Tag Archives: strategies

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.

Why I regularly test my students even if it’s not popular (and the takeaway for peak learners)

testing students

This may surprise you, but I get criticized for my way of teaching. More precisely, some of my colleagues think I give too many evaluations. I confess I love my quizzes, and I typically assess my students’ progress every week.

But “teachers should spend less time testing and more time teaching” as the Badass Teachers Association often reminds me on Facebook. Similarly, for some of my colleagues, my strategy just reeks of old-school thinking. They say frequent quizzes undermine learners’ sense of responsibility and intrinsic motivation.

But, to me, regular testing has always felt intuitively right, and a few years ago, this intuition was confirmed by the largest evidence-based research about what works best in education. John Hattie’s mega-study Visible Learning is a synthesis of 50,000 studies involving more than 80 million students; there’s a reason why it’s been called the holy grail of education.

Hattie has identified 138 influences on student achievement and ranked them by degree of effectiveness. Here’s his top ten.


As you clearly see, providing formative evaluation ranks third (formative means low or no point value). Let me repeat this: testing has the third most powerful effect on learning among hundreds of investigated variables.

The thing is, formative assessments do two main things.

  1. They measure learning
  2. They strengthen learning

First, progress monitoring provides a great window into where you’re at as well as what works and what doesn’t, which allows both the teacher and the student to adjust accordingly. And the more often they get this feedback, the faster they can course correct.

Second, many recent studies (most likely included in Hattie’s mega-study) have established that taking tests is one of the best ways to reinforce learning, and that it should be done sooner rather than later (even if you haven’t finished learning).

For example, one of the studies shows that giving short quizzes on a regular basis like I do increases performance by about half a letter grade as opposed to relying on four major exams. The most famous research has been done by Roediger, who has listed ten benefits of testing.

This is the takeaway for peak learners. You really have to stop seeing studying and testing as two different things.

Testing / self-testing is learning at its best.

2 Reasons Why Learning a Second Language Is So Hard

second language acquisition

In my studies abroad and within my language-related work, I’ve heard plenty of second-language speakers. Yet I’ve only met one person who spoke my language as a second language with native-like fluency. I actually couldn’t believe it was his second language.

Why does learning a language seem so gleefully easy for babies, but so cruelly hard for adults? Why is it that the better you get at learning in general, the worse you perform in learning a language?

Here are your two culprits.

  1. The brain
  2. The learning process

For babies, learning means choosing. A three-year-old has about twice as many neural connections (synapses) as an adult. When synaptic pruning kicks in, weak connections get deleted while those that are used get a boost. So, as the brain gains in efficiency, it must let go of some opportunities.

This operation is obvious when it comes to language learning. A study by Hyltenstam and Abrahamsson shows that, if you miss the boat and don’t get early exposure to a language (yes, the famous critical period), you’ll likely never reach native-like proficiency (sorry).

For example, babies at birth have the amazing capacity to distinguish the sounds of all human languages, but as they grow up, their brain cleans out the unused connections, and this sensitivity to other languages gets radically reduced.

Similarly, it seems impossible to perfectly re-acquire a gender-category system if you didn’t develop it as a kid (unlike English, most European languages attribute gender to nouns).

Now that the bad news is out of the way, let’s see what we can learn from the way babies master their native tongue.

Second language acquisition feels like climbing Mount Everest because we typically engage System 2 (see my post on this topic). When you study German in your living room or classroom, you emphasize that rational, deliberate and conscious learning process. You sit down and try to find ways to assimilate the material, right?

Children, on the other hand, master their native tongue exclusively through System 1, and don’t even need feedback about whether they’re getting it right. Unlike System 2, which takes place in the prefrontal cortex, System 1 uses the limbic system, where the learning process is implicit, instinctive and spontaneous.

That’s why immersion is so effective. Of course, sheer exposure plays a big role, but this method also enables System 1 to kick in and open up a whole new type of learning.

So what’s the lesson for those trying to pick up a foreign language?

First, relax. Feeling overwhelmed is normal. Your brain needs time to create new pathways. Also, bear in mind that some aspects of second-language learning have no critical period. Second, as peak learners now know, call upon the power of System 1 (stay tuned for more info on that).

People don’t naturally think like scientists (but peak learners should)

learners as scientists

One of my close friends definitely prefers “being right” than being accurate. He has lots of opinions and theories on everything, but if you show him evidence that contradicts one of them, he’ll put the full weight of his reasoning power to discount your evidence.

As it turns out, we’re all like him to a lesser or greater extent, and this flies in the face of the popular theory of discovery-based learning, which posits that students intuitively learn like scientists.

What does it mean to learn like a scientist?

It means you’re an active creator of your own learning, and you do this by

  1. exploring your environment,
  2. generating ideas about how things work,
  3. testing those ideas and
  4. changing your model accordingly.

In other words, scientific thinking is about coordinating evidence (things you observe) and theory (ideas about how those things work).

So, for people to think like scientists, they need at least to be able

  1. to distinguish theory and evidence and
  2. to update their theory in the light of new evidence.

As many studies have found, untrained people are bad at both.

After reading Researcher Deanna Kuhn’s study, you’ll indeed notice that people easily blur the difference between theory and evidence in everyday life.

Let me give you the simplest example. When you see people smile, you probably take this as evidence that they’re happy, right? But the thing is, you can’t see happy; happy is a theory. It may look like a safe theory, but it’s still a theory.

But even when theories don’t get confused with facts, shifting theories to match facts doesn’t come naturally for most people. As Lord, Ross and Lepper’s classic study showed, when they come across a fact that contradicts their theory, people will often ignore it or interpret it in a biased way (confirmation bias).

Of course, as evidence accumulates, people will eventually adjust their theory accordingly, but that process often occurs unconsciously; unlike scientists, people don’t actively review their models (Kuhn).

With information currently flowing from all directions, critical thinking is more needed than ever. But thinking like a scientist is an acquired skill, and a difficult one at that. And if you want to become a peak learner, you have no choice but to develop that skill.

The best first step you can take in that direction is to set your ego aside and ask yourself: “What would show me I’m wrong?”

4 Basic Strategies To Boost Learning Performance

how to be a top learner

Recently, one of my colleagues wanted to test my budding expertise and asked me to give him learning strategies you can’t live without, be it for improving dance moves, public speaking or language acquisition.

So here are four basic tricks given by Professor Monisha Pasupathi in How We Learn.

  1. Spread out your rehearsals
  2. Mix them up
  3. Draw the connections
  4. Sleep on it

Spacing out your rehearsals is the essential first step for anyone serious about learning. Leaving enough time between your practices or studying is like changing your Pentium computer for the latest iMac (sorry if you’re not into Macs). It just turbo-charges your performance. To know how much time is enough time, check my post on the topic.

Varying the way you learn is your second performance booster. Remember the old advice of sticking to a strict practice routine? Throw that out the window. You want to often change where, when and how you practice and study. For example, instead of always reviewing your Spanish with flashcards at the kitchen table, try finding the words in texts or talking about it to friends. Each change in your routine reinforces your learning by making it more independent from the context.

Using elaborative encoding in the third strategy applicable everywhere. This big word simply means that you need to connect your new material to what you already know, either deliberately by organizing it around past info and experience, or implicitly by using past movements to generate new ones. For more details, check my post on the topic.

Getting a good night’s sleep is your fourth power. Sleeping consolidates learning by helping the brain complete new neural connections forged through practice and study. Brain images show that the patterns of activities occurring while learning are reproduced during REM sleep (and it’s a good thing your body is paralyzed during that phase). Sleep is like an extra rehearsal at the brain level.

So that’s what I told my colleague. You want to reach peak learner status in your field? Start by making these habits part of your daily routine.

Why the Gap Between the Educated and the Illiterate is Growing

people no longer read

Recently, I attended a conference on the future of the book. The speaker made the distinction between two kinds of readers, namely shallow and deep readers.

Shallow readers typically grab information on the go and consume it on electronic devices. Deep readers, on the other hand, practice slow reading and like to pause to reflect on the text they’re reading.

One type of reader, the speaker said, is growing in number, while the other is in sharp decline. Can you guess which is which?

Deep reading is losing ground for the most part because it’s increasingly hard to find distraction-free spaces (and yes, those are getting scare because deep reading is less popular). Even university libraries seem to shy away from guaranteeing the three prerequisites for deep reading, namely withdrawal, attention and silence. Rather, the big trend is for multimedia areas, team rooms and coffee shops.

What’s the consequence of this shift?

The speaker at the conference wasn’t the timid type. He argued that the old divide between the educated elite and the illiterate masses is making a comeback. People are losing the necessary skills to integrate written knowledge effectively.

Yes, my friends, you’ve read me right. The ideal of the democratization of education is taking a blow.

To me, this is overly alarmist. Neither do I agree with Nicolas Carr that Google is making us stupid.

That being said, there’s room for concern. Whether this is a modern problem or not, few people fully engage with written knowledge. Most are merely interested in getting information.

Deep reading enables you to transform information into knowledge.

Knowledge is information that has become part of your understanding and experience. If you don’t take the time to connect the dots and integrate what you read, you’re not really learning.

So find a quiet spot, dive into your reading and become a peak learner.