker and hang around snooty cocktail parties. But if it’s the choice between starvation or a bit of blogging to put yourself out there, I’d choose the blogging.

Anyhow, if you’re a well-educated person with a reasonable degree of specialization in a certain area, there’s no reason why you can’t be a thought leader.

But for a whole bunch of reasons, people feel a lot of imposter syndrome around thought leadership.

Which is a shame, because the world is crying out for good ideas from intelligent people.

Imagine if you were a trained microbiologist who wanted to talk about gut bacteria. Now there are a ton of blogs about gut bacteria, and I’m guessing a lot of misinformation. Doesn’t it make sense for someone with training to have a platform?

And herein lies the problem about well-educated people. We can complain about misinformation all we want and resent people with less education who are experts in our subjects, but until we’re willing to step out, speak, and learn how to communicate information in a relevant way–people won’t know any different.

So there it is. If you have something to say, the best time to start is now. You’ll learn and grow as you go, and you’ll get better. And check out part two– How to Become a Thought Leader.

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