Why would anyone want to become an expert, you ask? Because it’s fun. It’s invigorating to really know something deeply or be able to do something well, and it has nothing to do with recognition from other people. Someone recently asked me how I became an expert in the field of giftedness (this was a reasonable question because I don’t have a Ph.D.), and that prompted this explanation of how you, too, can become an expert in anything in three simple steps. In the interest of full disclosure, there may be sub-steps.
A metaphor of tertiary education is very helpful here, as the three steps in the university ladder mirror the steps toward expertise. Here is the first step on the journey to expertise:
Step #1: Bachelor’s Degree (not literally)
You know how when people go to college, you almost hope they don’t choose a major they really love because they’re probably going to end up changing it anyway? This is because we go to college completely ignorant of most of what’s there. High school offerings are so much more limited that when we get to college and take classes on more esoteric subjects, whole new vistas open up to us.
If you want to be an expert in something, it’s important to begin by studying not only that thing, but also fulfilling the “general ed” requirements, keeping your mind open to the idea that what you initially begin studying may not be your true calling.
Imagine that knowledge is a color wheel. Your chosen area has complementary colors (opposite on the color wheel), as well as analogous colors (adjacent on the color wheel).
For instance, if you want to become an expert in business management, psychology is a complementary field, while marketing and economics are analogous fields. For me, studying giftedness, the complementary color was business (may seem odd, but business theory is closely aligned to excellence in all forms), and the analogous colors were psychology (particularly cognitive) and education in general. Identify what your interest’s “colors” are, and be sure to explore the analogous and complementary colors.
Additionally, all colors have shades (the color with black added to it) and tints (the color with white added to it). All fields have this as well. Shades of the field are the research side of it – professional publications, peer-reviewed journals, conferences and papers. Tints are the more accessible side of the field – blogs, articles in popular magazines, books by readable authors like Malcolm Gladwell and Dan Pink.
Explore the tints first. Subscribe to the blogs of the leaders in your field. Follow them on Twitter. Create a separate Twitter account for your identity in this field so that if people start following you back, they only see your contributions to this field, not what you had for dinner. Read the books and mine their bibliographies for the shades that interest you.
If what you are trying to become an expert in has a performance piece (this would include anything from piano to knitting), you need to explore the early practice of the field, and there is no better place to do this than YouTube. When my son was trying out for the soccer team, he would come home and scour YouTube for videos of soccer players demonstrating particular techniques. He didn’t end up making the team, but he’s still using the things he learned when he plays pick-up games with friends. Create an account just to follow people in this field.
You will also need a practice log and to understand the role of what researchers who study this call “deliberate practice,” which is, in essence, practice designed to make you better, not just tracking time. You can find more about this from the researcher himself (the shade version!) here or in a more conversational form (the tint) here.
Spend some time familiarizing yourself with the tools below because it will pay off in the long run.
What you don’t need to do yet: say anything. Right now, you don’t know what you don’t know, and it is better to wait until step two to begin to try to join the conversation.
Tools you need for this step (they’re all free):
Twitter account for this topic.
Diigo account or other place to save/store/organize great articles you find.
Evernote or other method to save/store/organize your thoughts.
Practice log and YouTube account (if applicable).
Overachievers can start a blog at this step to chronicle their journey to expertise.