On building expertise

How do you learn a new skill? How do you go from beginner to intermediate to expert… or at least from knowing very little to knowing enough that other people start to think of you as an expert?

This post describes the learning approach that has worked for me when gaining multiple skills, from cooking to sword fighting to communication. This approach may work for you or it may not… but I suspect that you’ll find something useful even if your learning style is different.

Purely decorative stock photo

When I’m building expertise[1] in a new area, there are typically five key activities that together help me make the learning progress I need. They don’t come in any particular order, and they all tend to be ongoing and overlapping activities, but in my experience they’re all present.

Practicing: Building expertise in an area or skill requires actively performing that skill. You can’t become great at something without doing that thing. Practice whenever you can, and look for opportunities to practice things that are outside your comfort zone. If your practice is always successful, this may be a sign that you’re not pushing your self enough, and your progress may be slower than it needs to be.

Studying: It’s rare to learn something completely new. Even if you’re trailblazing a brand new area of expertise, you probably get there by learning about related better-known areas, from existing experts. Read whatever you can, watch whatever you can, listen to whatever you can. Find content that matches the way you prefer to learn, and spend as much time as you can consuming that content. Make it part of your daily routine.

Observing: Find existing experts and watch them work. Where reading books or watching videos exposes you to the static aspect of expertise, being “expert adjacent” exposes you to the dynamic aspect. Mindfully observing how an expert approaches a problem, how they structure their work area, how they structure their day, will give you insights into how you can improve in these aspects.

Networking: Find ways to engage with a community of like-minded people who share your interest in your chosen area of expertise. Not only will these activities provide ongoing opportunities to learn from peers, the questions and problems that other community members share can serve as motivation to explore topics you may not have otherwise thought of independently.

Teaching: Teaching a skill to others forces you to think about that skill in ways that would probably not be needed if you were learning on your own. Teaching forces you to look at problems and concepts in ways that expose your biases and blind spots, and to ask (and answer) questions that would never have occurred to you on your own. Teaching a skill is in many ways the best way to deeply learn that skill.

Please note that these activities aren’t sequential, and no one activity is dependent on the others. In my experience, all five activities are ongoing and overlapping, and each one complements and enables the others.

What does this look like in practice?

I grew up in a family where cooking wasn’t really a thing[2], so I started learning to cook as an adult. Despite this, my cooking and baking have become something of a gold standard for friends and acquaintances. My learning experience looked something like this:

Studying: I bought and read dozens of cookbooks. If a topic or book looked interesting, I bought it and read it. I subscribed to many cooking magazines and read them when they arrived each month and watched pretty much every cooking show I could fit into my schedule.[3]

Practicing: I cooked and baked almost every day. I tried new ingredients and recipes and techniques that I discovered through my study, and figured out what worked, and what I needed to do to make it work for me. I organized fancy dinners for friends as a forcing function, and to keep myself from getting too lazy.

Observing: When I dined in restaurants[4], I would try to sit at the chef’s counter or somewhere I could get a good view of the kitchen, and would mindfully watch how the chef prepared and served each dish.

Networking: I made foodie friends. I talked about food and cooking with them, and occasionally cooked with them as well. Sometimes we’d go to cooking classes together. Sometimes we’d borrow equipment or cookbooks from each other. Eventually we’d invite each other over for dinner. Those were the days…

Teaching: I found opportunities to share what I’d learned with others. When someone would exclaim “Oh my goodness – how did you make this?!?”[5] I would do my best to tell them and show them. Sometimes this was a conversation, sometimes it was a 1:1 tutoring session, sometimes it was a small group class. Each time I learned something about the topic I was teaching because of the questions people asked.

Cooking is just one example, but I have similar experiences for every topic where people have asked me questions like “how do you know all this?” or “how did you get so good at this?” For every area where I have developed a reasonable degree of expertise, it’s because I have done some combination of these things, often over many years. I have every reason to believe that this approach will work for you as well.

Ok… that’s the blog post, but I’m not quite done. Back in January when I started writing this one, I started with the three “content seeds” you see below.

Data Chef

FFS

That’s right. Past Matthew left me the phrase “Data Chef,” the link to the PowerBI.tips video he’d just finished watching, and the phrase “FFS.” Three months later I have no idea how these relate to the topic of building expertise. If you can figure it out, please let me know.


[1] You may have noticed that I’m deliberately using the phrase “building expertise” instead of a different phrase like “learning” or “acquiring a new” skill. I’ve chosen this phrase because the approach described here isn’t what I do when I’m learning something casually – it’s what I’ve done when building a wide and deep level of knowledge and capability around a specific problem or solution domain.

[2] I love my mother dearly, but when I was a child she would cook broccoli by boiling it until it was grey, and you could eat it with a spoon. I never realized that food was more than fuel until I was in my 20s and met my future wife.

[3] Yes, I’m old, in case talking about magazines didn’t give it away. I assume the same pattern today would involve subscribing to blogs or other content sources. Also, can you remember back when you needed to watch TV shows when they were on, not when you wanted to watch them?

[4] Back in the day I used to travel for work a lot, so I ate in restaurants a lot. Sometimes I was on the road two or three weeks per month, which translated into a lot of restaurant dinners.

[5] If you’ve never met me in person and have never eaten the food I make and share, you might be surprised by how often this happens. If you know me personally, you probably won’t be surprised at all.

One thought on “On building expertise

  1. One thing I try to do when learning a new technical skill is:
    Find a working example as soon as possible. Something that’s close to what I want to do. That way I can study it, test small changes on something that already worked, and avoid getting lost in theoretical details when researching the topic. Having a working example also helps confirm that I’m learning the right thing. Instead of learning a thing, and then realizing it can’t solve my problem due to fundamental limitations, and then being forced to go in a different direction.

    If I go out of my way to find a working example, even if it means paying someone from LinkedIn or UpWork to help me, then that helps me avoid flailing around at the beginning of the learning learning curve…and getting frustrated when “Ugh, nothing works and everything is shitty”.

    Working examples make all the difference for me. And I find I refer to them later too, when solving other problems, or even when learning new/related skills.

    Another tip: Try to solve a specific/real problem. Instead of learning something just because “I think it’s something I should know” or because it’s trendy. For example, learning JavaScript for no specific reason would have been a waste of time for me. But I eventually came across a specific problem: “Edit polyline vertices via ArcGIS attribute rules using Arcade/JavaScript”. Solving that real worked well for me. I learned JavaScript along the way…and now I’m taking a deep dive into JS…and having fun doing it.

    Like

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