How to become an expert at anything

1. State your goal. The more specifically you identify your goal the more specifically you can focus on it. Saying your goal out loud or writing it down will help you refine your goal and stay focused.

2. Learn from other people’s research and mistakes. Whatever you’re trying to do has probably already been mastered by someone else. Learn from their research and mistakes. Go read a book about it. Read every book you can find on the subject. Take a class on it. The more external help you can to get the less you have to reinvent the wheel.

3. Practice. No matter how much you read up on a subject or listen to lectures, that’s only going to help  you understand the theory. Take for example the simple skill of rolling a cigarette. I can fully explain everything there is to know about rolling a cigarette in one or two pages, but even if you memorize those instructions word for word you’re not going to be able to roll quality cigarettes quickly and consistently until you’ve rolled at least 200 cigarettes yourself.

Every time you do something the neural pathways your brain responsible for processing that action will grow stronger. The stronger those pathways become the more second-nature the thing you’re doing will become.

Not only that, but throughout your life you’ve developed a unique and extensive list of good habits, bad habits and different predispositions to ways of thinking and acting. All of these factors influence everything you do. Nobody else knows what all of those factors are. So nobody else’s instructions will be tailor made for you. The only way for you to understand how your predispositions affect what you’re trying to do is by doing the thing you want to do.

As you practice you’ll come to understand not only your strengths and weaknesses but also the subtle nuances of the task you’re trying to accomplish, and by giving yourself hands on experience with the task you’ll fully understand why these nuances exist, how to fix/exploit them and eventually how to change them. But those subtleties can only be teased out through hands-on experience.

The point of practicing is to understand the logic of the system better. The more logically and systematically you understand the logic of the system the better you’ll be able to master the system. As you practice, break down the system into its component parts and write a how-to manual for how to do the thing. It doesn’t matter if anyone else will ever read it. It will force you to fully articulate how to do what you’re doing and allow you to take a step back and look at what you know and find the holes in it. Read “Cheaper by the Dozen” by Frank Gilbreth. For God’s sake, don’t watch the Steve Martin movies. The book will help you understand how to break down systems into their component parts.

Also, practice all the time. You can’t get good at rolling a cigarette, much less snowboarding if you only do it once a month. In between practice sessions you’ll forget everything you learned last time and the neural pathways you’ve strengthened in your brain through practice will atrophy. It’s a common misconception that some people are born experts. Mozart and Beethoven are often cited as examples, but in reality they only appeared to be child prodigies because they devoted their entire childhood to practicing constantly. If you want to master something then practice it every day, preferably several times a day. If you can, devote your whole day to it every day.

4. Constantly ask yourself, “Why am I doing this?” If you have to force yourself to practice then you’re not doing something you’re passionate about. Oh, you may be passionate about achieving the end goal of becoming rich and famous, but you’re not passionate about the task. So performing the task makes you miserable, and your brain constantly tells you to stop. You can push yourself through that wall for a while, but you’re not going to be able to keep pushing yourself against your will for the decades it’s going to take to master a skill. If you hate practicing them do yourself the biggest favor of your life and quit whatever it is you’re doing, and find something you enjoy doing.

You should want to practice several times a day every day. You should want desperately to cut other time consuming activities out of your life to give you more time to do what you really want to do: practice. If you’re not like a crack addict going through withdrawals when you can’t practice then you’ve set the wrong goal. Find the thing you can’t live without and practice that, because if you do something you’re not passionate about enough to master it you’re likely going to grow to hate it and become miserable.

If nothing else, life is short. You’re running out of time to follow your real dream…the dream you would do just for the sake of doing it regardless of whether or not you’ll ever master it.

5. Make crap. What do you think Leonardo Da Vinci’s first picture looked like? What do you think Mozart’s first song sounded like? I guarantee you it was crap. The road to perfection is paved with crap. Rolling crappy cigarettes is discouraging. Every crappy cigarette you roll is proof that you’ll never be able to roll a perfect cigarette. Even if that’s true, you should keep rolling crappy cigarettes not because your goal is to become a master cigarette roller but because you want to roll cigarettes, and you enjoy the crappy cigarettes you’ve rolled until one day they start coming out perfect, and that day will come quicker than you expected because you weren’t constantly stressing about becoming a master. You were just doing what you want to do and enjoying yourself and learning along the way without measuring success by the end product.

6. Constantly ask yourself, “Should I be doing this?” You should NOT be rolling cigarettes. All cigarettes do is get you addicted to poison and then kill you slowly and painfully. Life is short (especially if you smoke). Are you making the most of your time? Are the things you’re getting better at really important? Are they worth the time and stress? Are they contributing to your demise or the demise of society at large? Are they a waste of time? If you’re not asking yourself these questions then you might be wasting your life mastering a counter-productive skill.

7. Cheat. Here’s a motto you can live by, “By definition, the quickest and most efficient way to do anything is to cheat.” By “cheat” I mean break the rules. What are the rules anyway? They’re just the standard way of doing things that the people before you established. They’re not written in the fabric of space time. They’re not like the laws of physics. They’re not even moral imperatives. Rules are just shit people said or did. In order to do something better you have to do it different. That means you have to change the rules, and in order to change the rules you have to break them.

And remember, there are always at least 3 ways to get around the rules or standard operating procedures. Those three ways are different for every task. Take rolling a cigarette for example. Here’s 3 ways to cheat: buy pre-rolled cigarettes, use a rolling machine, or smoke a pipe. Find your own shortcuts in whatever you’re doing. It’s not unethical. It’s usually how we should be doing things anyway, but people have been (and are) just too stuck in their ways or uncreative enough to think outside the box and figure out a more efficient way of doing things. Doing things the long, hard way doesn’t prove you’re tough or responsible. It proves you’re a Neanderthal.

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