How to Become an Expert at Anything, According to Experts

16 minute read
Barker is the author of Barking Up The Wrong Tree

Being an expert at something really pays off. Just how good are top performers compared to everybody else?

Research shows in high complexity jobs like professional and sales roles, the top 10% produce 80% more than average and 700% more than the bottom 10%.

But as I’m sure you’re aware, becoming the best ain’t easy. As Bobby Knight once said, “Everybody has the will to win; few people have the will to prepare to win.”

And one of the reasons why it’s hard to become great is because a lot of what you’ve been told about how to learn, study or train is wrong, wrong, and dead wrong. So it’s time to learn how to get better at gettin’ better.

Whether you want to be a great public speaker, study for exams or improve your free throws, we’re going to learn what methods research and experts recommend for becoming an expert at anything.

Let’s get to it…

The #1 Predictor Of Expertise

I’m going to ask you one question. And this question will probably predict just how good you’ll end up being at whatever it is you’re passionate about. Ready?

“How long are you going to be doing this?”

Yeah, doing something for a long time probably correlates with being decent at it but that’s not the point. Committing in advance to being in it for the long haul made all the difference.

Even when practicing the same amount, those who made a long-term commitment did 400% better than the short-termers.

From The Talent Code:

With the same amount of practice, the long-term-commitment group outperformed the short-term-commitment group by 400 percent. The long-term-commitment group, with a mere twenty minutes of weekly practice, progressed faster than the short-termers who practiced for an hour and a half. When long-term commitment combined with high levels of practice, skills skyrocketed.

(To learn the 4 rituals that produce expertise, click here.)

Are you in it to win it? Awesome. But if you’re going to be the best, you’re going to need help…

Find A Mentor

Luke had Yoda. The Karate Kid had Mr. Miyagi. I’m sure Kung Fu Panda had somebody but I never saw that movie. You get the picture.

When I spoke to Anders Ericsson, the professor who did the research behind the “10,000 hour rule” he said mentors were vital. But you knew that already.

So what does the research show about mentors that most people get wrong? Merely finding someone to help you that is already an expert doesn’t cut it.

When I spoke to Shane Snow, author of Smartcuts, he said your mentor needs to care about you. Here’s Shane:

In great mentorship relationships the mentor doesn’t just care about the thing that you’re learning, they care about how your life goes. They are with you for the long haul. They are willing to say, “No,” and to tell you what you’re doing is wrong. Those kinds of relationships yield outsized results in terms of future salaries and happiness.

So you find a Yoda who is totally invested in your success. Awesome. Now you have to be the dutiful, obedient student, right? Wrong.

You need to be respectful, sure, but you also need to be just a little bit of a pain in the ass.

When I spoke to David Epstein, bestselling author of The Sports Gene, he told me that those who did the best in school and those who went on to the pros in sports both questioned their teachers. They weren’t afraid to push back a little. Here’s David:

The kids that outdid their peers in the classroom and the kids that went on to become pros in a variety of sports had behavioral traits in common. The kids who went to the top in soccer, for example, they displayed what the scientists called “self-regulatory behavior.” It’s a 12-year-old who’s going up to their trainer and saying, “I think this drill is a little too easy. What is this working on again? Why are we doing this? I think I’m having a problem with this other thing. Can I work on that instead?”

(To learn how to find the best mentor for you, click here.)

You’ve got your Yoda. Cool. So it’s time to break out the standard textbook on whatever your area of interest is and start on page one, right? Wrong…

Read more: How To Get People To Like You: 7 Ways From An FBI Behavior Expert

Start With What’s Important

David Epstein put it simply: “The hallmark of expertise is figuring out what information is important.”

There are many components to any skill but practicing them all doesn’t produce the same results.

When I spoke to Tim Ferriss, bestselling author of The 4-Hour Workweek he said:

Do an 80-20 analysis and ask yourself, “Which 20% of these things I need to learn will get me 80% of the results that I want?”

When Tim was learning chess from champion Josh Waitzkin (whose life was the basis for the film “Searching for Bobby Fischer“) they did things the opposite from how most chess instruction works.

They didn’t start with the beginning of a chess game. They jumped straight to key moves that are applicable to the majority of interactions on the board. This allowed Tim to hang with top players after only a few days of practice. Here’s Tim:

Josh would basically do things in reverse. He took all the pieces off the board and started training me with King and Pawn versus King. By doing that he was teaching me not rote memorization of openings, but really powerful principles that can apply to the entire game in many different circumstances. Just by giving me a very short tutorial on a few principles with three pieces on the board, I went to Washington Square Park, and I was able to survive three or four times longer than I should have against a really savvy speed chess street hustler.

(To learn how to achieve competence at any skill as quickly as possible, click here.)

So you’re practicing what’s important. That’s great — but how should you practice?

“Train Like You Fight”

When I spoke to Special Forces Lieutenant Colonel Mike Kenny he told me, “Train like you fight.” You want your practice to be as similar to the real thing as possible.

And research backs Mike up. Not only will you be better prepared, but you learn much better when the context you practice in matches the context you will eventually perform in. How strong is this effect? Insanely strong.

Studies show if you are drunk or stoned while studying, you will actually perform better if you are drunk or stoned during the test.

From How We Learn:

Studying while seriously impaired is wasted time, in more ways than one, as millions of students have learned the hard way. Yet, generally speaking, we perform better on tests when in the same state of mind as when we studied— and, yes, that includes mild states of intoxication from alcohol or pot, as well as arousal from stimulants…

What if the two of us go diving and I teach you something underwater? Yup, you’ll remember the information 30% better if you are subsequently tested underwater than on land.

From How We Learn:

The divers who took the test underwater did better than those who took it on land, remembering about 30 percent more words. That’s a lot, and the two psychologists concluded that, “recall is better if the environment of the original learning is reinstated.”

Giving that important presentation in front of a group in a conference room? Then practice it in front of a group in a conference room.

(To learn how the most powerful people get things accomplished, click here.)

Okay, so on your path to expertise you casually review your notes again and everything feels really familiar. You’re really learning this stuff.

No, actually. No, you’re not…

Read more: New Neuroscience Reveals 4 Rituals That Will Make You Happy

Use “Desirable Difficulty”

Reviewing material is one of the most popular forms of learning. Guess what? It’s also one of the least effective.

Researchers call this “the fluency illusion.” Just because it’s easy to remember right now doesn’t mean it will stay that way. “Desirable difficulty” means that the harder you work trying to retrieve something from memory, the better you learn.

Don’t merely reread stuff. Practice like a medical student and quiz yourself with flashcards.

From Make It Stick – The Science of Successful Learning:

Learning is deeper and more durable when it’s effortful. Learning that’s easy is like writing in sand, here today and gone tomorrow. We are poor judges of when we are learning well and when we’re not. When the going is harder and slower and it doesn’t feel productive, we are drawn to strategies that feel more fruitful, unaware that the gains from these strategies are often temporary. Rereading text and massed practice of a skill or new knowledge are by far the preferred study strategies of learners of all stripes, but they’re also among the least productive.

You’re not going to learn much passively. Research show re-reading material four times was not nearly as effective as reading it once and writing a summary.

You need to struggle. Whether it’s memorizing information or practicing a sport or skill, you want your practice to be challenging. When I spoke to Dan Coyle, bestselling author of The Talent Code, he said:

We learn when we’re in our discomfort zone. When you’re struggling, that’s when you’re getting smarter. The more time you spend there, the faster you learn. It’s better to spend a very, very high quality ten minutes, or even ten seconds, than it is to spend a mediocre hour.

(To learn the 6 things the most organized people do every day, click here.)

You are done making it easy on yourself. You’re working at the edge of your ability. Now what does everybody agree is the key to taking your skills to the next level?

Get Fast, Negative Feedback

One of the three key components to “10,000 hours of deliberate practice” is feedback. Without it you don’t know if you’re improving or what you need to work on next.

And don’t just listen to me because I read the nerdy research. The most un-nerdy people in the world are on the same page. When I spoke to Navy SEAL platoon commander James Waters, he said feedback is critical.

After every mission, SEALs do a review of what happened to get feedback. Do they all just congratulate each other? No, they spend 90% of their time on the negative: what they can do better next time. Here’s James:

When you go out on a mission, you always acknowledge your successes but much more important than that is you take a hard look at your failures and are willing to accept criticism. One of the key strengths of the SEAL Teams is the culture of constant self-improvement. No one ever says “That’s good enough.” On almost every real world mission I was on – even the most successful ones – we spent 90% of our post-mission debrief focusing on what we did wrong or could have done better.

And there’s another vital source of feedback: yourself. Always take some time to reflect on how you’re doing.

Author David Epstein asked the head of the Groningen Talent Studies if she could sum up in one word the thing that all the top kids (in school or any sport) had in common.

She said “Reflection.” They think about what they did and ask themselves if it’s working. Here’s David:

When they do something, whether it’s good or bad, they take time for reflection. They asked themselves “Was it difficult enough? Was it too easy? Did it make me better? Did it not?” It sounds simple and sounds facile, but I think we don’t do it. We naturally gravitate toward increasing comfort in everything we do in our jobs. We become more efficient and we fall prey to that efficiency. That’s a disaster. When all your efforts are things that you can do easily and without thinking about them, you’re not going to improve.

(To learn how to develop the grit and resilience of a Navy SEAL, click here.)

So you’re reflecting and getting feedback from your mentor. What other mistake do people often make when trying to become an expert?

Study Less. Test More.

You go spend 100 hours reading books on Mixed Martial Arts. I’ll spend just 50 hours sparring. Then we’ll fight. Who’s going to win? Exactly.

Keep the “Rule of Two-Thirds” in mind. Spend only one third of your time studying. The other two-thirds of your time you want to be doing the activity. Testing yourself.

Get your nose out of that book. Avoid the classroom. Whatever it is you want to be the best at, be doing it. Here’s Dan Coyle:

Our brains evolved to learn by doing things, not by hearing about them. This is one of the reasons that, for a lot of skills, it’s much better to spend about two thirds of your time testing yourself on it rather than absorbing it. There’s a rule of two thirds. If you want to, say, memorize a passage, it’s better to spend 30 percent of your time reading it, and the other 70 percent of your time testing yourself on that knowledge.

We usually study for a test. That’s a mistake. You want to be testing yourself long before the main event. Because testing is actually a type of studying. In fact, testing is actually a better form of studying than studying.

From How We Learn:

Studying a prose passage for five or ten minutes, then turning the page over to recite what you can without looking, isn’t only practice. It’s a test, and Gates had shown that that self-exam had a profound effect on final performance. That is to say: Testing is studying, of a different and powerful kind.

(To learn how to be happier and more successful, click here.)

Alright, I know, this expertise stuff is hard. Isn’t there any part of improving your skills that is pleasant or easy? Of course…

Read more: New Harvard Research Reveals A Fun Way To Be More Successful

Naps Are Steroids For Your Brain

If you’re not getting enough sleep, you’re not learning as well as you could be. In fact, research shows there is a correlation between student grades and average amount of sleep.

Via NurtureShock:

Teens who received A’s averaged about fifteen more minutes sleep than the B students, who in turn averaged fifteen more minutes than the C’s, and so on. Wahlstrom’s data was an almost perfect replication of results from an earlier study of over 3,000 Rhode Island high schoolers by Brown’s Carskadon. Certainly, these are averages, but the consistency of the two studies stands out. Every fifteen minutes counts.

Too busy to get 8 hours? I hear you. Naps to the rescue! (To learn the secret to primo naps, click here.)

Yup, naps promote learning as well.

From How We Learn:

In a series of experiments over the past decade, Sara Mednick of the University of California, San Diego, has found that naps of an hour to an hour and half often contain slow-wave deep sleep and REM. People who study in the morning— whether it’s words or pattern recognition games, straight retention or comprehension of deeper structure— do about 30 percent better on an evening test if they’ve had an hour-long nap than if they haven’t.

(To learn how astronauts use sleep to increase performance here.)

Okay, we’ve learned a lot about how to learn a lot. Time to round it all up and find out the final big, big benefit to becoming an expert…

Sum Up

Here’s how to be an expert at anything:

  • Be in it for the long haul. Find me something else that creates a 400% boost in results. Please.
  • Find a mentor. Wax on, wax off, Daniel-san.
  • Start with what’s important. Bedside manner is great but I’ll take the surgeon who focused on where to cut, thanks.
  • “Train like you fight.” Don’t practice drunk. But if you do…
  • Use “desirable difficulty”. Easy in, easy out. Your brain encodes info better when you struggle.
  • Get fast, negative feedback. Listen to SEALs. If they’re not experts, the result is much worse than when you screw up.
  • Study less. Test more. Test before the test and the test will go better.
  • Naps are steroids for your brain. You’re not “sleeping on the job”, you’re “passively synthesizing skills.”
  • So you do all eight things and practice your tush off and now you’re The Master. Know what else you are?


    When you’re good at something and you do it often, the result isn’t just promotions or more wins on the tennis court, you also smile more often.

    People who deliberately exercise their “signature strengths” — talents that set them apart from others — on a daily basis became significantly happier for months.

    Via The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work:

    When 577 volunteers were encouraged to pick one of their signature strengths and use it in a new way each day for a week, they became significantly happier and less depressed than control groups. And these benefits lasted: Even after the experiment was over, their levels of happiness remained heightened a full months later. Studies have shown that the more you use your signature strengths in daily life, the happier you become.

    It’s not lonely at the top. It’s happy.

    Join over 262,000 readers. Get a free weekly update via email here.

    This article originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

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