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How to Become an Expert (And Spot out One Nearby)

How to Become an Expert (And Spot out One Nearby)

I’ve been thinking lately, what makes someone an “expert” in his or her field? How to become an expert?

For me, the question started to percolate through my mind when I was invited to speak at an academic conference on anthropology and counter-insurgency recently. Apparently, I had become an expert on the topic, someone people look to when they want more information.

How did that happen? This is not a topic I studied at school nor the subject of my dissertation; in fact, it wasn’t even really a topic at all until the US Army released their new counterinsurgency field manual in 2007 and started recruiting anthropologists for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.[1]

Thinking about how I came to be a “go-to” person on this topic has gotten me thinking about how anyone becomes the person to call when you need help, about how people become experts in their field.

It’s not so simple, I think, as just learning everything there is to know and hanging out your shingle. In fact, anyone who thinks they have learned everything there is to know about a topic probably isn’t an expert — I’d call them something closer to “rank amateur”.

What is an expert?

While knowledge is obviously an important quality of expertise, it’s only one of several factors that makes someone an expert in their field. I’ve come up with five characteristics of real experts, an expert is someone who has:

Knowledge

Clearly being an expert requires an immense working knowledge of your subject. Part of this is memorized information, and part of it is knowing where to find information you haven’t memorized.

Experience

In addition to knowledge, an expert needs to have significant experience working with that knowledge. S/he needs to be able to apply it in creative ways, to be able to solve problems that have no pre-existing solutions they can look up — and to identify problems that nobody else has noticed yet.

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Communication ability

Expertise without the ability to communicate it is practically pointless. Being the only person in the world who can solve a problem, time after time after time, doesn’t make you an expert, it makes you a slave to the problem.

It might make you a living, but it’s not going to give you much time to develop your expertise — meaning sooner or later, someone with knowledge and communication ability is going to figure out your secret (or worse, a better approach), teach it to the world, and leave you to the dustbin of history (with all the UNIX greybeards who are the only ones who can maintain the giant mainframes that nobody uses anymore).

Connectedness

Expertise is, ultimately, social; experts are embedded in a web of other experts who exchange new ideas and approaches to problems, and they are embedded in a wider social web that connects them to people who need their expertise.

Curiosity

Experts are curious about their fields and recognize the limitations of their own understanding of it. They are constantly seeking new answers, new approaches, and new ways of extending their field.

How to become an expert

Most of the time, we carefully pursue expertise, whether through schooling, self-education, on-the-job training, or some other avenue.

There’s no “quick and easy” path to expertise. That said, people do become experts every day, in all sorts of fields. You become an expert by focusing on these things:

1. Perpetual learning

Being an expert means being aware, sometimes painfully aware, of the limitations of your current level of knowledge. There simply is no point as which you’re “done” learning your field.

Invest yourself in a lifelong learning process. Constantly be on the lookout for ideas and views both within and from outside your own field that cna extend your own understanding.

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2. Networking

Build strong connections

with other people in your field. Seek out mentors — and make yourself available to the less experienced.

Also, learn to promote yourself to the people who need your skills — the only way you’ll gain experience is by getting out and doing.

3. Practice

Not just in the “gain experience” sense but in your the “practice what you preach” sense, you wouldn’t trust a personal organizer who always forgot your appointments, or a search engine optimization expert whose site was listed on the 438th results page in Google, right?

It’s said that putting in about 10,000 hours of practice, and you’ll become an expert.[2] But in fact, the number of hours you repeat doing one thing is not enough to make you an expert. Only by putting in hours of deliberate practice will you become a genuine expert.

Your daily practice needs to reflect your expertise, or people will not trust you as an expert.

4. Presentation skills

Learn to use whatever technologies you need to present your expertise in the best possible way. And by “technologies” I don’t just mean web design and PowerPoint, I mean writing, drawing, public speaking — even the way you dress will determine whether you’re taken for an expert or a know-it-all schmuck.

5. Sharing

Ten years ago, nobody knew they needed expert bloggers on their staff to promote themselves. Five years ago, nobody knew they needed SEO experts to get attention for their websites.

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A handful of early experts — experts that, in some cases, didn’t even know what they were experts in — shared enough of what they knew to make people understand why they needed experts.

Share your knowledge widely, so that a) people understand why they need an expert, and b) you don’t become a one-trick pony who is the only person who can fix a particular problem.

For an even more comprehensive guide on how to become an expert in anything, check this out:

How to Be A Genuine Expert in Your Field

How to spot out an expert

The sad fact is, there are a lot of people out there passing themselves off as experts who aren’t experts at all — who may not even be competent. How can you tell if someone’s putting you on?

It can be hard to tell the fake experts from the real ones; many fakes have a great deal of expertise in the field of coming off as an expert! But here are a few things to look for:

Commitment

Experts are enthusiastic about their fields of expertise. It’s the only thing that keeps them growing as an expert.

Look for serious, obvious commitment to the field. Experts don’t have to do what they do, they get to.

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Authenticity

A real expert doesn’t need to scam anyone to sell his/her services. S/he practices what s/he preaches. If you feel that someone is trying to pull one over on you, find someone else.

Openness

Expertise speaks for itself. Trade secrets are for people who aren’t confident in their abilities that fear you won’t need them if you know what they’re doing. This does not apply to magicians, who are special.)

If someone is unwilling to explain to you what they’re doing, move onto the next expert.

Open-mindedness

Experts are always looking for new approaches to the problems they’re good at solving. They should also understand the mistakes that non-experts make, and why they’re mistakes.

If your expert is dismissive when you explain what you thought might be the problem, it usually means they think they have all the answers.

Real experts know they don’t.

Clarity

An expert should be able to explain to you exactly what they’re doing and why. While every field has its own jargon, any real expert can describe their work without using it — jargon is useful within a field as a kind of short-hand for complicated concepts or procedures, but has no place when dealing with people outside the field.

If they can’t say what they’re doing in language you understand, there’s a good chance they’re either a) trying to rip you off (think “shady auto mechanics”, here) or b) they don’t really understand what they’re doing or why.

Now you know what you need to do to become an expert in your field and how to spot out a genuine expert to learn from, go out and explore knowledge, stay curious and practice to turn yourself an expert!

Featured photo credit: Sam McGhee via unsplash.com

Reference

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Last Updated on January 21, 2020

Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

Most of the skills I use to make a living are skills I’ve learned on my own: Web design, desktop publishing, marketing, personal productivity skills, even teaching! And most of what I know about science, politics, computers, art, guitar-playing, world history, writing, and a dozen other topics, I’ve picked up outside of any formal education.

This is not to toot my own horn at all; if you stop to think about it, much of what you know how to do you’ve picked up on your own. But we rarely think about the process of becoming self-taught. This is too bad, because often, we shy away from things we don’t know how to do without stopping to think about how we might learn it — in many cases, fairly easily.

The way you approach the world around you dictates to a great degree whether you will find learning something new easy or hard.

The Keys to Learning Anything Easily

Learning comes easily to people who have developed:

Curiosity

Being curious means you look forward to learning new things and are troubled by gaps in your understanding of the world. New words and ideas are received as challenges and the work of understanding them is embraced.

People who lack curiosity see learning new things as a chore — or worse, as beyond their capacities.

Patience

Depending on the complexity of a topic, learning something new can take a long time. And it’s bound to be frustrating as you grapple with new terminologies, new models, and apparently irrelevant information.

When you are learning something by yourself, there is nobody to control the flow of information, to make sure you move from basic knowledge to intermediate and finally advanced concepts.

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Patience with your topic, and more importantly with yourself is crucial — there’s no field of knowledge that someone in the world hasn’t managed to learn, starting from exactly where you are.

A Feeling for Connectedness

This is the hardest talent to cultivate, and is where most people flounder when approaching a new topic.

A new body of knowledge is always easiest to learn if you can figure out the way it connects to what you already know. For years, I struggled with calculus in college until one day, my chemistry professor demonstrated how to do half-life calculations using integrals. From then on, calculus came much easier, because I had made a connection between a concept I understood well (the chemistry of half-lifes) and a field I had always struggled in (higher maths).

The more you look for and pay attention to the connections between different fields, the more readily your mind will be able to latch onto new concepts.

How to Self-Taught Effectively

With a learning attitude in place, working your way into a new topic is simply a matter of research, practice, networking, and scheduling:

1. Research

Of course, the most important step in learning something new is actually finding out stuff about it. I tend to go through three distinct phases when I’m teaching myself a new topic:

Learning the Basics

Start as all things start today: Google it! Somehow people managed to learn before Google ( I learned HTML when Altavista was the best we got!) but nowadays a well-formed search on Google will get you a wealth of information on any topic in seconds.

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Surfing Wikipedia articles is a great way to get a basic grounding in a new field, too — and usually the Wikipedia entry for your search term will be on the first page of your Google search.

What I look for is basic information and then the work of experts — blogs by researchers in a field, forums about a topic, organizational websites, magazines. I subscribe to a bunch of RSS feeds to keep up with new material as it’s posted, I print out articles to read in-depth later, and I look for the names of top authors or top books in the field.

Hitting the Books

Once I have a good outline of a field of knowledge, I hit the library. I look up the key names and titles I came across online, and then scan the shelves around those titles for other books that look interesting.

Then, I go to the children’s section of the library and look up the same call numbers — a good overview for teens is probably going to be clearer, more concise, and more geared towards learning than many adult books.

Long-Term Reference

While I’m reading my stack of books from the library, I start keeping my eyes out for books I will want to give a permanent place on my shelves. I check online and brick-and-mortar bookstores, but also search thrift stores, used bookstores, library book sales, garage sales, wherever I happen to find myself in the presence of books.

My goal is a collection of reference manuals and top books that I will come back to either to answer thorny questions or to refresh my knowledge as I put new skills into practice. And to do this cheaply and quickly.

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2. Practice

Putting new knowledges into practice helps us develop better understandings now and remember more later. Although a lot of books offer exercises and self-tests, I prefer to jump right in and build something: a website, an essay, a desk, whatever.

A great way to put any new body of knowledge into action is to start a blog on it — put it out there for the world to see and comment on.

Just don’t lock your learning up in your head where nobody ever sees how much you know about something, and you never see how much you still don’t know.

Check out this guide for useful techniques to help you practice efficiently: The Beginner’s Guide to Deliberate Practice

3. Network

One of the most powerful sources of knowledge and understanding in my life have been the social networks I have become embedded in over the years — the websites I write on, the LISTSERV I belong to, the people I talk with and present alongside at conferences, my colleagues in the department where I studied and the department where I now teach, and so on.

These networks are crucial to extending my knowledge in areas I am already involved, and for referring me to contacts in areas where I have no prior experience. Joining an email list, emailing someone working in the field, asking colleagues for recommendations, all are useful ways of getting a foothold in a new field.

Networking also allows you to test your newly-acquired knowledge against others’ understandings, giving you a chance to grow and further develop.

Here find out How to Network So You’ll Get Way Ahead in Your Professional Life.

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4. Schedule

For anything more complex than a simple overview, it pays to schedule time to commit to learning. Having the books on the shelf, the top websites bookmarked, and a string of contacts does no good if you don’t give yourself time to focus on reading, digesting, and implementing your knowledge.

Give yourself a deadline, even if there is no externally imposed time limit, and work out a schedule to reach that deadline.

Final Thoughts

In a sense, even formal education is a form of self-guided learning — in the end, a teacher can only suggest and encourage a path to learning, at best cutting out some of the work of finding reliable sources to learn from.

If you’re already working, or have a range of interests beside the purely academic, formal instruction may be too inconvenient or too expensive to undertake. That doesn’t mean you have to set aside the possibility of learning, though; history is full of self-taught successes.

At its best, even a formal education is meant to prepare you for a life of self-guided learning; with the power of the Internet and the mass media at our disposal, there’s really no reason not to follow your muse wherever it may lead.

More About Self-Learning

Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com

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