How I Became a True Expert

Before I discovered how truly passionate I was about colour and design, I had a few different jobs. I missed out on college because my parents couldn’t afford to send me and even though I loved decorating (even then), I was so naive it never occurred to me that I could [get a student loan] go to school to become a designer.

Ralph Lauren (mine were not like these)

My first jobs were in retail clothing sales. I’ll always remember arriving to work one day wearing white stirrup pants (it was the 80’s) and white pumps with holes in them to resemble polka dots and a white plastic bow. I think someone mentioned that stirrup pants go with boots–I didn’t know that.

Every year when September approached I would get anxious that I wasn’t enrolled in a program that would give me a career. I still have collages that I pasted together with notes that said “I make $26,000 a year” and at the age of 19 that [to me] was a lot of money!


When I was 21, I was dating a guy that was friends with the general manager of a 4 star hotel in the city. He arranged for an interview. I arrived and the secretary took me into his huge office (I was so scared) where the GM asked what I wanted to do in hotels? My reply was ‘Marketing’ and of course I had no idea what that meant.

He went on to tell me about all the other hotels I could apply at and I was certain that meant I would not be offered a job. However a month later the HR department called me for an interview and I found myself working at the front desk.


Coming from retail– even though now I wore a uniform–I always wore a freshly pressed white blouse and shiny black patent shoes (so it was easy to stand out at the desk to the very fashionable Sales Director). Two months into the job a position came up as ‘Sales Secretary’ in the Sales & Marketing Department.

Well since I only had grade 9 typing, it didn’t even occur to me to apply, so the day before the position was to be announced the front office manager asked if I would be interested in the job. The Director of Sales interviewed me and I got the job on the spot!

Was I ever excited!! I felt that my ‘career’ had finally begun and until then, that was one of the happiest moments in my entire life! I was there for 4 years and moved up to Sales Coordinator and then Sales & Conference Service Manager.

Image from La Dolce Vita

Here’s the problem I had with hotel sales. In general, clients will book a hotel because they like the look and feel of it, so I never felt like it had anything to do with my ability to sell. I felt like a fraud, that at any moment someone would figure out that I didn’t know what I was doing.

So when I left that job and moved to Victoria to get married I was so insecure in my abilities (as a sales manager) that I took a job as a secretary at The Empress Hotel. Everyone had computers but one month into the job I received a hand-written letter that I was supposed to type for one of them. That was when I snapped and resigned.

Afternoon Tea at The Empress

Some people have an “I can do anything” kind of personality. I recently met a designer who started out sewing Halloween costumes for her kids. Then all the kids in the neighborhood wanted one too, so she did that until someone asked her to sew a wedding dress. She went from wedding dresses to prom dresses and then drapery.

The drapery client said “I need carpet and furniture too” so she went to decorating school because she was clear she needed some training. Then she showed me a kitchen she designed and I said ‘But you haven’t taken kitchen design?’ And she said “No but I just pretend and surround myself with really good people”.

(This woman can probably do anything) Credit

I would love to be like that!! I have suffered so much anxiety because of my inability to BS and pretend. My personality is like this: “I need to learn it first, I need to understand it inside and out and analyze it every which way to Sunday” before I will say “I can do that”.

When I started my business and wrote “Expert Colour Consultation” in my yellow pages ad, I had no idea at the time how far that would take me. I took a phone call from a potential client back then and she mentioned beige and how it has so many different undertones. I had NO IDEA what she was talking about! So I found the best course on colour (before mine of course 🙂 and immediately flew down to San Francisco to take it!


In the past 10 years I have conducted almost 1,500 colour consultations. 1,000 of those during my 4 years with Benjamin Moore where I averaged 5 per week. It’s why I truly believe that if you are a designer and you do not have this kind of training or experience, you should hire a colour expert just like you would hire any other professional when you are coordinating a job.

I have taken many other ‘colour courses’ since that first one but I didn’t learn ‘undertones’ as distinctly as I have from anywhere other than on-the-job experience. When I was in retail, not only was I doing 5 calls per week but in the store we choose colours for customers all day long. You quickly get to the level where someone walks in with a pillow or a piece of tile and you pull out the right colour the first time, almost every time.

Interior by Maria Killam Colour & Design

My other area of expertise is furnishing, decorating and styling a home. I have spent countless hours over the years pouring over magazines and shopping with clients to distinguish how to create a look and feel in a space with the right furniture and accessories! But I will not pretend that I can draft up your kitchen 🙂

Interior by Maria Killam Colour & Design

Penelope Trunk wrote a great article called “Being an Expert takes Time not Talent”. When you read it and click on the article from the Harvard Business Review, you’ll read the following, which is the best part:

“The journey to truly superior performance is neither for the faint of heart nor for the impatient. The development of genuine expertise requires struggle, sacrifice, and honest, often painful self-assessment. There are no shortcuts.

It will take you at least a decade to achieve expertise, and you will need to invest that time wisely, by engaging in “deliberate” practice—practice that focuses on tasks beyond your current level of competence and comfort.

You will need a well-informed coach not only to guide you through deliberate practice but also to help you learn how to coach yourself. Above all, if you want to achieve top performance as a manager and a leader, you’ve got to forget the folklore about genius that makes many people think they cannot take a scientific approach to developing expertise.”

Image from La Dolce Vita

So whether you’ve been reading my blog since the beginning or have just stumbled onto it (this is in response to the emails I get asking for tips on how your blog can look a little like mine) know that the look and feel of my blog comes from 10 years of being in the business (technically 20 if you count the years I decorated for my friends and family) as well as living for most of those years with a constant level of anxiety and insecurity wondering if I would ever figure it out or stressing that I’d been fired (yet again). . .

Renting instead of owning (for me that was the trade-off for being creative or die) and learning that each of our lives is a series of trade-offs. When my sisters called me and wistfully asked how much fun I was having at a pre-olympics cocktail party downtown 2 weeks ago, I said “Ah but I don’t have a little darling like you do (below), keeping me from being here!”.

William, Left (Elizabeth’s 2 year old) and Noah, right (Anita’s 4 year old)

Bottom line, I was still the one (in my retail days) who would drive anywhere at any time to conduct yet another consultation so that I would one day be able to call myself a True Expert.

If you would like to transform the way you see colour, become a True Colour Expert.

Related posts:

Certified True Colour Expert Training is Here! (Learn to see Colour like a Pro)

The Secret to Having the Life that you Want

Find the Inspiration to keep doing what you love Here!

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  1. Developing Designs

    The path that you have been on may not have started the way you expected or wanted (I can't stop laughing at the site of the stirrup pants) it to, but it certainly has put you in a place that you are without doubt meant to be.
    Thank you for your openness to share, you are a true inspiration. I love learning anything I can from such an amazing talented gifted beautiful person such as yourself. xo

  2. Between you, me and the Fencepost

    I have never heard the Empress story. I knew you hated Hotel sales but I didn't ever get the 'why'.(other than you hated the corporate world)You are my own sister and I learned something new from your post. I'm always amazed at the people that fake it 'till they make it. I have to 'know' that I'm doing too and until I do I can't pretend I'm an expert. Maria, what a great post. Great insight and well written. I love it.

  3. amazing, the twists and turns we take in our journey to the present and future. always fascinating to hear how someone got where they are today.
    interesting to think about what makes someone an "expert". i was just chatting with two color colleagues the other day about that very topic- i think it's really a combination of hands-on experience, formal education, and plain ol' talent… a package deal.

  4. Twenty Two Flamboyant Street

    I so agree! I believe I will get to the point of "truly superior performance" by continuing to learn, continuing to set high standards for myself and not giving up when the going gets tough.

  5. Maria, You just described me exactly except you are a wonderful writer and can put your feelings into words.

    I've been hiding and bluffing my way on certain things for years-for example playing bridge. I finally realized it was not really fun and I did not have to pretend any longer that I knew what I was doing. And of course, I don't think I'll ever learn the computer skills to continue with a blog much less link up to other sites. I am taking baby steps but am intimidated big time.

    You have worked hard and it shows. I used to think the people that were good at things just had the gift . Now I know most work very hard to attain success.

  6. I love your story Maria! Thanks so much for sharing! I just left my fashion buying job to pursue something more creative because people are telling me all the time that I'm so "creative," but I'm still searching for that direction…it's frustrating! You have given me hope!

    • Oh Roxy you made me smile. People keep telling me I’m so “creative” too, but at 57 I wondering if my time is running out to find the right direction!!! I dabble in so many things – interiors, art, crafts, writing, gardens……sigh 🙂

  7. Bethany Christensen

    It is so much fun to learn more about you and your journey! It is so refreshing to hear some one say "I didn't have all the answers" or "I don't have all the answers". I love Penelope Trunk too. Thanks for introducing me to her.

  8. Very inspiring! Thank you for writing this post. Coming from someone who is still looking for the creative outlet than can be turned into a career, your post really brings to light the journey that sometimes needs to be taken.

  9. The Design Notebook

    Hi Maria,

    I wanted to say thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment!

    Great post. Loved learning more about you, your path and all that experience you gained!!

  10. Congrats on "the" game….we watched every single second and we were actually happy for Canada to win on your turf…good on you!

  11. Carmie - the Single Nester

    Thank you for sharing your professional career story! I am searching for my vocation and you have inspired me.

  12. This was a great story, so interesting. You have clearly mastered the art of color consultation, and the art of a great blog as well. You are a writer! Loved that quote, and will check out Penelope's blog for sure.

  13. Maria,
    It gives me hope that you too have had insecurities about your profession. You and your blog are something I aspire to. As an interior designer who went to school, I still question myself all the time and here that little negative voice sometimes get the best of me. Then I have a client who loves their new space and I think, well maybe I do know what I'm doing…lol! Thank you for sharing your journey with us!

  14. Dayka (Life +Style)

    This was such a great post! I appreciate your transparency and honesty, and I definitely find a bit of myself in your thoughts. I also am the type that wants to learn everything there is to know about a subject and understand all of it's intricacies before I embark on a new journey. That's why I find myself exploring design school now! Thanks for blogging about your journey. 🙂

  15. LOVED this post!!! I felt like I was reading about me……….I too have the crazy need to "take a course and make myself legit" before I'll tackle anything. Which has held back certain parts of my career, this post was the kick in the pants I needed to get back on track and know that hopefully I'm on my way to being an "expert"!!

  16. I love your blog, it's so honest, heart warming, insperational, and informative.
    Great post again

  17. unique unique design

    So interesting hearing the path you traveled to get where you are today. You've done an amazing job!

  18. Oh my! Have you been spying on me all these years? You have just described me! I feel I must be uber efficient before I can take anything on(accomplish anything, that is). As we know though, perfectionism (efficiency to the nth degree)is paralyzing!
    I so admire your honesty. It's supremely difficult to open ourselves up to even our nearest and dearest, let alone the worldwide web!

    You have my admiration!

    Susan S

  19. Kelly, Arte Styling

    thanks for sharing your journey with us, maria! and i just love that quote about "the end". so true.

  20. What a great post! It's always so interesting in how we do the work we were meant to do, the work we love, and are passionate about. Thanks for sharing your journey with us. Lidy

  21. Thanks for sharing a bit of your history with us! it's fascinating to see how people get to where they are now, and I'm amazed by your journey!

  22. I always look forward to reading your posts….
    Thanks for sharing your journey and your personal experience in the “design world”…it continues to inspire me.
    Your knowledge, honesty and straight-forwardness is
    in all you do sets you apart as a leader….

  23. This is a passage from the email that I received from you, Maria, with the link to this blog post: “One of the first calls that I received was from a potential client how said ‘I’m looking for a beige for my living room and I see that some have pink undertones and some have green undertones, can you help me with that?'”.

    I want to know about a beige that have some pink undertone and some green undertones!

    Does such a thing even exist. My inclination is to say “no way” because it seems like to me the pink (really light red, if I understand correctly) and green are opposites on the “color wheel” . . but I am curious enough about the possibility of it to ask! I think it is possible for a beige or perhaps other non-white, light neutral color to compliment both pink and green. I’m not sure that for two colors to look good together that the necessarily have to have the same undertone (maybe I’m wrong about that).

    I’m also confused about the “rules” re the need to : “pick up” a color that is in one surface or object by the color in some other surface or object that you are considering add to the room. I’m not much one for rules (unless they are truly necessrly and make your outcomes better when you follow them). And the whole “picking up” of color concept tends put me off, at least a little. But I do understand that it would likely be undesirable to have too many different colors in one room or area that do not relate well to each other (or perhaps even clash) and that therefore there is some risk when you interject a new color into a space that was not there previously (I guess thus the concept of “picking up” colors).

  24. Maria, your story is fantastic. Many creatives take a while to find the right niche. You have certainly found yours and your inspirational advice makes the world a prettier place! I loved the Dallas symposium and will apply some of the vast knowledge you presented in my home. Your blog still inspires! You and Teeria are a terrific and inspiring team.

  25. You are the perfect example of the axiom, “Winners never quit…” Thanks for sharing your marvelous story; many creatives struggle finding their niche. You certainly found yours and the world is a prettier place because of your talents.

  26. Dear Maria, Thank you for sharing your personal, inspiring story of the journey you have taken to the successful business you have today. I appreciate your honest account of the hard work and feelings of inadequacies that you had as you were building your career. It makes me think of the book “Outliers”, where the author Gladwell has what he calls “the 10,000-Hour Rule” — the number of hours of practice that are likely required “to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert — in anything.” Your sharing helps me to know my feelings of inadequacies can lead to growth.