zen habits : breathe

5 Simple Principles for Becoming an Expert

Editor’s note: This is a guest post from Corbett Barr of Expert Enough.

There aren’t shortcuts.

Merely direct paths.

Most people don’t take them, because they frighten us.

Things that look like shortcuts are usually detours disguised as less work.

-Seth Godin

For the past month, I’ve been studying people who have become skilled and knowledgeable enough to be called “experts” in preparation for the launch of a new blog.

I’ve interviewed experts, spent time with them and have asked them whether shortcuts exist to becoming an expert (and received some incredible responses like the one from Seth Godin above). I’ve even read books by people who study success and expertise (expertologists?).

Part of me expected to find some secret shortcuts to becoming an expert, and part of me knew better. I’m most interested in how people gain expert-level skills and knowledge on multiple subjects quickly. Being a renaissance man has always appealed to me, as has getting very good at just a couple of things. Both types of expertise are as fascinating as they are useful.

Despite wanting to believe secrets and shortcuts to expertise exist, deep down I think I’ve always known what you probably know too: becoming an expert takes hard work, focus and dedication.

There are certainly ways to become an expert faster than traditional teaching might dictate, but there’s no getting around putting your time in.

The good news is, becoming an expert is much like changing a habit. The fact that secrets don’t exist is a good thing in my book, because we can stop wasting time searching for secrets and start making direct progress towards our goals.

Instead of looking for secrets, rely simply on these best practices for becoming an expert:

1. Realize expert is a relative term.

I’m a big believer in relative expertise. For most purposes, you don’t need to be the world’s foremost expert on something to benefit from what you know. Being expert enough means knowing enough or being good enough to accomplish your goals, however modest or grand they may be.

Someone once told me to think about expertise as a scale from one to ten, not as an absolute. If you’re a two or three on the scale, you’re expert enough to help people who are ones and twos. In fact, you might be better suited to helping beginners than a ten on the expert scale, because you’re closer to their level and better understand where they’re coming from.

2. Learn from books and experience.

There’s a time for learning and a time for practicing. A true expert needs to have both expertise (book learning) and experience (real-world practice).

For example, if you want to become a bodybuilder, all the reading you can possibly do won’t help you actually build muscle (unless they’re really heavy books). On the other hand, would-be bodybuilders who just jump into lifting weights without learning about best practices won’t know time-saving techniques and principles for optimum rep counts, resting time between sets, nutrition, supplements and more.

There’s a balance between learning and doing. Most people spend far too much time doing one or the other. If you’ve been mostly learning, it’s probably time to start doing. If you’ve long been practicing without the results you’re looking for, it’s time to learn more and time to focus, which brings us to point #3.

3. Focus.

Just as Leo advocates for changing habits, focus is a powerful ally for gaining expertise (especially in the beginning).

When you start learning something new, it’s easy to become daunted by everything you have to master to reach your final goal. Instead of just focusing on the very next step you need to take, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the bigger picture.

Focus is critical for two reasons. First, it helps you pay attention to the task at hand so you don’t become paralyzed by the thought of everything to follow. Second, you have to focus so you can ignore all the possible distractions that are always waiting to pull you off your path.

You can follow Leo’s four steps for changing habits to focus on what you need to become an expert:

1. Start very small.
2. Do only one change at a time.
3. Be present and enjoy the activity (don’t focus on results).
4. Be grateful for every step you take.

4. Get outside help.

When I asked productivity coach Charlie Gilkey about whether shortcuts exist to becoming an expert, he pointed out another critical aspect of gaining expertise:

When you look at peak-performing experts, you’ll often see that they have either coaches, involved mentors, or a pack of growth-oriented friends that help them excel. You simply can’t gauge your performance as well as someone external can, and, past the “competent” stage of skill acquisition, it gets increasingly harder to both observe what you’re doing and find quick and easy answers as to how to improve.

At some point, learning and practicing will only get you so far. You need feedback from outsiders to uncover more opportunities for improvement.

5. Make mistakes.

Fear of failure might be the biggest opponent you’ll face on your road to learning new things.

Take something as simple as learning a language. As language hacking expert Benny Lewis explains, people who speak a language learn it. People who don’t speak a language don’t learn it. It’s simple: you need to learn and practice. What keeps many people from practicing a language is the fear of making mistakes and embarrassing themselves.

You have to be willing to make mistakes in order to learn and grow. That’s what practice is. The sooner you get comfortable with making mistakes, the quicker you’ll learn your new skill.

What’s on your wish list to learn and do?

Maybe there’s a skill you’re actively trying to get better at, or maybe you’ve been afraid to get started. In either case, try these five simple principles and see if you can make a breakthrough.

Try becoming a (relative) expert in something you’ve always wanted to learn or do. There are few things as rewarding and fun as acquiring new skills and knowledge that enrich your life.

Corbett Barr is founder of Expert Enough, where he helps people become experts of all levels.



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