5 Effective Steps To Becoming An Actual Expert

10,000 hours to be considered an expert is bullshit. Perpetuated by Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Outliers,” the biggest takeaway is that fact:

To be considered the best and an expert, you need to spend 10,0000 hours (or roughly 10 years) of deliberate practice.

Deliberate practice is more nuanced than merely practicing something for a long time. It’s practice with the intent that every time something is getting better. Because of that explanation, complexity, and Gladwell’s no doubt numerous examples of this in his book proving his point, it feels compelling.

The only thing that would ruin that idea is if he — like so many other self-help gurus before him — twisted or misinterpreted the science behind it. Judging by the fact I’m writing about this, you can probably piece together which of those happened.

Not only did the original authors of the study Gladwell based his book off say the 10,000 hours is wrong but there are some other flaws with how he explained it such as:

Gladwell’s twisted definition of what it takes to be an expert is one of the biggest reasons I don’t like the term expert all that much. So many people over the years can throw around that title that it loses it’s touch. That or like Gladwell can quantify it with something so flawed and sell it as a genuine article.

What I’m offering here though is something more expansive and can’t be boiled down to “practice 10,000 hours or for 10 years whichever comes soonest.” It’s something that Roger L Kneebone from psyche.co offers.

A 5-step process that goes into more depth.

#1 Know What Stage You’re At

Because we know 10,000 hours is a terrible measurement, you need to know where you’re at right now with your skills. To Kneebone, he argues what’s most important is to know what kind of responsibility are you taking on right now.

Understand that, and you understand what stage you’re at and can pinpoint where to go. But more importantly, it’ll reveal what you lack and where you can go with a given skill, sport, or hobby.

He breaks it down into three stages and each stage will have questions you can ask yourself.

First is the Apprentice stage

Start with asking the following:

  • Am I doing what others are telling me to do, rather than being independent?
  • Am I struggling with boredom if someone else is doing these tasks better and faster?
  • Am I frustrated that I’m not progressing as fast as I would like to?
  • Am I asking myself if I’ve made the right decisions to even do this?

Answering “yes” to some or all of these questions means you’re still an Apprentice in terms of skill. You’re still being guided, learning things people have done before, and you’re surrounded by more seasoned individuals who are also helping out.

It’s hard to say when you leave this stage but it typically involves five to seven years of repetitive work according to Kneebone. It’s boring, you don’t understand the significance behind the work, and chances are a machine would be more efficient at this job than you.

The thing about this stage though is that as boring as it is or as pointless as it seems, this sets the groundwork for you to flourish later. Similar to working out, it’s best for you to work with lighter weights. First because your body can’t handle the heavier weights, but also so you can get your form and technique started.

In this stage, you’re setting the foundations for what you want to be.

Second is the Journeyman stage

Start by asking the following:

  • Have I finished a long and arduous training for the work I’m doing?
  • Am I taking full responsibility for the work and the people who experience it?
  • Am I keen to show off my skills and knowledge in this area?
  • Am I worried that I’ll make mistakes or get things wrong now that I’m alone?

Like the first stage, answering yes to some or all of these means you’re at this stage. It’s likely that you’ll be in this stage for 10 years minimum, if not more.

At this point you’re independent. It could’ve been a straightforward transition, but often times it’s not as simple. All the work that you did before was building up to this moment and when you make this leap, you’re shifting all the practice and training you’ve done to now work ‘for’ someone or something beyond yourself.

If you’re a doctor or nurse, you’re putting your skills into patients.

If you’re a musician, you’re putting those skills to your audience, pupils, and band/orchestra members.

If you’re a writer, you’re putting your skills to your readers.

If you’re a business owner, you’re putting the skills toward customers.

Whatever you’re doing, you need to be thinking beyond improving yourself and more of what can you do for the people around you. It goes back to something I hear on and off about great leaders. It’s that great leaders are self-serving. They are looking out for the people around them rather than what’s best for them.

And that analogy can be applied to anything out there:

  • If you want to get better at sewing, you’re going to sew clothing for people or repair fabrics.
  • To be a better mechanic, you have to start fixing engines of other people’s cars.
  • To being an expert comedian, you’re looking to work for your audience.
  • To be an expert potter, you’re making vases for people.

The biggest thing to think about at this stage is to be asking where you’re putting the most attention to. Are you putting it on yourself? Or are you putting it towards the people you work for?

Another key thing with this stage is owning your own identity. What Kneebone means is developing your own uniqueness. It can be your own voice as a writer or musician. It can be a technique on how you repair something.

Because this aspect is very much all about you and I just stressed this stage isn’t about you, these two aspects butt heads a lot. It’s why you need to hold these two in tension.

Lastly, another solid development is to improvise. Being able to read and respond to any new situation as it evolves is crucial. This is often overlooked so picking this up helps a lot.

Lastly is the Master stage

Start with asking these questions:

  • Am I responsible for the work and career development of other people who are in need of my guidance or supervision?
  • Is there a sense of commitment to the area or field I’ve been in, and do I wish to contribute something to it?
  • Do I also feel I’m a fraud who doesn’t deserve the position I’m in and constantly wonder when I’ll be found out?

Answering yes to some or all places you in this stage. It’s hard to say how long it takes someone to get here and even then it’s difficult to know if you’ve reached this stage.

The big thing about this stage is that you’ve developed something that goes beyond knowledge and skill: wisdom. This also goes back to that quote: “The more you know, the more you realize you don’t know.”

It’s this revelation that makes it hard to pinpoint whether someone is truly an expert or master of a skill. But one thing is for certain about this: reaching this level doesn’t mean you get to put up your feet and coast.

People at this stage still need to deepen their understanding and years of experience have taught that it’s crucial to do so. Your skills are so sharp that you can even see people’s own trajectories based on what they’re doing or saying and can support them in the decisions that they make.

Ultimately, you have the power to make a big difference to other people and therefore to an industry. To effectively do this, you need to tap into the “it’s all about them” side of you and foster and build relationships with care. This broadens your awareness and in doing so help you strive to be the person you want to be.

#2 Using The Above Map As A Guide

Once you’ve figured out what stage you’re at, you need to figure out where to be going next. The long and detailed map presented above can help you make the transitions between each stage.

And while it’s pretty clear when written out, the reality isn’t so simple. As I’ve been suggesting and what Kneebone knows is that pinpointing where you are is difficult.

Either you give yourself too much credit and something later on down the road makes you realize that or you may feel like you’re giving yourself too much credit. Therefore, you begin to feel like you’re an imposter, even if you’re making more progress.

The thing to keep in mind is both of these feelings are normal. We’re human. We’ve got worries. The important thing is learning to live with it.

The other wrinkle is that you might feel stuck — or are stuck. In that case, having a mentor or a coach could help. Or even another pair of eyes to look over what you’re doing or your work.

In the end, having a map is better than no map at all. And even when something is obvious later, facing the challenges in the moment is difficult. You’ll face bumpy patches and it can feel like you’re going backwards or in circles. The thing with a map is it incentivizes you to keep going and stay the course.

#3 Ponder Whether To Widen Your Focus Or Not

This step is here for those who after much consideration or feel truly stuck to deviate to another path. In the end, you own your path and so there is no shame in changing it if you feel compelled to.

This is what this step is for. To at least entertain the idea of moving to something else. There are plenty of people who have switched paths both early and well into their experiences. Although experts are highly skilled in one area, this step introduces you to a path where you can develop several strands, often to high levels.

This process is obviously disorienting and presents a lot of challenges. But overcoming those transitions can allow you to go through the process once more and flourish in new ways.

#4 Using Errors As Learning Opportunities

Regardless of the stage you’re at, making mistakes are going to happen and they’ll be unpredictable too. The more time you pursue an area, the more serious your mistakes can be. The consequences can be devastating to both you and the people around you that are impacted by your work.

Regardless of your skill level, you’ll make errors at any point in time. Although the toughest ones to cope with are the ones that are made during the Journeyman stage according to Kneebone.

What this stage comes down to is keeping in mind how you respond to errors. How you respond is based on your support networks and mindset at the time. Errors as a result can strengthen you or tear down your self-confidence.

Whenever you make mistakes, it feels like your journey will come to a screeching halt but it’s really not. Kneebone recommends doing two things:

  • First is talk to someone that you trust. Ideally someone experienced in the skill you’re working on and tell them what happened.
  • Second wait until your anguish is gone then think about how to turn the mistake into a positive experience. Easier said than done, but it’s still crucial.

#5 Exercise Patience And Continue To Nurture

The most important part to any journey is the drive that you have to improve and progress. Another way to look at this is your motivation. If it’s high, you’re going to want to keep going on and on and on.

As a result, this comes down to understanding motivation and leveraging it the most that you can. Looking out and identifying motivational sources is very helpful. Going beyond that is protecting those sources for yourself and for others as well.

Another way to look at this is by comparing motivation to nutrients and toxins. In the motivational world, nutrients can be things like good mentors, challenging environments, and inspiring teachers or figures. Toxins can be pressures from politics, society, or personal, cutting corners in work or in costs. Toxins will only work to slow the process of gaining knowledge, skill and wisdom.

As detailed as Kneebone’s 5-step process is, there are some aspects that can be adjusted. He is a medical professional for one, so the length of time between each stage I feel is a bit much, though more accurate for the medical industry.

But that’s kind of the point with being an expert or calling someone an expert. There’s a lot of interpretation to it and it’s easy to jump in with any kind of opinion on the matter and sound certain that it’s true.

One thing is for certain though: it’s painfully obvious that putting in 10,000 hours isn’t the best answer out there.

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