How to Become an Expert

Have you ever had a huge corporate client and delved deep inside the organization only to find incompetence around you? I have, and it makes me wonder how we've become the richest nation in the world. It's also encouraging, because the bar is set very low and therefore it's pretty darn easy to be an expert!

One thing I get asked a lot is this: "What is an expert?" There are many ways to define that, but here's how I think about it. I picture myself keynoting a conference. In the auditorium are 3,000 people. After my presentation, I open it up to questions from the audience. There's a microphone on a stand in the center aisle, and soon a line forms with people who want me to elaborate or they want to disagree with me.

Picture yourself in that place. How do you feel? Prepared? Nervous? Naked? Eager? Being an expert is flat knowing that you can answer any question about the narrow field you serve. By the way, you don't need to be some amazing speaker or a strong extrovert to captivate an audience. Essentially, it boils down to two things: do you know what the hell you're talking about, and are you presenting it with a personal authenticity.

So the next question is how you get to that place where you think of yourself as an expert, and where markeplace acceptance confirms that belief. Here are my suggestions.

  • Narrow your field of expertise so that you can go deeper within that field, whether it be vertical or horizontal. You simply cannot be an expert in everything. Your supply of time and attention will be the same if you try, and that will look like a wide shallow pool instead of a deep well.
  • Meanwhile, outside of work try to broaden your exposure to all sorts of things that do not fall within your area of declared expertise. Be a renaissance person. As the Epicurean Dealmaker (an anomymous insider) says, "As the body of scientific and technical knowledge swells exponentially, scientists and engineers by definition simply must become narrowly focused specialists. You cannot be effective as a scientist or engineer nowadays if your knowledge spans too broad a field. Our collective scientific knowledge is simply too deep…. Who will aggregate and balance the competing viewpoints, suggestions, and research programs of all these specialists in highly complex microdomains? Who else but someone who has been rigorously educated in the general discipline of how to think, of how to evaluate competing claims and conflicting  evidence under conditions of extreme uncertainty? Who has been taught not only how to analyze and synthesize disparate, incompatible, and even conflicting data but also how to judge?" I agree with him, but I think you should do this on your own time rather than turning clients into victims from your lack of expertise.
  • Apply your expertise repeatedly in similar situations. This is the only way you will notice patterns, and the essence of intelligence is pattern matching. That's why you can test the intelligence of young children even before they are verbal. So in my field, for instance, I've seen a pattern: principals are most introspective about 9 months before their lease is up, simply because that's the only time they make a long-term commitment to staying in business (3-5-10 years). I have about 200 of these patterns written down, which allow me to diagnose a situation more quickly and reliably.
  • Quit trying to learn any more, and just put yourself out there. After writting down the patterns, test them with clients and prospects, adjusting where necessary. But at this point, the only way to further you knowledge is to articulate it, because the clarity comes in the articulation. Whether that's on-stage or just in a conference room. This leads to a view POVs that you deeply believe, not because you've read them but because you've seen them repeatedly.
  • Think differently about the mistakes you make. When you are challenged on a particular recommendation, listen carefully and be open to the fact that you are wrong and your pattern-matching has been flawed, leading to an incorrect assumption. Being wrong is just part of the game, and if you are seldom wrong, you aren't taking enough risks or you are already a renowned expert.
  • Develop all your insightful observations into a system. Price it as a diagnostic package, and now you have a real process that is likely different from all the "me too" processes that have spread like weeds on websites.
  • Articulate it so well that you build a training module, through which all new employees are trained at the outset of their employment. If you don't think enough of your process to train new employees in it, it's really not a valuable process.

I've been a student of chess all my life. The key to great chess players (I'm just average after ca. 10,000 games) is pattern matching. Take a look at this very interesting article in Wired, called Cognitive Cost of Expertise. I think you'll find it interesting.

One more thing. You're probably a lot smarter than you think. Take some time to start articulating what you notice. You might even take someone along to client meetings, writing down all the smart things you say. You'll be smartest when you are in front of a client, totally engaged in solving their problem.

Once you've tasted deep expertise, you feel shameful getting paid for anything less. It feels wrong.


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