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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

More by this author

3 Techniques for Setting Priorities Effectively How To Stop Procrastinating and Get Stuff Done Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide) The Science of Setting Goals (And Its Effect on Your Brain) Is Procrastination Bad? The Truth About Procrastination Revealed

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Last Updated on July 8, 2020

3 Techniques for Setting Priorities Effectively

3 Techniques for Setting Priorities Effectively

It is easy, in the onrush of life, to become a reactor – to respond to everything that comes up, the moment it comes up, and give it your undivided attention until the next thing comes up.

This is, of course, a recipe for madness. The feeling of loss of control over what you do and when is enough to drive you over the edge, and if that doesn’t get you, the wreckage of unfinished projects you leave in your wake will surely catch up with you.

Having an inbox and processing it in a systematic way can help you gain back some of that control. But once you’ve processed out your inbox and listed all the tasks you need to get cracking on, you still have to figure out what to do the very next instant. On which of those tasks will your time best be spent, and which ones can wait?

When we don’t set priorities, we tend to follow the path of least resistance. (And following the path of least resistance, as the late, great Utah Phillips reminded us, is what makes the river crooked!) That is, we’ll pick and sort through the things we need to do and work on the easiest ones – leaving the more difficult and less fun tasks for a “later” that, in many cases, never comes – or, worse, comes just before the action needs to be finished, throwing us into a whirlwind of activity, stress, and regret.

This is why setting priorities is so important.

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3 Effective Approaches to Set Priorities

There are three basic approaches to setting priorities, each of which probably suits different kinds of personalities. The first is for procrastinators, people who put off unpleasant tasks. The second is for people who thrive on accomplishment, who need a stream of small victories to get through the day. And the third is for the more analytic types, who need to know that they’re working on the objectively most important thing possible at this moment. In order, then, they are:

1. Eat a Frog

There’s an old saying to the effect that if you wake up in the morning and eat a live frog, you can go through the day knowing that the worst thing that can possibly happen to you that day has already passed. In other words, the day can only get better!

Popularized in Brian Tracy’s book Eat That Frog!, the idea here is that you tackle the biggest, hardest, and least appealing task first thing every day, so you can move through the rest of the day knowing that the worst has already passed.

When you’ve got a fat old frog on your plate, you’ve really got to knuckle down. Another old saying says that when you’ve got to eat a frog, don’t spend too much time looking at it! It pays to keep this in mind if you’re the kind of person that procrastinates by “planning your attack” and “psyching yourself up” for half the day. Just open wide and chomp that frog, buddy! Otherwise, you’ll almost surely talk yourself out of doing anything at all.

2. Move Big Rocks

Maybe you’re not a procrastinator so much as a fiddler, someone who fills her or his time fussing over little tasks. You’re busy busy busy all the time, but somehow, nothing important ever seems to get done.

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You need the wisdom of the pickle jar. Take a pickle jar and fill it up with sand. Now try to put a handful of rocks in there. You can’t, right? There’s no room.

If it’s important to put the rocks in the jar, you’ve got to put the rocks in first. Fill the jar with rocks, now try pouring in some pebbles. See how they roll in and fill up the available space? Now throw in a couple handfuls of gravel. Again, it slides right into the cracks. Finally, pour in some sand.

For the metaphorically impaired, the pickle jar is all the time you have in a day. You can fill it up with meaningless little busy-work tasks, leaving no room for the big stuff, or you can do the big stuff first, then the smaller stuff, and finally fill in the spare moments with the useless stuff.

To put it into practice, sit down tonight before you go to bed and write down the three most important tasks you have to get done tomorrow. Don’t try to fit everything you need, or think you need, to do, just the three most important ones.

In the morning, take out your list and attack the first “Big Rock”. Work on it until it’s done or you can’t make any further progress. Then move on to the second, and then the third. Once you’ve finished them all, you can start in with the little stuff, knowing you’ve made good progress on all the big stuff. And if you don’t get to the little stuff? You’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that you accomplished three big things. At the end of the day, nobody’s ever wished they’d spent more time arranging their pencil drawer instead of writing their novel, or printing mailing labels instead of landing a big client.

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3. Covey Quadrants

If you just can’t relax unless you absolutely know you’re working on the most important thing you could be working on at every instant, Stephen Covey’s quadrant system as written in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change might be for you.

Covey suggests you divide a piece of paper into four sections, drawing a line across and a line from top to bottom. Into each of those quadrants, you put your tasks according to whether they are:

  1. Important and Urgent
  2. Important and Not Urgent
  3. Not Important but Urgent
  4. Not Important and Not Urgent

    The quadrant III and IV stuff is where we get bogged down in the trivial: phone calls, interruptions, meetings (QIII) and busy work, shooting the breeze, and other time wasters (QIV). Although some of this stuff might have some social value, if it interferes with your ability to do the things that are important to you, they need to go.

    Quadrant I and II are the tasks that are important to us. QI are crises, impending deadlines, and other work that needs to be done right now or terrible things will happen. If you’re really on top of your time management, you can minimize Q1 tasks, but you can never eliminate them – a car accident, someone getting ill, a natural disaster, these things all demand immediate action and are rarely planned for.

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    You’d like to spend as much time as possible in Quadrant II, plugging away at tasks that are important with plenty of time to really get into them and do the best possible job. This is the stuff that the QIII and QIV stuff takes time away from, so after you’ve plotted out your tasks on the Covey quadrant grid, according to your own sense of what’s important and what isn’t, work as much as possible on items in Quadrant II (and Quadrant I tasks when they arise).

    Getting to Know You

    Spend some time trying each of these approaches on for size. It’s hard to say what might work best for any given person – what fits one like a glove will be too binding and restrictive for another, and too loose and unstructured for a third. You’ll find you also need to spend some time figuring out what makes something important to you – what goals are your actions intended to move you towards.

    In the end, setting priorities is an exercise in self-knowledge. You need to know what tasks you’ll treat as a pleasure and which ones like torture, what tasks lead to your objectives and which ones lead you astray or, at best, have you spinning your wheels and going nowhere.

    These three are the best-known and most time-tested strategies out there, but maybe you’ve got a different idea you’d like to share? Tell us how you set your priorities in the comments.

    More Tips for Effective Prioritization

    Featured photo credit: Mille Sanders via unsplash.com

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