If you asked people how long it takes to become an expert in a specific discipline, most would share the so-called “10,000-hour rule of deliberate practice” to reach mastery (courtesy of Malcolm Gladwell). While much has been said about the validity of this "rule," my experience over the past two decades shows that with deliberate focus, and following a series of common-sense steps, most folks can become experts in any domain. Here are the steps I follow when seeking to further my knowledge around a topic:
1. Purchase the top 10 most popular books on the topic.
When attempting to learn about an industry rapidly, try locating some of the most well-regarded literature on the domain. In this day and age of internet shopping with purchase reviews to guide us, you can quickly get a sense of books that are well-regarded by others. Also consider asking for suggestions in industry forums, online or otherwise, or through reference from individuals in your personal peer group.
2. Follow the top industry experts on the topic.
Every industry has experts, and generally there is no shortage of folks who are happy to share their thoughts and general observations through various forums. While there are inevitably various opinions on who the "experts" are, with research you will find that certain individual names will generally bubble up to the top repeatedly. Those with a more public profile will generally have a lot of available information to lead you in your research.
3. Take an industry course.
If you are new to a domain and looking to rapidly immerse yourself, invest in education seminars or courses. In some cases, local community colleges may offer an affordable option to learn about a specific topic. Introduce yourself to others who can assist in your perspective, like other students and educators. Another option is to utilize a site like Udemy that offers quick topic courses on nearly any subject at a very affordable price point.
4. Make connections with others in the domain.
Build a network! The internet can provide a lot of points, and business networking websites, like LinkedIn, can be invaluable when establishing connections. Don’t be shy about reaching out to new connections. You will likely find that your interest will be met with support, and requesting time to have a short dialogue is completely appropriate. When I meet with someone for the first time, I forward a list of questions in advance to ensure our meeting will be productive and respectful of their time and mine.
5. Join an industry networking association.
This is a wonderful opportunity to meet local experts and create connections for future learning opportunities. Associations offer opportunities to network, attend educational seminars, and receive up-to-date content on specific subject matters. Look in your local area for trade or industry get-togethers on websites like MeetUp. You may be surprised.
6. Attend industry tradeshows or conferences.
National industry tradeshows and conferences afford the opportunity to almost guarantee that top leaders and thinkers in a domain will be under a single roof, and it’s a great opportunity to network and participate in training sessions and seminars. In addition, personal connections made through face-to-face interactions will have greater impact than potentially spending months pursuing meetings through more impersonal communication channels.
7. Participate on a relevant industry advisory groups.
Industry associations exist for most, if not all, industry groups, and there are generally numerous opportunities to support activities that impact and inform industry direction. Industry advisory groups generally have many working groups, made up of motivated members with a desire to move agendas forward in a specific domain. Advisory councils and boards also exist to set the direction for aspects of the organization and generally interact with both public and private sector partners, offering greater insight into trends.
8. Listen to podcasts.
An easy way to maximize your time learning about topic is leveraging audio podcasts in your downtime -- perhaps while driving into work in the morning. A lot of podcasts tend to take on a more relaxed, conversational approach to discussing issues and opinions, and make the information sharing more contextual. A familiar approach in podcasting is to have a host interview a rotating lineup of recognized experts. Sometimes guests debate each other in a constructive manner. These can be very informational if they exist in your target domain.
9. Stay up to date on the industry news.
Now that news is immediate, leverage the power of readers and viewers to aggregate the information you care about, and find time to review it. I’ve been using Flipboard as a means to do this for many years. I generally spend a few minutes throughout the day to scan new articles and highlight any for deeper review. This provides a snapshot on the latest trends and information being discussed in the domain, and while timeliness of information is always instrumental, in some industries it is simply a competitive need to stay ahead.
10. Volunteer to support a non-profit organization.
The challenge for a number of not-for-profit groups is not having access to recognized industry experts. Finding a not-for-profit group that both furthers your awareness of aspects of the industry and provides a sense of accomplishment in a lesser-served aspect of an industry can be very rewarding on multiple levels.
Building your industry expertise does not have to take long, but you should approach it with a methodical plan of action that allows you to gain knowledge and build your personal experience in the domain. You’ll also find these same skills critical as you continue in your career to ensure your movement in time with industry trends.