The need to develop ourselves into experts has never been more critical. Retirement ages in the UK are rising to catch up with increasing life expectancy, meaning millennials, like me, will need to work into our late 70s. As well as working longer, if we want to be paid well, we are going to need to have a broad and deep set of skills as computing and automation hollow out the jobs market, turning many middle-income jobs into high-income ones. Being experts in our chosen fields is the only way to build a meaningful, enjoyable, and financially rewarding work.
Consistently and overwhelmingly, the evidence showed that experts are always made, not born.K. Anders Ericsson1
The good news is that expertise can be learnt. K. Anders Ericsson in the paper ‘The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance’2 argues that ‘…the differences between expert performers and normal adults reflect a life-long period of deliberate effort to improve performance in a specific domain.’ In the paper, deliberate practice is defined as ‘…a regime of effortful activities designed to optimise improvement.’
The journey to expertise is a decade long pursuit, but most of us are not starting from scratch, and some starting qualification in your field is likely to accelerate the process. To become an expert, we need to begin a deliberate practice that stretches your current abilities and takes you out of your comfort zone. A coach, mentor, or teacher will speed up the process too, telling us how to develop expertise in the field, provide a feedback loop, and developing the ability to coach ourselves.
Reading is the easiest way to start your deliberate practice. Many of the worlds smartest and most impactful people spend significant amounts of their working lives reading. Bill Gates, in his Nextflix documentary, talks about finds the leading expert in a field he is interested in and reads everything they have published to build up expertise in the area. Naval Ravikant suggests first developing the habit by reading fiction that you love. You will naturally move towards theory, concepts, and non-fiction.
Deliberate practice takes time, and so we need to create this space to develop our expertise, but how much? Benjamin Franklin used to dedicate one hour per day during the working week, whereas Warren Buffet spends around 6 hours per day reading and thinking. Many other examples of highly successful people’s learning practices can be found with a quick Google search, but the baseline seems to be an hour so let us start there.
For me, the two best times to find an hour are first thing in the morning and last thing at night. Getting up at 5:00 to study before the world wakes up got me successfully through a degree while working full-time, but the current absence of a commute for most of us means we can push this back a bit. My new practice is to get up at 6:00 am (ish), do some sit-ups and 5 minutes of light exercise to wake up, and then sit down to learn for a solid hour at least. If life gets in the way, I can skip the TV in the evening and do the work then. For people that have more commitments outside of work than I do, finding an hour during the working day might work too as long as the learning is related to the work you do. You will find yourself less productive in the short term, but your new skills will start to make the remaining hours more effective over the longer-term.
We have talked about reading is an excellent place to start, but there are additional ways that we can make each hour of study time more meaningful. The first is to highlight your reading and transfer these a separate document; you could then summarise these highlights in your own words. Once your knowledge starts to grow, you can begin to apply your learning to projects at work and creating a network of like-minded people you can discuss ideas with and solve problems collaboratively around the things you are learning.
The 200-day challenge
- Find something to learn
- Read a book you will enjoy
- Take a practical course to learn a new skill
- Set yourself a problem to research
- Find an hour in your day to dedicate to that thing for the next three months
- Take notes and put them in place you can review regularly – roam research is a good option as it allows you to create links between similar themes from your various notes over time.
- Commit to it for the next 200 days.
Send me a message on twitter if you want to join in, and we can add a social element to the challenge.