Following is a chapter in my forthcoming non-fiction book That Think You Do. The book is based on a series of blog posts I wrote back in the mid-to-late-2000s for a California-based company. The editor at my new publishing house found the posts and thought they would make an excellent series of books. The posts/chapters are based on my research in a variety of fields – neuroscience, anthropology, sociology, psychology, linguistics, … – and were quite popular in their day.
What is expertise? Most people know it when they see it or when they’re in the presence of someone with expertise in a given field. Talking with a friend yesterday, she admitted she hardly feels like an expert even though she’s taught at the university level. “How come?” “Because I’m old enough to know what I don’t know,” she answered. So I invited her to play a game with me and here I share it with you. It’s very simple, is something you can do on your own and in very little time each and every day. In the end, people will consider you an expert even if you don’t think that’s true yourself.
- Pick a subject or topic that fascinates you, something you like, something that genuinely gets your heart pounding and your mind working. It doesn’t matter what the subject or topic is, all that matters is that it interests you. The reason is simple: your enthusiasm will keep you on track towards recognizable expertise.
- Start writing down patterns and similarities. All things repeat over time. Sometimes the time involved is eons and sometimes it’s tenths of a second. What is important is that you note when and how patterns start and stop, begin and end. Notice what appears to be the end of a pattern? Know how long these things take to start again? Congratulations. You can predict when it will happen again. Now you’re an expert. In addition to patterns, write down similarities. Do all male movie stars tend to buy the same clothes or shop at the same stores? See one wearing something new and now you can predict what will be the fashion rave for that year.
- Organize what you know. Once you’ve recognized patterns and similarities it’s time to organize them into blocks of knowledge. Pick out a few “big” or “obvious” features of your favorite subject or topic. Now organize (or block together) all the little or less obvious features that accompany those big and obvious features. The next time you encounter a bunch of those smaller features blocked together you can announce the “big” thing that’s happening that nobody else has noticed and again, voila, you’re an expert.
- Stick to your chosen subjects. The quickest way to be recognized as an expert in some field is to be repeatedly correct about what’s going on in that field. Likewise, the quickest way to be considered incompetent in a given field is to make mistakes about what’s going on in that field. So once you’re recognized in one field, keep yourself current in that field then repeat the process again with a second field. The crucial hint here is to make your secondary subjects closely related to your first. Kind of like being recognized as an expert chef, then becoming known as an expert on seasonings, then on cooking utensils, and so on.
Some things are easy, some things are hard. Some things, like being recognized as an expert, simply take a little practice. Go tell your friends about this technique and maybe you’ll be recognized as being an expert on being an expert.
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