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How to Become an Expert

Making the most of the three keys to mastery.

Key points

  • Boosting chances of becoming an expert depends on how a person approaches school, outside-of-school learning, and practice.
  • Unless seeking an academic career, a person may be more likely to become a master practitioner by choosing a less prestigious university.
  • Take advantage of the myriad, often under-considered opportunities for relevant learning throughout life.
Steve DePolo, Flickr, CC 2.0
Source: Steve DePolo, Flickr, CC 2.0

Several of my clients want to become an expert at something. It matters less what it is. They want to become a master at something.

Here are thoughts on making the most of the three tools toward mastery: school, out-of-school learning, and practice.

Choosing a school

A case can be made for the liberal arts, for example, that it encourages connoisseurship of life and enhancement of citizenship. Plus, a liberal arts education may devote more attention to developing critical thinking than a careerist education. But here, we’re talking about education as a tool for developing career mastery.

With that goal, consider the following:

When choosing a college/university, program, or individual professor, make career-practicality a core requirement. Universities, especially the more prestigious ones, tend to prioritize theory over practice, and their professors may lack the master practitioner's nuance. So surprisingly, you may be more likely to become a master at your career by preferring a less august university, where more of your coursework is likely to be practical and taught by a master practitioner.

At any university, carefully read the description of the major or program you’re considering. To what extent does the description emphasize theory versus practice? As you look at the bios of the program’s core instructors and practicum supervisors, how many appear to be master practitioners?

In each course, think, moment by moment, how the material could apply to become an expert in your career. For example, if you’re being taught or are reading a statistical concept and your career goal is to be a psychotherapist, you might ask yourself how that technique might be used to test a psychotherapeutic modality.

If you’re assigned a paper or project, could you adapt it, so it’s a step toward your becoming an expert at your career? If not, consider asking the professor if you could do a different topic.

In your practica—fieldwork, internships, capstone projects—try to ensure that they and your supervisor are likely to aid your quest for mastery. To that end, you often have a choice between doing a capstone thesis or project. Unless you’re planning to become an academic, choose the project.

Outside-of-school learning

True, the term “be a lifelong learner” has become a cliché, but it is valid. Fill your life’s little spaces with bits of practical learning: Read an article you unearthed using a Google search, watch a YouTube, ask a master a question, ask if you can watch a master at work, have a master to watch you work, take a short, online class taught by a master practitioner. Of course, choose a highly rated class but look at the student comments to find classes whose high ratings are based on practical utility more than entertainment value.

Ask the instructor questions—That’s personalized education.

However you're doing your learning, focus on just-in-time learning: what you’re curious about or need to know now: You’ll be more motivated to learn it and to remember it. Another advantage of just-in-time learning is that it's a digestible chunk rather than a forgettable mass.

In looking for a job, prioritize working with and being supervised by master practitioners, especially those with a penchant for mentoring. How to determine that? It’s appropriate in the job interviews to ask a potential boss a question like, “Every boss is different. What it would be like for me to work for you?” If the person is mentoring-oriented, s/he’ll likely say so. Asking the question directly—“Would you be mentoring me?” encourages a “yes” even if that’s not so likely.

Mastery requires practice

Despite getting good education and training, becoming an expert, almost by definition, requires time to practice. The time to mastery can be accelerated by searching out feedback. Ask respected people—bosses, coworkers, customers/clients—for candid feedback.

Wording your request well can make you admirable rather than appear insecure. For example, you might say something like this to your boss: “Like all of us, I’m trying to be even better at what I do. In addition to our semi-annual performance reviews, ongoing, would you offer me suggestions?” Of course, the people offering suggestions are merely consiglieri; you’re the Don: Consider their input but accept and adopt only what you believe wise.

The takeaway

These tips should help you become an expert. And being an expert is a legitimate basis for self-confidence and high self-esteem and for making a difference.

I read this aloud on YouTube.

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