How To Become an Expert at Something You Know Nothing About

There is something so inspiring about seeing someone learn a new skill, become competent, then take it to the next level and become an expert. I remember a few years back my sister Stacey started getting interested in mountain biking. We all thought, “Oh, that’s cool, it’s nice to try new things.”

I don’t think any of us imagined it would become the main passion of her life (she was never a super-athletic person before), but she found a mentor, learned the basics, biked every day, and with a infatigable source of determination set about to learn all she could about mountain biking.

After she learned the basics, she started learning how to repair her own bike and replace parts. Then, she decided she wanted to build her own bike from scratch, which impresses me to no end.

She was clearly going into uncharted, esoteric territory as far as our family was concerned with her requests for obscure bike magazines and accessories for Christmas and birthdays and with the addition of multiple tattoos of bike images on her body to express the impact this extreme sport was having on the direction of her life.

Now, 6 years later, she is working as the manager for a bike shop in New York doing repairs, building bikes, selling bikes and handing out advice to other biking enthusiasts.

Imagine, over the course of a few years, Stacey went from a complete novice whose physical activity was limited to the occassional stroll around the neighborhood, to pretty much an expert in the field of mountain biking.

So, what is the key to being able to go from zero knowledge to expert in your field of choice, whether it’s mountain biking, doing Kung Fu, playing guitar, being a pro blogger, a life coach or anything else in life?

1. Have a committment to mastery.

“The only thing standing between you-as-amateur and you-as-expert is dedication. All that talk about prodigies? We could all be prodigies (or nearly so) if we just put in the time and focused. Best of all–it’s almost never too late,” encourages brain science maven, Kathy Sierra.

2. Stay with it for the long haul.

If you’re committed to being successful within a field that’s completely new to you, you should be prepared to invest at least 3 to 5 years of steady focus. If that turns you off, then save yourself the time and don’t bother.

3. Don’t let it bother you that you suck at first.

Personal development guru Steve Pavlina cautions, “When you start out in a brand new field with no experience, you’re going to suckĀ… most likely really suck. If you’re lucky your results will just be bad instead of painfully bad. But screwing up is perfectly OK. That’s supposed to happen. Screwing up is how you learn. Every mistake helps you make new distinctions and increase your skill.”

4. Don’t be discouraged that most people fail.

If you’re starting in a field that is very challenging and has a low barrier of entry, such as acting, starting an internet business, music or pro blogging, you’re going to be keeping company with many folks who are just dabblers. Pavlina says, “In many fields you only see a 1% success ratio because the other 99% are merely taking up space. You’ll find a small percentage of people who are really committed to mastery, but the rest have virtually no hope of notable success. As you build skill, which normally takes years to achieve competency in any worthwhile field, you move out of the 99% and into the 1%. Dabblers will enter the field, try it for six months, and give up after concluding it’s too hard. A challenging field is good though because it means your long-term investment in skill-building will mean something. It wouldn’t be much of an accomplishment if it was too easy.”

5. Focus on learning rather than winning at first.

It feels awkward to learn a new skill, and many times you can’t avoid being thrown into the same pool and made to compete with experts who have been honing their skills for years. Pavlina says, “It’s totally unfair. But that unfairness is what provides the challenge and makes it fun.When you’re committed, you know that early success isn’t to be expected. This is the training phase. Your goal is to survive and to learn, not to win.”

6. Know that it’s never too late.

Sierra points out, “Most of us can kiss that Olympic ice skating medal good-bye. But think about this… actress Geena Davis nearly qualified for the US Olympic archery team in a sport she took up at the age of 40, less than three years before the Olympic tryouts. And if the neuroscientists are right, you can create new brain cells by learning at virtually any age. Think about it… if you’re 30 today, if you take up the guitar tomorrow, you’ll have been playing for TWENTY years by the time you’re 50. You’ll be kicking some serious guitar butt.”

So, rather than being the product of luck, genetics, learning a skill at a young age, or statistical likelihood, achieving mastery within a certain field is largely the result of personal choice, training and commitment.

It’s encouraging to remember that every expert started out as a complete novice.

There was a time in Leonardo da Vinci’s life when he knew nothing about painting. There was a time in Lance Armstrong’s life when he didn’t know how to ride a bike. There was a time in Anne Rice’s life when she wasn’t that great at writing. They only reached expert status after much perserverence, dedication and practice.