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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

How to Take Notes Effectively: Powerful Note-Taking Techniques Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide) The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain) The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder That Works) Building Relationships: 11 Rules for Self-Promotion

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Last Updated on September 18, 2019

How to Take Notes Effectively: Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

How to Take Notes Effectively: Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

Note-taking is one of those skills that rarely gets taught. Almost everyone assumes either that taking good notes comes naturally or, that someone else must have already taught about how to take notes. Then, we sit around and complain that our colleagues don’t know how to take notes.

I figure it’s about time to do something about that. Whether you’re a student or a mid-level professional, the ability to take effective, meaningful notes is a crucial skill. Not only do good notes help us recall facts and ideas we may have forgotten, the act of writing things down helps many of us to remember them better in the first place.

One of the reasons people have trouble taking effective notes is that they’re not really sure what notes are for. I think a lot of people, students and professionals alike, attempt to capture a complete record of a lecture, book, or meeting in their notes — to create, in effect, minutes. This is a recipe for failure.

Trying to get every last fact and figure down like that leaves no room for thinking about what you’re writing and how it fits together. If you have a personal assistant, by all means, ask him or her to write minutes; if you’re on your own, though, your notes have a different purpose to fulfill.

The purpose of note-taking is simple: to help you work better and more quickly. This means your notes don’t have to contain everything, they have to contain the most important things.

And if you’re focused on capturing everything, you won’t have the spare mental “cycles” to recognize what’s truly important. Which means that later, when you’re studying for a big test or preparing a term paper, you’ll have to wade through all that extra garbage to uncover the few nuggets of important information?

What to Write Down

Your focus while taking notes should be two-fold. First, what’s new to you? There’s no point in writing down facts you already know. If you already know the Declaration of Independence was written and signed in 1776, there’s no reason to write that down. Anything you know you know, you can leave out of your notes.

Second, what’s relevant? What information is most likely to be of use later, whether on a test, in an essay, or in completing a project? Focus on points that directly relate to or illustrate your reading (which means you’ll have to have actually done the reading…). The kinds of information to pay special attention to are:

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Dates of Events

Dates allow you to create a chronology, putting things in order according to when they happened, and understand the context of an event.

For instance, knowing Isaac Newton was born in 1643 allows you to situate his work in relation to that of other physicists who came before and after him, as well as in relation to other trends of the 17th century.

Names of People

Being able to associate names with key ideas also helps remember ideas better and, when names come up again, to recognize ties between different ideas whether proposed by the same individuals or by people related in some way.

Theories or Frameworks

Any statement of a theory or frameworks should be recorded — they are the main points most of the time.

Definitions

Like theories, these are the main points and, unless you are positive you already know the definition of a term, should be written down.

Keep in mind that many fields use everyday words in ways that are unfamiliar to us.

Arguments and Debates

Any list of pros and cons, any critique of a key idea, both sides of any debate or your reading should be recorded.

This is the stuff that advancement in every discipline emerges from, and will help you understand both how ideas have changed (and why) but also the process of thought and development of the matter of subject.

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Images

Whenever an image is used to illustrate a point, a few words are in order to record the experience.

Obviously it’s overkill to describe every tiny detail, but a short description of a painting or a short statement about what the class, session or meeting did should be enough to remind you and help reconstruct the experience.

Other Stuff

Just about anything a professor writes on a board should probably be written down, unless it’s either self-evident or something you already know. Titles of books, movies, TV series, and other media are usually useful, though they may be irrelevant to the topic at hand.

I usually put this sort of stuff in the margin to look up later (it’s often useful for research papers, for example). Pay attention to other’s comments, too — try to capture at least the gist of comments that add to your understanding.

Your Own Questions

Make sure to record your own questions about the material as they occur to you. This will help you remember to ask the professor or look something up later, as well as prompt you to think through the gaps in your understanding.

3 Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

You don’t have to be super-fancy in your note-taking to be effective, but there are a few techniques that seem to work best for most people.

1. Outlining

Whether you use Roman numerals or bullet points, outlining is an effective way to capture the hierarchical relationships between ideas and data. For example, in a history class, you might write the name of an important leader, and under it the key events that he or she was involved in. Under each of them, a short description. And so on.

Outlining is a great way to take notes from books, because the author has usually organized the material in a fairly effective way, and you can go from start to end of a chapter and simply reproduce that structure in your notes.

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For lectures, however, outlining has limitations. The relationship between ideas isn’t always hierarchical, and the instructor might jump around a lot. A point later in the lecture might relate better to information earlier in the lecture, leaving you to either flip back and forth to find where the information goes best (and hope there’s still room to write it in), or risk losing the relationship between what the professor just said and what she said before.

2. Mind-Mapping

For lectures, a mind-map might be a more appropriate way of keeping track of the relationships between ideas. Now, I’m not the biggest fan of mind-mapping, but it might just fit the bill.

Here’s the idea:

In the center of a blank sheet of paper, you write the lecture’s main topic. As new sub-topics are introduced (the kind of thing you’d create a new heading for in an outline), you draw a branch outward from the center and write the sub-topic along the branch. Then each point under that heading gets its own, smaller branch off the main one. When another new sub-topic is mentioned, you draw a new main branch from the center. And so on.

The thing is, if a point should go under the first heading but you’re on the fourth heading, you can easily just draw it in on the first branch. Likewise, if a point connects to two different ideas, you can connect it to two different branches.

If you want to neaten things up later, you can re-draw the map or type it up using a program like FreeMind, a free mind-mapping program (some wikis even have plug-ins for FreeMind mind-maps, in case you’re using a wiki to keep track of your notes).

You can learn more about mind-mapping here: How to Mind Map: Visualize Your Cluttered Thoughts in 3 Simple Steps

3. The Cornell System

The Cornell System is a simple but powerful system for increasing your recall and the usefulness of your notes.

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About a quarter of the way from the bottom of a sheet of paper, draw a line across the width of the page. Draw another line from that line to the top, about 2 inches (5 cm) from the right-hand edge of the sheet.

You’ve divided your page into three sections. In the largest section, you take notes normally — you can outline or mind-map or whatever. After the lecture, write a series of “cues” into the skinny column on the right, questions about the material you’ve just taken notes on. This will help you process the information from the lecture or reading, as well as providing a handy study tool when exams come along: simply cover the main section and try to answer the questions.

In the bottom section, you write a short, 2-3 line summary in your own words of the material you’ve covered. Again, this helps you process the information by forcing you to use it in a new way; it also provides a useful reference when you’re trying to find something in your notes later.

You can download instructions and templates from American Digest, though the beauty of the system is you can dash off a template “on the fly”.

The Bottom Line

I’m sure I’m only scratching the surface of the variety of techniques and strategies people have come up with to take good notes. Some people use highlighters or colored pens; others a baroque system of post-it notes.

I’ve tried to keep it simple and general, but the bottom line is that your system has to reflect the way you think. The problem is, most haven’t given much thought to the way they think, leaving them scattered and at loose ends — and their notes reflect this.

More About Note-Taking

Featured photo credit: Kaleidico via unsplash.com

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