You’ll be surprised at just how quickly you can go from zero to expert if certain websites are to be believed. Fancy learning Mandarin or any other language? The tools you need are “just a few clicks away”. You’ll need to no specific talent to become an authority – just a bank account.
Thanks to technology, the time to skills acquisition has been considerably shortened. These days, you can learn to speak a language in “as little as four weeks” if you apply yourself effectively. Although you may be able to master the basics of the language (spoiler alert!), you’re unlikely to become fluent in that language in just four weeks – fluency in a year or two would be more realistic.
Acquiring true expertise is a serious business. It’s found within people who have devoted years and invested every fiber of their being to developing themselves. James Clear talks about how Kobe Bryant, the American basketball player, shoots 800 times to improve his accuracy, and how Peyton Manning spends hours watches matches on film in order to find holes in the defenses of a rival team. There simply can be no doubting the dogged commitment, tenacity, and passion of these “true experts”.
Whatever your reasons for wanting to develop your own expertise, here’s how to go about developing it.
1. Break down your chosen field into sub-skills
Assuming you have a subject area in which you would like to become an expert, the next step is to break it down into a list of sub-skills – avoid the temptation to read everything and anything you can find on the subject on Google. If you wanted to develop expertise on wine tasting, for example, your sub-skills might include wine varietals, old world wines, new world wines, and wine and food pairing, amongst others. For this part of your journey to mastery, you’ll need to consult established experts, trustworthy blogs and, indeed, anything that will help you define the sub-skills that make up your area. Once you have identified these skills, commit to a program of self-study.
There are several ways to learn and, of course, you should choose the most convenient form of study for you whether it’s an online course, a podcast, or pursuing a relevant degree course.
Furthermore, you should look for books, articles, and journals written by experts in your field. If they have blogs and social media accounts, be sure to follow them. Engage with their content. Seek out opposing views so you are introduced to different perspectives and theories, thus broadening your own mind. Where possible, attend conferences, particularly those in which your experts will be speaking. Conferences are also a good way to network with others in your field and participate in challenging discussions and workshops.
3. Find an apprenticeship
Once you’ve invested enough time to acquire the skills and knowledge of your field through self-study, the next step is to gain practical experience in the form of an “apprenticeship”. The point of the apprenticeship is to gain practical experience and a deeper knowledge of the sub-skills you have identified, ideally from an expert.
If you would like to develop your expertise in journalism, for example, a good place to start would be to think about newsworthy events in your local area, then contact the editors of your local newspapers with a proposal to cover the events for free. This would give you valuable experience in writing to a deadline, a key sub-skill of journalism. It’s also a great opportunity to build relationships with other journalists working for the publication.
Using the wine tasting example described above, you could approach a wine store with a resident wine expert and volunteer to help out at a wine event. Ensure your proposal to work there is an attractive one so that you’re taken on without hesitation – you could stress the benefit of helping out with mundane tasks such as clearing up: the wine expert would have more time available for engaging with customers. An experience such as this would give you valuable insight into wine customers, their needs and desires, and it would help you see how the wine experts handle questions from customers and, more importantly, how they teach wine tasting. Alternatively, you could research all the sommeliers in your area and ask to spend a fixed amount time with them to help you develop your expertise – offer to pay for this time if necessary.
Studying from an expert is one of the best ways to develop your own expertise. It will mostly be easy to persuade an expert to share their knowledge with you: when a person reaches a certain level of expertise, they are often willing to impart their knowledge and insights. This is particularly the case if you can demonstrate enthusiasm, commitment, and a firm grasp of their field of expertise.
Be aware that experts know what they know through experience, and it’s an experience that cannot be simply handed over to you. What they know – the shortcuts, the secrets – comes from personal experience and context. You have to learn to “prey” for it. Ask targeted dissecting questions: “Why?” and “Can you give me an example of this?” are powerful questions that will elicit useful responses. Develop the skill of active listening; this will help you hear the true meaning behind their words. Although they may be experts of their field, they might not be experts at imparting knowledge (they’re not teachers). This means that they may not know how to effectively explain to you their motives and thought processes. It’s up to you, therefore, to ask the right questions and draw the right conclusions from whatever scraps they choose to give you.
4. Practise your skills
Once you’ve completed your program of study and your apprenticeship, it’s time to put your skills to the test. By far the easiest and least expensive way to do this is to look for side projects with very low risk to you personally (remember that “failure” is merely experience) or financially.
Using the wine example, you could offer to submit suggestions for wines to go with weekly/monthly published recipes in a local newspaper. Or you could write and self-publish a short eBook about wines from a particular region. Alternatively, you could offer to teach wine tasting at community events. Public speaking events are excellent opportunities to seek feedback on your presentation abilities, so be sure to get feedback from the audience on both the content and delivery of your presentation.
Blogging about your subject area is a great way to boost your accountability, too. Initially, your aim is not to have a massive audience – it’s simply to be accountable to yourself. Share your blog with your mentor (ideally someone with whom you’ve had an apprenticeship) and ask for their feedback on the quality of your content, and learn from their observations. As your confidence grows and as your blogging output increases, you can then begin to promote your blog and pitch articles to other blogs.
It’s important to take a step back from time to time to evaluate the work you’ve been doing. In terms of expertise, how far away are you from the experts that you’ve studied? What sub-skills do you need to improve? How will you bridge any gaps?
5. Build a strong network
Throughout your journey, you will have encountered a number of experts and others who are interested in your field. It’s important to stay connected with these people: one of the most motivating ways to continue learning is to be involved with a passionate group of people that share the same interest. They will also be your source of ideas and your access to other networks. Keep connecting with them – soon enough, you’ll land your first major teaching gig as a bona fide expert.
It can take time to become an expert – some estimates suggest that it can take more than five years. Practice makes perfect, but patience is required, too.
How have you become an expert in your chosen field? Share your tips and tricks with us in the comments section below!