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Last Updated on October 2, 2018

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

More by this author

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Last Updated on March 13, 2019

How to Get out of a Rut: 12 Useful Ways to Get Unstuck

How to Get out of a Rut: 12 Useful Ways to Get Unstuck

Have you gotten into a rut before? Or are you in a rut right now?

You know you’re in a rut when you run out of ideas and inspiration. I personally see a rut as a productivity vacuum. It might very well be a reason why you aren’t getting results. Even as you spend more time on your work, you can’t seem to get anything constructive done. While I’m normally productive, I get into occasional ruts (especially when I’ve been working back-to-back without rest). During those times, I can spend an entire day in front of the computer and get nothing done. It can be quite frustrating.

Over time, I have tried and found several methods that are helpful to pull me out of a rut. If you experience ruts too, whether as a working professional, a writer, a blogger, a student or other work, you will find these useful. Here are 12 of my personal tips to get out of ruts:

1. Work on the small tasks.

When you are in a rut, tackle it by starting small. Clear away your smaller tasks which have been piling up. Reply to your emails, organize your documents, declutter your work space, and reply to private messages.

Whenever I finish doing that, I generate a positive momentum which I bring forward to my work.

2. Take a break from your work desk.

Get yourself away from your desk and go take a walk. Go to the washroom, walk around the office, go out and get a snack.

Your mind is too bogged down and needs some airing. Sometimes I get new ideas right after I walk away from my computer.

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3. Upgrade yourself

Take the down time to upgrade yourself. Go to a seminar. Read up on new materials (#7). Pick up a new language. Or any of the 42 ways here to improve yourself.

The modern computer uses different typefaces because Steve Jobs dropped in on a calligraphy class back in college. How’s that for inspiration?

4. Talk to a friend.

Talk to someone and get your mind off work for a while.

Talk about anything, from casual chatting to a deep conversation about something you really care about. You will be surprised at how the short encounter can be rejuvenating in its own way.

5. Forget about trying to be perfect.

If you are in a rut, the last thing you want to do is step on your own toes with perfectionist tendencies.

Just start small. Do what you can, at your own pace. Let yourself make mistakes.

Soon, a little trickle of inspiration will come. And then it’ll build up with more trickles. Before you know it, you have a whole stream of ideas.

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6. Paint a vision to work towards.

If you are continuously getting in a rut with your work, maybe there’s no vision inspiring you to move forward.

Think about why you are doing this, and what you are doing it for. What is the end vision in mind?

Make it as vivid as possible. Make sure it’s a vision that inspires you and use that to trigger you to action.

7. Read a book (or blog).

The things we read are like food to our brain. If you are out of ideas, it’s time to feed your brain with great materials.

Here’s a list of 40 books you can start off with. Stock your browser with only the feeds of high quality blogs, such as Lifehack.org, DumbLittleMan, Seth Godin’s Blog, Tim Ferris’ Blog, Zen Habits or The Personal Excellence Blog.

Check out the best selling books; those are generally packed with great wisdom.

8. Have a quick nap.

If you are at home, take a quick nap for about 20-30 minutes. This clears up your mind and gives you a quick boost. Nothing quite like starting off on a fresh start after catching up on sleep.

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9. Remember why you are doing this.

Sometimes we lose sight of why we do what we do, and after a while we become jaded. A quick refresher on why you even started on this project will help.

What were you thinking when you thought of doing this? Retrace your thoughts back to that moment. Recall why you are doing this. Then reconnect with your muse.

10. Find some competition.

Nothing quite like healthy competition to spur us forward. If you are out of ideas, then check up on what people are doing in your space.

Colleagues at work, competitors in the industry, competitors’ products and websites, networking conventions.. you get the drill.

11. Go exercise.

Since you are not making headway at work, might as well spend the time shaping yourself up.

Sometimes we work so much that we neglect our health and fitness. Go jog, swim, cycle, whichever exercise you prefer.

As you improve your physical health, your mental health will improve, too. The different facets of ourselves are all interlinked.

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Here’re 15 Tips to Restart the Exercise Habit (and How to Keep It).

12. Take a good break.

Ruts are usually signs that you have been working too long and too hard. It’s time to get a break.

Beyond the quick tips above, arrange for a 1-day or 2-days of break from your work. Don’t check your (work) emails or do anything work-related. Relax and do your favorite activities. You will return to your work recharged and ready to start.

Contrary to popular belief, the world will not end from taking a break from your work. In fact, you will be much more ready to make an impact after proper rest. My best ideas and inspiration always hit me whenever I’m away from my work.

Take a look at this to learn the importance of rest: The Importance of Scheduling Downtime

More Resources About Getting out of a Rut

Featured photo credit: Joshua Earle via unsplash.com

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