5 Ways to Become an Expert on Any Topic
Ever wished you were the expert? Are there certain topics that fascinate you or ones you wish you knew more about?
While there's something to be said about “just in time learning” and only learning what you need in order to get the job done, knowledge is power. And, usually, the person with the most information wins.
Want to listen? There's an audio version below
When I worked at Dell, managers and trainers told me I asked too many questions. My entire life I've wanted to know how things work and why people do what they do. That's why I studied psychology in school. My questions are also what led me to become the most-awarded sales rep in my entire department. I'm always studying, learning, and trying to understand how things work.
But, not everyone is born with the natural curiosity that causes a child to take apart a watch just to peek inside. Sometimes we need to become experts and become them fast.
If that's you, if you need to become an expert on any topic so you can hold a conversation, speak in front of a large group, or prepare for a presentation, I'm going to show you five ways you can become an expert on any topic.
Before we get too deep into how to become an expert, let's look at how to define an expert. Because, your definition of expert, and, more importantly, who the people are whom you perceive as experts, may be different from the official definition.
An expert is:
A person who has a comprehensive and authoritative knowledge of or skill in a particular area. A person possessing special skill or knowledge; trained by practice; skillful or skilled (often followed by in or at) Source: Dictionary.com
On one hand, expertise comes from having more knowledge than the people around you. An Eagle Scout may be a camping expert when surrounded by most city-dwellers, but a complete novice when in the company of Army Rangers.
On the other hand, expertise comes from skills, knowledge, and hours of training and practice.
If expertise comes from being smarter than the next guy (or girl), the bar is set pretty low. According to this study by YouGov and the Huffington Post, 81% of people surveyed had read zero “nonfiction books, such as history books or how-to books” in the last twelve months. None. Zip, zilch, nada.
The stats don't get much better for readers of fiction. 70% of people hadn't read a novel either. On top of that, 28% of people surveyed hadn't read a single book at all. No bestsellers, no thrillers, no bathroom books while you're sitting on the throne – nothing.
So, if during the year you spend even just one hour focused on personal development and learning about your topic of choice, you'll have more “expertise” than 70 plus percent of the people walking the streets.
Not Good Enough
But being better than the worst isn't good enough. If you're going to stand out as an expert, you have to be the best of the best. You can't just be better than 70 or 80% of the world, you have to be better than 99% of it.
While reading tons of books will help you become an expert, reading takes time. So, what else can we do to become an expert?
5 Ways to Become an Expert on Any Topic
1: Read books
Ok, reading books has to be included. There's no way around it. You can't become an expert without reading and reading could be the pivotal task around which everything else revolves.
If your goal is to be better than average, three books will do the trick. But if all you want to do is be better than average, you'll never be seen as an expert to the people who matter.
The top 1% of people surveyed read more than 50 books a year. That's a lot.
To help put things into perspective, I conducted an informal, non-scientific survey. I took the top 20 books in the “non-fiction” and “business” categories on Audible, added up their total listening times, and figured out how long it would take to listen to these books at normal (1x) speed.
Total listening time for the top 20 “non-fiction” books: 211 hours, 16 minutes
Total listening time for the top 20 “business” books: 195 hours, 1 minute
Total time required to read 50 books a year and be in the top 1% of readers?
507 hours and 30 minutes
There are 8,760 hours in a year. The time it would take to read or listen to 50 of the best books available is less than 6% of the entire year. To put that into perspective, if you went on vacation for one week, that would be 13.46% of your year. If you watched TV for 9 hours a week every week, that would be 5.34% of your year.
Bill Gates reads a book a week. On January 2nd, 2015, Mark Zuckerberg set a goal to read a book every two weeks. And, according to a Pew Research Center study cited by The Atlantic, people who make the most money read on average 16 books every year.
Would it be worth 200 hours of your time to read 20 books and become an expert?
I think so. However, it's up to you and I bet it wouldn't take that many.
The answer to the question “how many books will it take to become an expert?” will depend on your audience. If you're focused on working with beginners, the answer is “not many.” If your audience is other experts, the answer will likely be “more than you're reading now” or, “more than you think.”
2: Interview people for a podcast
By interviewing experts on your podcast, you provide a win/win situation for everyone involved. You guest experts get to share their expertise and look good in front of an audience who gets access to exclusive information they might not otherwise get. And you, as the host, get to spend time with and learn from someone at the top of their game.
You can gain an incredible amount of knowledge by talking to experts and featuring them on your show. As the host, you gain expertise by association.
3: Study business articles, blogs, and journals
Some of the top writers in the world write for large publications. Plus, Seth Godin writes on his blog almost every day. Guy Kawasaki has a blog and TED.com has more than enough educational material to keep you busy.
In one of my most popular posts of 2013, How to Get a College Education for (Almost) Free, you can find a variety of new ways you can get an education online without spending a dime. From free Harvard classes to iTunes University, this is becoming an expert made easy.
The writers you love to read share a significant amount of information for free if you're willing to look for it.
4: Share your experiences
One thing most experts possess is confidence. They know what they know and they stick to what they're good at.
You can often uncover your hidden expertise (and confidence) by sharing your experiences with your friends and colleagues. You might be surprised by the amount of information you hold inside your head.
Something I've learned by being a guest on dozens of podcasts is that expertise takes time to develop. While I know more now than I did when I was interviewed the first time, it took several interviews before I could clearly articulate my expertise.
By sharing your experiences, you'll begin to shape and form your message and area of expertise into useful information people can begin to apply to their lives. When you can help people get quick wins based on the information you've shared, they'll begin to see you as the expert.
Scientists at the top of their fields are the ones who've experimented the most. When I was studying psychology at Baylor, I was surrounded by some of the best minds in the country. My professors were always conducting some sort of experiment and working on their next paper.
Pat Flynn, one of the most successful online business experts in the world, is the self-proclaimed “crash test dummy of online business, sharing what works (and what doesn’t)”.
Thomas J. Watson, the man responsible for the growth and early success of IBM, suggested that if we want to increase our rate of success that we should increase our rate of failure.
Thomas Edison, Einstein, and the world's most successful people are known for pushing the envelope and testing the limits of what was “possible.” If you're going to become an expert, you cannot simply regurgitate the information shared by other people; you must experiment yourself.
In the end, expertise is in the eye of the beholder. A new college graduate who can turn right around and do a great job teaching high schoolers would be wildly underprepared and out-of-place among graduate students.
Don't make it your goal to be “better than average.” Set out to be the best you can be.
What have you done to become an expert?