Home > Leadership Lessons, personal development > The Daily Grind: On Becoming an Expert

The Daily Grind: On Becoming an Expert


There are a few things that have been keeping me busy learning these past few weeks – my MacBook Pro, the Nikon D5100 camera that I got my wife for our anniversary gift and re-learning jazz and blues piano on my Korg X50 music workstation. This is over and above the stuff that I keep learning and re-learning about SQL Server and anything about Microsoft technologies. As a teacher-at-heart, I am a strong believer of learning by doing and that most of the stuff I am learning will only stick if I practice on a regular basis. But sometimes, I fall into the trap of wanting to get things done with excellence immediately. I wanted to master all the commands on my MacBook, configure my DSLR camera to the settings I want for my photos and mastering the keyboard licks for a fancy jazz piano solo. And I get frustrated if I can’t. I feel that if I’m very good at doing high availability and disaster recovery for SQL Server databases, why can’t I even get my camera settings correctly? And, then, it hit me. I was never good at what I do the first time I did it. It took me years of practice, simulation and preparation to get me to where I am now. It’s like learning how to walk the first time. I don’t remember how hard it was for me to start walking when I was a toddler but I’m pretty sure it didn’t happen in an instant. And when I knew I can walk with ease, I bet I started running.

Leaders face the same challenge every day. Whether it’s a new leadership position, a new task they haven’t done before, or simply learning a new skill, the feeling of incompetence is always lurking nearby. While any task seem to be overwhelming at first, the good news is that there’s always an opportunity to become an expert. The secret lies in what we do on a regular basis. I’ve listed down a few things that I’ve done in the past to master a particular subject matter. You can use them as your guide to build your own list:

  1. Read the manual. Leaders are readers. They continuously try to learn more about becoming a better leader – whether it’s about how to improve their business model or developing their communication skill. The more you read, the more you know. And the more you know, the more ideas are available to you to get your job done easier. It’s the same thing with learning something new. I’m reading the user manual that came with the DSLR camera so that I know what it’s capable of doing and how I can make modifications to the settings to get the results I want.
  2. Learn the basics. When I was still in the university, one of my professors always reminded us students to go back to the basics. Understanding calculus meant learning the basic arithmetic. Similarly, knowing how to play the blues meant understanding the foundation concepts that form the complex musical chords. Leaders sometimes feel that they need to understand the complexity of their job to become effective – understanding operational efficiency, communicating vision, etc. Just go back to the basics. Financial accounting can be as simple as understanding how much you’re making versus how much you’re spending.  You’ll be surprised that anything complex can be narrowed down to its basic principles
  3. Practice. Consistently. This is a tough one. If we really want to be good at something, we need to practice. Convert theory into action. It makes learning a bit easy when you roll up your sleeves and practice. The practice part is easy. What’s challenging is being consistent. I can learn a new shortcut or command on my MacBook and apply it the next time I need to use it. But if I don’t do it consistently, I can easily forget about it in a week or less. In order to make it second nature, I have to consistently apply what I have learned. The challenge with leaders is consistently applying the new concepts learned. Want to be really good at managing your finances within the organization? Evaluate both profits and revenues consistently. Want to be a great speaker? Practice. Consistently. It could just be as simple as 20 minutes every day. But those 20 minutes could be the most important investment you can make on your journey to become an expert.

Are you trying to learn a new skill? Do you want to become an expert at what you do? While I don’t promise that you’ll become an expert in a short span of time, you definitely will become one if you follow this simple guide. If you have a guide of your own, I’d appreciate if you can share them here.

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  1. June 4, 2013 at 5:33 pm

    This is why I love Kobe Bryant – not for the person that he is but for Kobe the basketball player. He would always say that the reason why he is so good at what he does is he mastered the basics: foot work, jump shot, baseline drive, fade away, etc.

    I’ve been also following Josh Kaufman on his learning stuff. His latest book, “The First 20 Hours: How to Learn Anything . . . Fast!”, which is about rapid skill acquisition sounds interesting. I saw a video of him talking about how one only needs 20 hours of consistent practice with the basics to learn a new skill. Obviously we need more than 20 hours to become an expert.

    Btw, how about the “10,000 hrs = expert” concept which was popularized by Gladwell in “Outliers”?. What’s your take on that?

    • June 4, 2013 at 10:38 pm

      There’s a new study about the myth of the 10,000 hours http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20121114-gladwells-10000-hour-rule-myth

      My argument is that there is no magic number. There is, however, a prerequisite to invest time, discipline, commitment, excellence and continuous improvement to become an expert. Continuous improvement requires constantly evaluating what we do and measuring it against our previous performance. Ironically, experts do not consider themselves as such. They consider themselves still as students, constantly learning and improving themselves.

  1. January 8, 2012 at 3:37 pm
  2. September 3, 2012 at 4:24 am

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