Everyone wants to be an expert. Nothing wrong with that.
The problem is that many want to become an expert overnight!
Now that may be possible in very narrowly defined niches, but even there the desirability of such ‘expertise’ is in question. We all know and respect experts as having had long, immersive and intense knowledge and experience with a particular subject or skill. Indeed that’s the reason we look up to them.
Lately I’ve been noticing a flurry to create the ‘impression’ of being an expert – by writing a book, by building a brand, by giving talks and presentations – which is hard to understand or explain.
True, the authority symbols of being a published author or keynote speaker or syndicated columnist are helpful in enhancing the expert status you attain – but on their own, these things don’t make you an expert.
There’s a lot going on behind the scenes before you can appear on your stage wearing ‘expert status’ as the crown on your head. Let’s talk about it.
Why Be An Expert?
There are many good reasons why expert status is coveted. Here are some:
- Being an expert means you’re competent to deliver value to your clients, whatever you do. If you’re a doctor, you treat patients better. If you’re a writer, you deliver top class work.
- Being an expert means you’re respected by your peers. This is a big deal in many fields, especially competitive ones like research and consulting. It can translate into status, positions and lucrative contracts.
- Being an expert means you’re qualified to teach others. Depending upon your interest and desire to train people in areas that you’re a specialist, this perception of authority can help get serious students who are eager to learn from you.
- Being an expert means you’re able to command premium rates for services you render as an expert. This may be technical or consultative services, or skilled work like art and crafts, or even something like baking home-made cakes and cookies!
Expertise will always be desirable, and that’s a good reason to want to become an expert. But before you embark on your quest, you must understand a few nuances about expertise itself.
Expertise Is Relative
You could have a year’s experience at repairing roofs or painting buildings or growing roses. You would be considered an expert at a gathering of novice handymen or apprentice painters or amateur gardeners.
But with the exact same level of experience, if you walked into a national roofing convention, or attended an industrial meeting for painting contractors, or even a tea party with serious gardeners who have been at their hobby for decades, you would be looked upon as a ‘newbie’ or ‘beginner’.
Expertise, at any level, is relative. You know more than some. And you know less than others.
Expertise Is Achievable
The biggest myth of all is that expertise is reserved for a select few – and is unattainable for others. Not true. Everyone can be an expert. Yes, that includes you!
There are a few advantages that will carry you to expert status quicker or more easily. But there are hardly any obstacles that will completely prevent you from becoming an expert.
Before reading Adam J. Jackson’s amazing book “The Flip Side“, I used to think that there were certain physical, emotional and psychological factors that would keep one from achieving expertise in specific fields. But after hearing about the one-armed baseball pitcher for major leagues, and the blind man who mastered martial arts combat, I realize that every obstacle can be surmounted.
So realize that you can be an expert at anything you want – if you’re willing to take the steps that are necessary. What are they? We’ll talk about them next.
The 10,000 Hour Expert
As I did some research for this article, I traced the source for a powerful concept back to Malcolm Gladwell’s book, “Outliers“. In it, Gladwell has stated (with a lot of evidence to support the argument) that it takes 10,000 hours of involvement and practice to become an expert at something.
This means that to become expert at cooking, you should spend 10,000 hours on it. Or to be a top class writer, you must practice for 10,000 hours. Ditto for being a good musician or sportsman or to master any other skill.
Roughly, this translates into a period of ten to twenty years of practice in order to rightfully claim the label of “expert”. If you spend two hours a day, five days a week, then in a year you’ll invest 500 hours into your field… which will get you to expert status in TWENTY YEARS!
Too long to wait? Well, it gets even more intriguing.
Become Expert Through Intentional Practice
It isn’t enough to simply “be involved” in something for 10,000 hours to be considered an expert. If that was the case, you’d be an expert at things just by passively being engaged in them for the required period of time.
To become an expert it requires one more essential. Intentional practice.
Take golfing as an example. If you spent two hours daily hitting a golf ball on a course, you won’t magically turn into a Tiger Woods after 5, 10 or even 20 years. That would take “intentional practice”.
Intentional practice would mean…
- hitting golf balls for two hours every day with the intention of getting 80% of your shots to fall within 20 feet of the hole
- measuring your results to make adjustments and improvements that take you steadily closer to your goals
- learning what it takes to make those improvements
- practicing the new things you learned, and
- getting better at them through repetitive practice
Ask any sportsperson, like a basketball player, how many times they practice their shots or dunks or dribbles.
Ask any professional writer how many drafts they polish before the finished piece is ready.
Ask any medical doctor how many procedures they perform under supervision before being set free to treat patients on their own.
They all apply “intentional practice” for a sufficiently long period of time before attaining expert status. In contrast, those who mark time at a desk, waiting out their period until the system automatically promotes them to a higher post, continue to remain non-experts – regardless of the position they reach in an organization.
Expertise And Individuality
So will everyone take ten years to become an expert?
Of course not. That’s where the magical wonder of individual competence, determination and passion come in. Tony Robbins, the famous motivational speaker, talks about how he took on three or four speaking engagements in a day… at a time where his contemporaries were doing no more than one every week.
He compressed his “10 year” learning experience into barely 12 months – and that put him on the fast track to becoming an expert.
After I completed my specialty training in cardiac surgery, I wanted to gain as much exposure to coronary bypass surgery as possible – and joined a busy hospital unit, participating in as many as four operations every day. In just three months, I could honestly put on my resume the fact that I had been involved in over 200 CABG operations.
How quickly you become an expert depends upon how hard you’re willing to work at it, how able you are to acquire the knowledge and facility required, how determined you are to succeed… and how passionate you are about what you’re learning.
Passion And Expertise
If there’s one thing clear about becoming an expert, it’s this… Expertise takes time and effort to acquire.
“Instant expert” is a myth. Lasting, true and widely-acknowledged expertise comes only after long and intense learning, training and intentional practice. Wikipedia describes an expert as:
“… someone widely recognized as a reliable source of technique or skill whose faculty for judging or deciding rightly, justly, or wisely is accorded authority and status by their peers or the public in a specific well-distinguished domain. An expert, more generally, is a person with extensive knowledge or ability based on research, experience, or occupation and in a particular area of study.”
So how does passion enter this picture?
It helps you stay the course. When you’re passionate about something, you don’t want to give up on it.
It helps you enjoy the process. When you’re engaged in ‘passion work’, it feels like you’re always having fun.
It speeds up the time needed to succeed. When you’re learning stuff related to your passion, it happens faster and easier.
No, star athletes don’t particularly enjoy the act of waking up early every morning and jogging through cold, wet streets to train, or giving up their social life to practice on the court, or stick to rigid schedules while training. But they do it because they are passionate about their sport.
No, trainee doctors don’t relish the idea of spending their youth in stuffy hospital wards in close proximity to sickness and sometimes death. They do it because of their passion to heal and cure others.
No, amateur writers don’t enjoy staring at a blank word-processor screen, or crumpling up sheets of paper, or agonizing for hours over that perfect turn of phrase or the ideal choice of word. They do it because of their passion for putting thoughts and dreams into words.
Passion fuels expertise, which in turn keeps passion burning.
So on your quest to become an expert, choose whatever you’re passionate about and then put in the hard work that’s a pre-requisite to becoming a real expert – and only after that, focus your attention on the adornments and tools that showcase that expertise to the world… your book and your blog, your branding and your presentations.
And to help you decide if you really do want to be an expert, I’ll leave you with this joke:
“A specialist is someone who knows more and more about less and less until he eventually knows everything about nothing!”