How To Become an Expert in 3 Steps

Becoming an authority in your field

I love speaking in public and my dream is to become a professional speaker. But after reading Jane Atkinson’s The Wealthy Speaker 2.0 and talking with some professionals, I’ve realized I first need to get serious about honing my expertise.

So how do you become an expert fast?

Here’s my recipe in three steps (this is the summary of a video I published a few years ago).

  1. Master your topic
  2. Find your voice
  3. Get noticed

Before embarking on this project, you need to realize that an expertise is a relative thing. After a couple years of practice for instance, you could be an expert in the eyes of first-timers, while career professionals might still see you as a beginner.

One rule of thumb says an expert is someone who knows more than 95% of people in the field.

  1. Master your topic

First, you need to pick a niche and focus all your energy on it. The narrower you go, the faster your expertise will emerge. For example, in The End of Jobs, Taylor Pearson tells the story of a guy who became the world’s leading authority on duck blind construction after publishing an e-book on the topic. Some call this micro-specializing.

(I know, in this blog, I don’t practice what I preach; that’s because I’ve got a special blogging strategy)

Depending on your current level of expertise, experience and motivation, this first step may take between one and three years (or more if you adhere to the 10 000-hour rule). The key is to follow a regular and strict program with the right mix of theory and practice.

  1. Find your voice

Second, you need to stand out and find your own voice. Your value as an expert comes from not only your knowledge and experience, but more specifically from your opinion and perspective. And the more different and original these are, the more value your expertise.

In other words, an expert must be a leader with a clear and personal vision. What defines experts is the way their thoughts are organized, and the fastest track to get there is to write a book. I know it sounds like a big job, but see it as writing a long term paper. You can do it within a year.

  1. Get noticed

Finally, you need to get noticed, and that means promoting your expertise. You can’t be an authority in anything if nobody knows you even exist.

Fortunately, the web makes this step easier. You should build an authority website and/or blog, speak whenever you can (clubs, libraries, seminars, etc.), generate press and PR, and create your social media real estate (Fred Gleeck).

How long before you get some attention? If you got steps 1 and 2 right, marketing and positioning yourself as an expert can be done within a year.

As you can see, you could become an expert in your field in less than five years. There are no shortcuts though; it takes hard work, focus and dedication. But it’s the best way to amplify your value and that of society in general.

This is what peak learning is all about.

Why I’ve Decided To Be A Generalist (For Now)

the bird's eye view of a generalist

My blogging strategy goes against the advice of most experts.

A blog should stick to one topic and target one audience, right? As Blog Expert Jonathan Milligan puts it, you first need to decide who you want to help and how to help them. Focus is key.

But, as you might have noticed, I’m doing the exact opposite here. My current strategy is to tackle the big field of learning from all possible angles.

Learning is my passion, and I want to explore all its facets. In other words, I want to look at it through the eyes of

  • a knowledge worker
  • a manager
  • a teacher
  • a student
  • a parent
  • a child
  • a psychologist
  • a biologist
  • an economist
  • an anthropologist
  • etc.

With my Liberal Arts education, I’m a generalist by trade, and there are clear advantages to that.

First, it’s easier for generalists to be creative. Knowing a little about a lot provides us with a big picture and enables us to draw more connections. In this interconnected world, some even say the future belongs to generalists.

Also, according to a study that analyzed more than 80 000 forecasters, generalists are able to predict the future more accurately than specialists. That’s because specialists are often prisoners of their single perspective. In an unpredictable world like ours, the generalist may again have an edge here.

That being said, you can’t afford not to be a specialist either. For obvious reasons. When you have a problem, do you go see an expert or a jack-of-all-trades?

So where does this leave me?

My strategy is to continue exploring as many aspects of learning as possible till I’ve published 100 posts. This will give me a better grasp of this massive topic and enable me to test my options before I start narrowing them down.

Then I’ll select one specific area and drill down through it. I’m already pretty sure of the direction I’ll take, but I‘d rather carry on with my exploration before revealing anything here.

What’s the lesson for peak learners?

You’ve got to find the right balance between being a generalist and a specialist. After becoming an expert at something, you’ll see how your generalist skills will really grow in value.

The question is how to go about this. Some, like Marketing Strategist Dorie Clark, recommend mastering a niche first and expanding from there. Others, like me, prefer doing it the other way around, that is getting the big picture before picking a lane.

What’s important is to have both.

The Two Main Theories of Brain Evolution

brain evolution

Fossil records (skull size) and archeology (tools) show a clear evolution in our species’ cognitive abilities.

But, when you think about it, our current level of intelligence is far from being necessary for survival. Hunter-gathers could easily get by without abstraction, reasoning and even language.

So where does human intelligence come from? Why has our brain size tripled in the course of our journey?

Two main reasons can account for this spectacular brain expansion. In other words, humans have developed larger brains to deal with either one of the following elements or a combination of both:

  1. Their physical environment
  2. Their fellow humans

In turn, this has led to two sets of hypotheses, namely

  1. Ecological theories
  2. Social theories

Ecological theorists argue that learning to master the environment gradually caused human intelligence to evolve. Without getting into specific theories, here are four factors that might have played a role in this increase.

  1. Food: A positive correlation exits between diet quality and brain size in primates.
  2. Foraging: The increase of food sources required a better memory.
  3. Bipedalism: Tool use increased the demands on cognitive abilities.
  4. Climate: The challenges of climate change called for better problem-solving skills.

The problem with ecological theories is that these factors aren’t unique to humans, which may explain why social theories have become more popular.

Social theorists, on the other hand, argue that living in complex social grouping is what provoked cognitive development in our species. Here again, instead of going over different theories, let’s look at three important (and interrelated) factors.

  1. Social complexity: The wide range of social rules required high-level cognitive skills.
  2. Sexual selection: The choice of intelligent mates created a positive feedback loop.
  3. Language: A symbolic system fosters conceptualization and inference skills.

At the moment, the predominant model explaining the emergence of human intelligence is the ecological dominance-social competition (EDSC) theory, which is a mix of ecological and social theories.

In short, it says that an initial growth of intelligence was enough to overcome ecological pressures, which caused population to increase. This, in turn, forced humans to compete and collaborate with each other, which led to larger brains and higher intelligence.

So humans became peak learners through collaboration and competition.

Here there may be an interesting parallel with knowledge workers, whose success in the organization often comes from their high level of emotional intelligence.

3 Reasons Why Learning Is Essential To Leadership

learning is the key to leadership

If you’ve read books or attended conferences about leadership, the topic of learning must’ve taken up a large chunk of the discussion, right? It always does.

Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other,” as John F. Kennedy said.

But if I asked you why learning is essential to leadership, would you be able to give me a clear answer?

Not easy, is it?

Here’s my answer in three points:

Leaders must be learners, because leadership is about

  1. changing oneself
  2. changing others
  3. changing the world

So is leadership all about change?

Yes it is.

Real leadership is transformational, and that means it’s in the business of growing people and changing things for the better.

  1. Leadership is about changing yourself

The premise behind this first principle is that leadership is not about personality, but behavior. So becoming a leader means improving your behavior, and your two sources of learning here are your past and other people.

You learn from your past by developing a high degree of self-awareness, by spotting your mistakes and by adjusting your behavior accordingly. Seeing mistakes as opportunities is crucial.

You learn from others by observing, listening and asking for advice. Good leaders look and listen more than they speak. How can you inspire people if you don’t understand their needs and motivation?

  1. Leadership is about changing others

As the American businessman H. Firestone said, “the growth and development of people is the highest calling of leadership.

So good leaders inspire people to learn and go beyond their comfort zone. The best way to achieve that is to teach by example and become a role model. Ultimately, your goal as a leader is to produce more leaders.

  1. Leadership is about changing the world

“Innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower,” as Steve Jobs famously said. So if you don’t have a vision to make things better, you’re not a leader.

But before challenging the status quo and transforming your organization, you first need to be an effective learner. You must become “the change you want to see in the world.”

All in all, great leaders have no choice but to be peak learners, and peak learners are well positioned to become great leaders.

Leadership is not an outcome, but a process, and that’s why learning is an integral part of it.

2 Fundamental Reasons Why People Don’t Like Change

fear of change

I grew up in a traditional environment that had a strong bias against change. For example, the main social changes of the last 50 years were rejected, technological change was often deemed suspicious, and the good old days were definitely preferred to the depressing modern times.

But since then, I’ve noticed that this bias in favor of the status quo is strong everywhere. Granted, our world is changing faster than ever, but truth be told, only a handful of change agents are responsible for that.

People resist change for political, sociological and psychological reasons. Today I’ll dwell on the latter and show that resistance to change runs really deep.

Here are the two culprits responsible for this situation:

  1. Fear: Humans are hardwired to initially dislike unfamiliar stimuli
  2. Laziness: Humans use System 1 (an automatic mode of thinking) by default

First, people unconsciously prefer things for no other reason than their being familiar with those. This phenomenon is called the mere-exposure effect and has been studied extensively.

Of course, for our ancestors, this made sense. As the psychologist Gary Marcus says, what great-great-great-grandma knew and didn’t kill her was probably a safer bet than what she didn’t know. Similarly, those who stuck to the well known tended to outlast those ventured too far into uncharted territories.

Fear of the unknown and attachment to the familiar might once have helped us adapt, but now we’re stuck with this unconscious bias. This explains why incumbents are typically favored in an election, and why people often accept and even defend systems that truly threaten their self-interest (slavery, communism, apartheid, etc.).

Second, people instinctively rely on a cognitive process, System 1 (see my post on the topic), that discourages change.

Yes, we’re lazy and often prefer using heuristics (mental shortcuts) rather than deliberate thinking. For example, instead of analyzing the costs and benefits of a change, we’ll apply this simple rule: “If it’s in place, it must be working.”

This reliance on System 1 explains why we’re creatures of habit, and why it’s so hard to break away from routines and comfort zones. It’s true that habits increase efficiency, but they also impede improvement and innovation.

You can always change for the better; so be on the look out for those improvement opportunities. More than anybody else, peak learners must avoid inertia and embrace change.

3 Things To Know About The Learning Curve

the learning curve

In my workplace, we’re fighting over our learning curve (of course, we don’t call it that).

It has to do with our pay scales and job categories. To make a long story short, if we can prove to our employer that it takes our rookies two years instead of just one to be fully autonomous, we’ll move up a category and get a 5% raise. Yes, there’s excitement in the air.

In any job or human activity, efficiency increases with repetition, and a learning curve is the best way to quantify and graphically show that improvement.

Here are three things you should know about this curve.

First, the learning curve can either go up or down. It goes down when it measures the decreasing time, energy or number of trials needed to perform a task (vertical axis) as experience increases (horizontal axis).

But usually, the first image that comes to mind is a curve that goes up. In this case, we measure the increasing scores or amount of learning (vertical axis) that result from increasing experience or study (horizontal axis).

By the way, when people speak of a steep learning curve, they actually say the opposite of what they think, because a steep curve really means rapid progress.

Second, the learning curve usually follows an S-shape (see image above). When you start something new, you typically struggle at first; after a while, you quickly improve; but as time goes on, your rate of improvement decreases and even levels off.

This last phase derives from the law of diminishing returns, which says that making progress becomes more and more difficult as you get closer to a high level of expertise. Each unit of input will produce less and less output.

The S-shape is especially true for skill learning. My daughter is currently learning to play the recorder, and I can testify to that.

Third, the learning curve is used in many industries, not only to assess the progress of workers but also that of the organization as a whole. Each time the production quantity is doubled, the rate of improvement can increase from 5% to 30% depending on the type of work.

Here are some industries’ average rates of learning.

  • Raw materials: 5%
  • Electronics manufacturing: 10%
  • Aerospace: 15%
  • Shipbuilding: 20%
  • Electrical operations: 25%

As my story above shows, my employer pays us according to some preset categories of difficulty rather than considering individual improvement. But variations exist not only among tasks, but obviously among people too.

Do you know how to recognize peak learners’ learning curves? Well, look for curves that are steep, straight and that seem to go on forever.

Economic growth is impossible without learning

cause of economic growth

If you think education is expensive, try ignorance,” as a former president of Harvard University famously said.

Whatever its primary purpose is (or should be), education has a huge effect on any country’s productivity and economic health.

When you look at the data, you see a clear correlation between the education level of a population (enrollment ratio) and its country’s GDP. Today, let’s go further and explore how learning is actually the main driving force behind current economic growth.

First off, how does an economy grow?

If you remember your economics class, you know growth usually depends on the increase of the four traditional production factors, namely

  1. Land
  2. Labor
  3. Capital
  4. Entrepreneurship

But in reality, these inputs are typically hard to change in developed economies. Instead, as some recent theories have proposed, economic growth comes down to two things:

  1. Working smarter (human capital)
  2. Using better tools (technology)

So, in knowledge economies, getting better beats getting more. Of course, working harder, using more machines, and extracting natural resources from more land will generate some growth. But that’s not where most of our productivity gains have come from in the last decades.

Rather, it has come from working smarter and using better machines. In other words, it’s been the result of a more efficient use of existing assets. Let’s look at the two ways of achieving that.

Human capital refers to the knowledge, skills and experience of a country’s workforce. By and large, the more trained and educated workers get, the more productive they become. The general principle behind this is the specialization and division of labor, which has been one of the most powerful economical force since the Industrial Revolution.

Technological innovation refers to the development and adoption of better processes and products. Even if they disagree on how much of the growth can be attributed to new technology, all economists agree it plays a major role. For example, Nobel Prize winner Robert Solow pegged it at more than 80%.

Now what drives the increase of knowledge and technology?

Effective learning, of course. In a world where change is ubiquitous, there no better way, sorry, there’s no other way to succeed.

Therefore, peak learners are really the core of economic growth.

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