Design · Experience

8 Steps to Become an Expert at Anything

So you’re ready to take your interests/hobbies/skills to the next level and become an expert? Or maybe you’ve identified some new business skills that would serve you well professionally?

Either way, I firmly believe that everyone is an expert in something. Whether your expertise lies in front-end development, the mating rituals of sea monkeys or the ability to fry a perfect flapjack, seeking recognition for your expertise is key to finding a pathway to success by doing the thing you love.

I have made the case that it’s better to be considered an expert than a generalist, at least when your employment depends on it. So let’s dive in!

Venn Diagram showing expert at the intersection of perception and knowledge

The label, “Expert” doesn’t require a Ph.D. There is no ceremony where some cult of experts gives you a certificate. “Expert” is a nebulous label that is largely influenced by perception.

You become an expert when you are perceived as an expert. However, the so-called “expert” will quickly be perceived as a conman if he is unable to prove his expertise. Therefore, the expert is a mix between public perception and deep knowledge.

To become an expert, you have to build both. Luckily, as the diagram shows, we can focus on the overlap between building deep knowledge and crafting public perception to quickly become an expert at anything.

Image of bookshelves with the word study

Step 1: Study

If you’re starting fresh, begin by building your knowledge on the subject. Take classes, read books by other experts, find courses online – do anything to build your knowledge on the subject. For technical skills, I recommend LinkedIn Learning courses. For subjects, identify three books written by experts and take a week to read all of them.

Step 2: Apply

While you can build your knowledge by studying, that knowledge is quite superficial until you can apply it. By applying your knowledge, you’ll find and fill the gaps in your learning while building your experience.

Step 3: Write

Novices read, experts write. Writing forces you to summarize your knowledge and solidify your own thoughts and beliefs. Summarize the books you’ve read. Write about how you have applied your knowledge. What did you learn? As you build your knowledge, you start to identify what’s missing from the public lexicon and fill in the gaps with your own writing. That’s called becoming a thought-leader!

Step 4: Acquire Titles

While Ph. D. and M.D. are titles that will instantly make anyone appear to be an expert, those titles are expensive, selective, and time-consuming. Luckily, there are a host of other titles you can own for a few hundred bucks and 5-minutes. Identify a handful of organizations with official-sounding names and become a member of each.

image of men writing on whiteboard with the word "teach"

Step 5: Teach

So far you’re just someone with a blog and a few titles. It’s time to start putting those titles to work and get some recognition. Give a free 1-3 hour seminar at the nearest well-known university. Make it clear that you’re not selling anything, you just want to share your knowledge and gain speaking experience. Record yourself from two angles and make a shareable video.

Step 6: Get Published

Offer to write articles for trade magazines and blogs. Cite your experience giving seminars and use those titles! The goal is to get your name listed as author or contributor in some significant publications.

Step 7: Register as an Expert

Join ProfNet, an online service that connects journalists with experts. If done properly, with some well-used sales techniques, you could be featured in media ranging from the New York Times to ABC.

Step 8: Repeat!

The rest is up to you! Build deeper expertise, take on some related subjects, or something totally new! Remember that this is about presenting the truth in the best possible light — not fabricating it. As long as your claims of expertise are based in reality, this method is all about superior positioning.

If you found this useful, consider sharing it so others can find it too. Help others make their expertise known!

Design · Experience

Generalist or a Specialist? Which is Best?

As a newly graduated professional, I wondered whether I should market myself as a generalist or a specialist. Of course, as a recent grad, I am certainly not an expert at anything yet. I certainly considered myself a generalist. As a creative, I’m drawn to things I don’t know much about. This passion has led me to become proficient in many skills.

Liberal artists will tout about being “well rounded” and be quick to point out the successes of Renaissance men through history. However, when it comes to professional presentation, I’ve found that the generalist does not find similar favor with industry. I’ve come up with some reasons for why I think this is the case and I offer an explanation for why it’s in your best interest to specialize.

Chart using bell curve to define generalist and specialist

Defined broadly, a generalist is one who is proficient in many skills often spanning multiple fields. Conversely, an expert is one who has comprehensive and authoritative knowledge in a specific field.

From a hiring manager’s perspective, she’s trying to fill a role with the best possible candidate. In a world filled with generalists, the expert/specialist who fits the bill will always win. There are very few expert-generalists in this world and most of them are doing things like founding their 3rd company or leading Space X; not applying to jobs.

What about those job postings which specifically ask for generalist qualities from creatives. It has been my experience that these postings come from smaller organizations looking for one employee to handle most of their creative pursuits. For reasons which will become clear, you might consider avoiding those roles for risk of branding yourself as a generalist.

As a young generalist myself, I still have a handful of related skills which I enjoy doing much more than the others. This is where I have chosen to focus and work to develop an expertise. After beginning to do so, I’ve recognized potentially infinite gains from making the switch from generalist to expert.

You Can Charge More

As a generalist, your positioning is based on your price – to be competitive, you will have to lower the price for your services. This is true whether working for an employer or a client. As an expert, your positioning is your expertise. To compete, you only have to prove more competence and authority in your field than the handful of other experts. An expert gets to charge more.

You Can Build Authority

Being an expert means you become an authority. This means that employers or clients will cede authority to you when it comes to matters of your expertise. Creative liberty can be very fulfilling.

You Can Still be a Generalist

Choosing to specialize does not mean abandoning generality. Those who are especially driven can do both, though effort placed in deepening expertise may prove to be a better investment in the workforce than efforts placed elsewhere.

You Won’t be Bored

I struggle with becoming disinterested in what I once found exciting. This is a struggle I find many creatives have and it is the feeling that drives the generalist. Picking a specialization is an important choice and one that should come naturally (maybe after some time pressure i.e. Graduation). They key is that what you specialize in should never bore you. For generalist creatives, this means refining your passion to that one field that perhaps underlies all your other passions.

Disclaimer: much of this thinking came from reading The Win Without Pitching Manifesto by Blair Enns

Experience

Internship Accomplishments

The last post of this internship.

Time to look back on everything I’ve contributed to Punchmark.

SMS STOP/HELP

Added functionality to automatically unsubscribe customers from Punchmark’s automates SMS messaging platform. The functionality not only had to comply with the CTIA Short Code Handbook but also required a lot of backend mapping from customer to phone number to stores involved in the subscription.

Facebook API Upgrade

Punchmark was running on v2.1 of Facebook’s API wich was set to expire this August. I worked to ensure that all calls to Facebook API across the site were ported to the newest API standard (at the time v2.6).

XSS Filtering

Created a function to strip potentially malicious text from form entries and implemented it across hundreds of files site-wide. There were several conflicts that resulted in broken pages. I learned a lot about testing and linting before pushing through the cleanup involved with this task.

Instagram API Implementation

Punchmark missed the memo about Instagram’s new API change in June of this year. As a result, all calls to Instagram’s API were failing. I created a server side (explicit) authentication flow to allow customers to authenticate their Instagram accounts. Through this process, the user grants the permissions for use to view their recent posts and we generate and store an authentication token to use when pulling their data.

API Streamlining and Caching

I created modular classes and functions for API requests across all platforms that punchmark uses (Google+, Pinterest, Facebook, Instagram, and Yelp).

Also cached results from API calls to common pages for the server to refer to in the sort term to prevent unnecessary expensive requests on each page load. In the event that the API becomes unusable, the Punchmark team can refer to the resources stored in the cache temporarily.

Product Imports

Lastly, this was something that I had started but was unable to finish during my time. Stuller is a jewelry vendor that provides and API for all of their products. I was working to use Stuller’s API to pull their product inventory and convert it to our own product format for use by website clients.

Experience

Questions: Before and After

This internship represented a lot of firsts for me. It was my first time living in an apartment. First time living in a city. First 40hr/week job. First non-minimum wage job. Those are the big ones. Before this internship, I was curious how I would react to these environments.

I’m glad to say that I’ve learned a lot. I learned that I love the city and never want to leave. I learned that I dread 40hr workweeks. That I should find something I’m really passionate about and work for myself. I learned what a $15/hr paycheck can buy and what it can’t.

I still have lots of questions. I wonder what a more interactive and involved work environment would feel like. In my experience with Google, I got to see how their employees self-organizes and work collaboratively. I was enamored by their work style and I am eager to try a job with similar values and structure.

I also want to have experience being my own boss. I would like to start something myself and run it. It’s one of those things that I think I will love to do but I want to know for sure.

Experience

If I Were the Boss

I’ve got just over 2 months of experience working with Punchmark. The company has operated for nearly a decade with only a handful of full-time employees. Furthermore, the three owners are the only ones who deal with the code on a daily basis.
I’m choosing to write about what I would do differently if I were in charge. Punchmark’s current strategy for development has worked well for them now. However, once more full-time developers join the team their strategy needs to change. Here are three things I would do in preparation of adding more employees to my team if I was CEO of Punchmark.

Implement Deployment Strategy

Punchmark’s current strategy is a sort of autonomous continuous deployment scramble to fix bugs and add features while developing on live code or using a small shared testing client. Again, this has worked for them. However, new employees need a strict development process to conform to. Punchmark could benefit from release automation and a dedicated development server. Operating on live code is dangerous and more than once during my time there has led to a complete crash of all client sites. Albeit for only a few seconds. There are tools for testing code before release and preventing releases that would break pages.
Security
I would hire security specialists to do a complete audit of Punchmark’s system. In my time working there, I’ve seen XSS vulnerabilities and weak password hashing algorithms. I don’t even know that much about security. Who knows what else is lurking in that codebase? Beyond emails and passwords, Punchmark stores API tokens for their clients that could be used to control a client’s social media accounts if they were leaked or revealed through SQL injection. These security threats have the potential to incur lawsuits and ruin the company’s reputation. Squashing these threats would be first priority if I were in charge.
Documentation
Punchmark has an in-house wiki. But I would enforce keeping it up to date and detailed. Before making new hires, I would revamp the wiki with the big picture essentials and instruct new recruits to add to the wiki as they learn. They will have the best vocabulary to describe a problem to someone new to the codebase.
I think that Punchmark fears becoming a strict company and longs to hold on to that startup feel. They can still do this while implementing some structure and safeguards to their system. While customer acquisition is a priority for them right now and it is the driving force behind their cash flow, these changes above will ensure a more long-term success and provide room for scaling to meet the needs and concerns of a growing client base.

Experience

Me the Web Dev

I started learning web development out of necessity. A year ago, my friend, David, asked me to help design a website he was contracted to do for the Entrepreneurship for the Public Good (a program we had both been a part of). He noticed my design eye and also the fact that I was beginning to launch my website/blog using Bootstrap.

That summer I taught myself HTML, CSS, JavaScript, JQuery, and Bootstrap. I came through on my designs for the site and the rest is history. Fast forward a year and I’m a paid intern for a web development company.

I like the web. It’s everywhere. It’s accessible. It’s visual.

I get the most satisfaction from programming when I can see results. In web design, It’s like using a secret language to control a digital paintbrush. In development, it’s more about basic problem solving. That’s how I see it. I like them both.

Web development is the only field that I’ve been able to apply my computer science knowledge to make money. When developing a full web app, I get to touch a lot of code and design a lot of interactions and views.

Something I’ve learned this summer is that I’m most dissatisfied when I’m bored or when I feel like my time is being wasted. I never get bored with web development.

Experience

What’s Changed

I just want to preface this with something. I finished this entire post then accidentally copied over it in the command line. Yay! So if this one seems brief or lackluster, that’s because it’s late, I’m annoyed. So yeah.

The internship is nearing its end. Let’s talk about what’s changed with me.

I no longer feel like I need to practice developing professionalism or career development. I’m doing pretty good in that department and I feel like I’ve devoted the better part of two years to that and enough is enough.

I’ve seen the importance of doing something that you enjoy. I also have realized that most of what I know about my field are web development and design. I’m making a point to explore my field a bit more just to be sure I’m not missing anything super fun.

Preliminary reading: I know what I want to be– a CEO.

It amazed me all the roles and skills that the owners of Punchmark had to fill. Granted there are three of them to divide up the work. But take Ross for instance. Every day he takes calls, sells products and services, markets the company, plans future events, brainstorms ideas. All the while, he writes code and designs. He’s a marketer. He’s a brand ambassador. He’s a developer. He’s a designer. He’s a CEO. And he’s never bored.

Experience

If Money Were No Object

It’s common knowledge that Computer Science is a lucrative field. Or at least, that’s what I’ve gathered whenever I tell someone what my major is. Lately, I’ve begun to see the demand for as well as the payout that programmers, developers, and the like can expect. This got me thinking. Am I doing all of this just for the money? I’ve given it some serious thought.

I imagined what I would do in a world where money was no object. I would travel. I would create. Maybe an artist, maybe a writer, perhaps even a musician. My passion lies in making.

Then I thought about what I like to do in my free time. Learn. Read. Explore. Create. Grow. I jump from hobby to hobby. I’m constantly juggling side projects. More often than not, I’m messing about with some new aspect of Linux I’ve discovered or trying to understand something technical and abstract.

I believe that computer science offers everything I crave. I can continuously explore new methods and learn something new while creating and problem-solving. There are also many fields and specializations that I can jump to when I get bored.

Unfortunately, money is a thing. However, I think I’ve lucked out. I can tolerate doing something I enjoy to afford to do the things I love. The limiting factor is time. How much time will I devote to working vs. living?

Experience

How I Gamify My LIfe

I used to be really into games. I am competitive. I love puzzles and challenges. I like to train and watch myself get better at a particular skill. For me, most gaming was on Xbox and PC. I liked video games because of their complexity. Often there were ways to win without playing fair. There were cheat codes, glitch exploits, methods to farm experience or materials.

I played a LOT of Halo. To me, Halo was not just a first person shooter, it was a complex ecosystem that had leaderboards, rankings, collectibles, and player interactions. Sure being the quickest to line up a headshot would help you sometimes. But, to be great you had to know every aspect of the game. You had to know that a Ghost could be destroyed in one punch if you hit the cylinder thing just being the wings. Little details that got you ahead and let you carry your team match after match.

I don’t play video games anymore. Partly because when I play a game I feel like I’m fighting a programmer. I think to myself, “Why am I fighting this guy?”. He’s clearly already won because everyone is playing his game instead of using something I’ve created.

Video games were not an escape for me as they are for others. They were a puzzle. Games taught me how to acknowledge a puzzle and they gave me the mindset to tackle it.

My go to game these days is life.

I gamify my life by making decisions based on potential reward. Skipping on going to the gym results in -2 strength and dexterity whereas finishing that book results in +3 intuition and perception. Of course, I don’t break it down exactly like that (into D&D skills) but I do look at the cost and reward of every decision. I attribute this, in part, to games.

In my work too, I try to find subtle ways to gamify an otherwise borrowing or tedious task. Motivation is fleeting and unpredictable while discipline is steadfast and immovable. I try to develop discipline when starting a task the same way I would start a game– with every intention of completing it and doing so to the best of my ability.

Experience

Fearing a Designed Lifestyle

So, recently I’ve started working my first 40 hour work week job. At first, the impact of the 40hr/week lifestyle was a shock but I’ve adapted. This scares me.

The obvious thing I’ve given up is time. 40 hours of work really means 50 hours of lost free time when lunch and travel are included. Furthermore, after grinding at work the last thing I want to do is work on personal projects and do anything that requires more mental effort. These last few weeks, I did something I swore I would never do. I watched a TV series from start to finish. Ew.

This made me think.

Call it capitalism. Call it society. But our lifestyles are designed and shaped by the 40 hour work week. By limiting time, the desire for convenience, quick payout, and consumerism increases. As a minimalist, my relatively unusual lifestyle has been easy to adopt and maintain sustainably. Until now. It’s much harder to go for that afternoon run. It takes convincing to not stop for some sushi after work.

Furthermore, it has been shown that the average office worker gets three hours of work done per eight hours. The origin of the 40 hour work week comes from the industrial revolution in France. It was enacted to prevent factories from abusing employees with 80+ hour work weeks that were mandatory. As time moved onward, technology has been able to increase output per hour from factories. I would argue that white collar and intellectual jobs do not serve to benefit from a 40 hour work week.

As a single 20 something, I’m able to sustain my desired lifestyle while also holding a full-time job. Barely. If I wanted to have any friends, meet people, or even get a dog, I could see myself slumping into a life of fast food, eating out, TV, and dare I say it: sports. I don’t want to be that person. I know I would be miserable.

I am lucky enough to have my passions and skills align in such a way that I can market them and make a living. I’m thinking that if I’m doomed to work for 40 hours each week I might as well be working for myself than lining the pockets of someone else.