How to Grow Your Expertise While on a Gap Year

November 9, 2015
Year On TeamPower Skills

Original post by Jean Fan

If you consider yourself unconventional, you choose not to rely on academic degrees to get ahead in life. Instead, you rely on self-direction and your actual expertise. This means that you have to actually know our stuff; you have to aim to develop the skills necessary to be named an expert. So how much work and time does that take?

Conventional wisdom says that we should expect an expert to have at least 10,000 hours of deliberate practice under their belts, at least if they are an expert on an international level. In commonly competed areas, for example, sports or music, this estimate might make sense. There are generally accepted standards for what an expert can do, and how well he or she can do it. This means that you can derive a general estimate of how long acquiring expertise can take. But what about in fields where “expertise” is less clear-cut?

Let’s say, for example, it takes 10,000 hours for a chemist to become an international expert. Does this mean that this person is an expert on everything in chemistry? No. It means that they have expertise in a particular area of chemistry, in a particular way. Perhaps they are an expert in organic chemistry or analytical chemistry. Or perhaps their expertise lies in their understanding of how all of the different subfields of chemistry relate to each other. Depending on how compact and niche their chosen domain is, a person can conceivably become an expert in a much shorter amount of time than 10,000 hours. It’s a very different thing to become an expert at chemistry generally, and becoming an expert at developing chemical molecules that can be used in cancer treatments, and becoming an expert at the history of chemistry in the 20th century.

From this we can extract two principles:

  1. When someone is said to be an “expert” at a certain domain, you have to determine the actual area where they are an expert.
  2. If a person is an expert in a smaller domain, or in a domain where there is less competition, we can expect that it will take less time for them to become an “expert.”

What does this mean for you? It means that if your goal is to eventually become an expert at writing, maybe right now you can become an expert at writing stories about your own experience. Maybe later you can become an expert at writing stories about other people’s experiences. And maybe a few years down the line, you decide that you want to become an expert in investigative journalism… And you can expand from there.

These two principles of expertise mean that we shouldn’t view expertise as something that we can only acquire years down the line. Rather, as long as we choose a niche space, we can -- and should -- position ourselves to become experts now.

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