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.