How To Become an Expert in Anything

by Mr. Cheap

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I recently came across two similar approaches to “becoming an expert” in a field. Both are somewhat similar, and both are in harmony with my experiences in life.

Two way to become an expert on any topic are:

  1. Read a book every month on the topic for one year.
  2. Study the topic every day for 30 minutes.

A father of a friend of mine suggested the first approach. The selection of books is important, if you keep reading “introductory” books on the subject, you probably won’t make much headway (although you might be in a great position to teach others the basics, in a sense you’d be an expert on the basics). Conversely, even if you read through advanced books on the topic, they won’t do you any good if you don’t understand them. A course of reading that progresses from the basics to the more advanced would be ideal (and a reading list from someone who already possess expertise in the field you’re interested in would probably be worthwhile).

Keep in mind that your book selection will also determine what you’re an expert OF. If you read a Robert Kiyosaki book every month for a year, I think you’d be an expert in the “Rich Dad” philosophy, NOT necessarily an expert at finances or making money. Similarly if you studied naturopathy for a year, you’d be an expert in naturopathic medicine, NOT necessarily in medicine or the maintenance of good health.

My childhood doctor complained to my father that with the ease of accessing information from the internet these days, most of his patients develop more expertise about their individual ailments than he possess. These same patients could have probably done this 50 years ago if they were willing to invest the time.

Also keep in mind, this would be a very academic form of expertise. Studying a book on tennis every month for a year would allow you to VERY knowledgeably discuss the players, game and history. It probably wouldn’t make you play very well. On the other hand, reading a book on chess strategies every month for a year probably WOULD improve your game, even if you didn’t play once during that time.

John T. Reed advocates the 30 minutes of study per day approach. In some ways this is a broader idea, as the 30 minutes a day COULD be reading books, but it could also be alternative approaches. I learned “Django” (a framework for easily constructing database driven websites) for a few projects a while back and at the time I was learning it, there weren’t any books available. There WAS a number of discussion forums and on-line documentation (along with using the system itself) which did allow me to become an expert.

In neither of these cases does expert mean “best in the world”. It means you’ll be “a person with a high degree of skill in or knowledge of a certain subject.” When the topic comes up in social situations, typically you’ll be the most knowledgeable person participating.

John T. Reed boldly claims that after 6 months of studying something for 30 minutes a day people in your region will seek out your expertise, and after 1 year people nationally will seek it out. This corresponds with his experience. Mike and I were referenced in the Globe and Mail after writing our blog for about a year.

Have you had experience becoming an expert using either of these approaches? What was the topic and do these time frames correspond with your experience? Do you think there are areas where this wouldn’t work? If yes, what are they?

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{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Nobleea

I don’t think this would work in some situations.

Parenting is the obvious one.

And I know a few people who have read Playboy religiously (for the articles) for years, but they’re by no means experts on the subject. At least, no one is seeking out their ‘expertise’.

2 Mr. Cheap

I was actually going to cite parenting as an example. If you talked to Mike a year after his son was born, I think you’d find he would be an INCREDIBLE expert on raising a child (he would have tons of advice for a new parent – check out some of his posts on the topic). Alternatively, if a “soon to be parent” read all the literature (Dr. Spock and whatnot) for 9 months while their child was on the way, I think they’d be an expert in the currently accepted techniques for child raising (they’d be able to knowledgeably discuss discipline, developmental stages, etc, etc)

I probably should have had a caveat, you have to somehow advertise your expertise to get noticed. If your Playboy fanatic friends posted a readable blog about it, they might become well known as a connoisseur of porn. People with similar tastes might yield to their recommendations of what centerfolds are most worthy of their “consideration”.

What a great idea for a blog! ;-)

3 WoolyWoman

Well Mr Cheap you will need to become an expert in your field (your PhD field) soon as you prepare for your comprehensive exam. What approach will you take to prepare?
I find it very useful to write papers on the topic I want to become an expert in, as long as I force myself to look at the various viewpoints, and the range of scientific findings. There is a lot of information out there to cover! As you point out, you can’t necessarily be considered an expert when you focus only on part of the picture.
What I should have done, and didn’t, was practice telling people about my knowledge verbally. This is a weak point for me, and in the end I did not project the “image” of being an expert in person as well as I did on paper. Those academics can sniff out weakness so well :)
So dare I suggest that there are people out there who appear to be experts, but aren’t?

4 Kyle

I have used method two for learning languages and it’s worked out quite well.

5 Mr. Cheap

WoolyWoman: Unfortunately I’ll probably have to use the second method, as anything that has had books published about it is typically considered “old news” in academia. I’m still at the “find some interesting problems stage” rather than become an expert in the area stage.

Explaining things to other people is a great way to learn more about them yourself, I definitely hope to have the opportunity to do so.

I definitely agree there are people who try to project far more competence then they actually possess.

Kyle: That’s surprising, I’ve often heard that immersion is the only way to learn a language. Great that it works for you! Which do you speak?

6 Kyle

Immersion is certainly the fastest way to learn a language, but you can learn pretty much any language studying an hour or so a day. Somebody put up an FSI site offering all their language programs for free.

FSI is the absolute best money can buy (or in this case, doesn’t have to buy) in my opinion.

I speak Spanish but I’ve learned various amounts of several other languages over the years for specific purposes. My next is Swahili for a trip to Tanzania. I probably won’t bother learning it fluently, but 4 or 5 months of studying an hour a day will get you surprisingly close in pretty much any language you can think of.

7 DividendMan

I think the approach of 1/2 hour a day would work (and has for me) for learning specific technical things like the caveats of certian programming languages. Like, if you know object oriented programming in Java, C++ in an 1/2 an hour a day is doable. I haven’t actually tried the 1 book a month unless my undergrad counts :P

I also think that applying whatever expertise you already have is as important (if not moreso) than learning new things, instead of going off to learn something else, make some money with what you know!

8 Brian Barker

Can I put in a word for Esperanto?

I say this not becuase it has become a living language, but because it also has propadeutic values.

You might like like to check

9 Four Pillars

I like this post.

Cheap – I would disagree about the parenting analogy for the simple reason that each kid is so different. Certainly I know a lot more about parenting than I did two years ago but an expert? Nope. :)


10 Mr. Cheap

Maybe you’re an expert on your particular child? :-) You and your wife laughed at me when I was holding your daughter awkwardly, so you may not even known how much you know.

I’d have no idea how to change a diaper (and I that’s something I never learn ;-) )

11 Tony Marren

The theory John T. Reed expounds on studying for 30 minutes per day DOES work. I chose to study how pool walking can work as a cardio exercise. At Gold’s Gym in Provo,Utah I utilize the pool to rehabilitate my battered right hip and knee several sessions per week. It is thought provoking to enter the complex and be acknowledged as a serious gym attendee who ” walks the talk” on this type of exercise.

12 busky

am thinking seriously of venturing into ITto pursue a carrier with hope of becoming an expert.any adice?

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