Thursday 8 January 2015

How to Become an Expert in Your Field

"Be all that you can be." (United States Army motto)

An Ivy League study concluded that it takes 1000 hours to become an expert in any given field. However, in Malcolm Gladwell's book Outliers, he begs to differ.  He quotes a study conducted by Berlin's Academy of Music which followed three groups of musicians.  Group one was called the elite group, group two was the good group and group three was the average group.  For fifteen years, from age 5 to 20, the musicians practiced.  Group one practiced for 10,000 hours, group two for 8,000 hours and group three for 4,000 hours.

Only the elite group members were considered to be worthy of the term "expert".  As Malcolm Gladwell concluded, 1000 hours qualifies you as "efficient", but 10,000 hours qualifies you as "genius".  The moral of the story is:  Practice, practice, practice.  Becoming an expert is not a quick process, but a lengthy one.

Bobby Fischer, world chess champion from 1972 to 1975, took nine years to perfect the game. Author Pierre Berton spent a lifetime writing newspaper and magazine articles as well as 50 history books, qualifying him as a Canadian history expert.  According to Julia Child, if you want to "master the art of French cooking", you need to start by trying the 524 recipes in her first cookbook.  Even if each recipe only took an hour to follow, that's over 500 hours.  

When I think of an expert, my grandad comes to mind.  In Grade 7, he wrote a math test in which he received a poor grade.  His teacher posted it on the black board and mocked him.  Grandad vowed to get revenge on his teacher by becoming a math expert.  He devoted hours to mastering the subject.  In Grade 8 his math marks slowly improved. In high school, he started to receive A's.  He majored in math in university where he graduated with Honours in both Math and Physics.

Teacher's College followed.  During a recession in the mid-1920's, Grandad was offered not one but three math teaching positions in Toronto high schools.  He was promoted to the Head of the Mathematics Department.  He taught for forty years for the Toronto Board of Education and became an expert not just in math, but in teaching.  With his perfect geometrical shapes, the Ontario Education Inspector said that he had the "neatest blackboards in Ontario" -- not bad for a boy who couldn't even pass a basic math test.    

If you want to become an expert in your field like my grandad, here are ten tips offered by Brian Tracy:

1.  Commit to excellence.  As someone once said:  "If it's worth doing, it's worth doing well."

2.  Be a lifelong learner.  Upgrade your knowledge and skills regularly.

3.  Turn driving time into learning time.  The average driver spends 500 to 1000 hours in the car. Listen to audiotapes.  You'll be well on your way to becoming "efficient" in your field.

4.  Attend workshops.  A one day workshop can give you valuable tips.

5.  Identify the key skills you need to become an expert.

6.  Practice those skills daily.

7.  Be observant like a journalist.  Being observant helps you learn.  It also helps you network.  You may be in the right place at the right time with the right person to create the right opportunity.

8.  Read a book a week in your subject area.  That translates into 50 books a year and 500 books in ten years.  

9.  Be passionate about your subject.  My grandad always recommended that to me as a teacher.  Passion is infectious; it translates to your students.  Passion brings you closer to the title "expert".  As cardiologist Dr. Mani says on his website:  "Passion fuels expertise which in turn keeps passion  burning."  

10.  Find a mentor.  We all look up to someone.  Pierre Berton's mentor was News-Herald editor Jack Scott.  He patterned his early newspaper columns after Jack's.  Bobby Fischer's mentor was Carmine Nigro of the Brooklyn Chess Club.  The young chess protege would come to his house for games every weekend for two or three years.  Julia Child studied under the tutelage of the great French chef Max Bugnard in Paris in the early 1950's.  

For more information, read Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell.

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