Feb 08 2010
Becoming an expert – a real expert – in something is not as difficult as you think. It involves work, for sure, but it does not involve as much work as you think. You can become an expert in something in four steps.
First off, it’s important to remind you that becoming an expert is not going to be very, very easy. But, neither is it that difficult. It does require some commitment on your part, though. Becoming an expert will take some time and some energy.
1. Get Pretty Good At A Few Things
You could try to be the absolute best brain surgeon in the world. That would be a high-risk path, because the pool of people that have the natural ability and the best luck to keep moving through an ever-narrowing funnel of expertise is very small. Are you smart enough to get through medical school? Do you have the strings to pull to ensure a top-tier residency? Can you navigate the internal hospital politics to align with the right mentor? Are you lucky enough to have a career-making patient walk through your door? A lot of things have to break just right for this to work out.
Dilbert author Scott Adams has another strategy, and wrote a great post about it: become pretty good at some important things. This is much more attainable. Adams recommends being in the top 25% of two things (he himself is in the top 25% at drawing and being funny). It’s the combination that makes you rare – you have a better shot because the playing field is smaller.
This is the right principle, but to better your odds, try to be in the top 25% of several things. Then, you can combine them together in different ways. A good example would be to be in the top 25% of people in:
-public speaking (as Adams recommends)
-writing (This is easier than it sounds. Being a great writer is very, very tough. Being a pretty darn good writer just takes practice)
-something technical (like history, engineering, law, culture, archaeology – yes, liberal arts programs count!)
-building relationships (you don’t have to be a cheesy sales guy to reach out and maintain connections once a month – and that’s about all it takes to be in the top 25%)
-something weird (flying model airplanes, raising chickens, being a walking discography of 70s punk, etc)
Now you have a nice base to draw from. Your technical expertise can easily be expressed in talks (public speaking) or in blog posts, books papers, etc (writing). And you will be the only person that understands the historical impact of chickens to the New World, therefore can build a presence for yourself with speaking and writing. That narrow intersection gives you authority.
2. Establish Yourself In The Niche
Now you’re pretty good at a few things, but no one knows it yet.
First, start a blog so you have a repository of information that validates your claim of expertise. You will refer people to your blog as a first step in proving that you are an expert, like you say you are. Then, go out and tell the world.
In his book ‘The Four Hour Workweek’, Tim Ferriss has lots of suggestions for how to establish your reputation. His examples are not great, but the principles are exactly right. You have to go out and start telling people that you’re an expert in this narrow niche. When your chicken raising club gets together, give a talk about how chickens have impacted history. That local talk can lead to a national conference for chicken lovers. Speak there, then you’re a “national speaker.”
On the flip side, your local history club might be interested in the same talk – it’s an intriguing angle for them. You may just be talking about something that you have written already, but that’s OK. It will be new information to almost everyone, except the one person that invited you to speak.
3. Now, Expand The Niche
OK, so now you are established as an expert on the chicken’s impact on history. Wow. That’s probably good for, what? Two talks? Maybe three?
You have to expand your niche by determining how your subject matter has a wider audience. Look to the audience for guidance here. After your talks, do people tell you about how they thought about how cows are also important to history? There’s an expansion: start incorporating other farm animals into your historical talks.
Maybe you get blog comments about how emus are important to Australian history. Expansion: avian history.
The different perspectives of your audience – and your ability to engage them in dialogue (remember your relationship building skills!) – will give you plenty of fodder for new avenues of inquiry. Those new avenues push your expertise into new areas.
4. Rinse and Repeat
OK, now you’re on a roll. You’re writing about a wider topic set now. There may be several different veins moving forward at the same time. That’s good. Keep moving these lines of inquiry forward until they start to merge. Chickens -> farm animals -> farming. Suddenly, you’re an expert in the impact of farming on history. That’s a big topic. Academic careers are made on that topic.
Remember to first find the wedge, then push that wedge open a bit more. It’s a process. But you can break it down into a manageable action plan.