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10,000 hours or 20 hours: How long does it really take to become a Subject Matter Expert?

In the past 3 years I have achieved 6 professional certifications. That is more than I accomplished in the previous 10 years. Being the curious person that I am, I began to wonder what does it really take to be an expert?

Josh Kaufman in his book The First 20 hours: How to learn anything fast describes his methodology of taking the big goal and creating action steps to achieve it. The focus is on obtaining a working knowledge of the subject matter. Maybe it is to learn enough Spanish to order at a restaurant and have a conversation or learn code to build your app. His approach is 20 minutes, twice a day and you will have the working knowledge you need to accomplish your goal. I have used this method to learn enough about HTML to comfortable adding code to a webpage. My experience has been the first 10 minutes seem like an hour and you definitely want to quit. In order to overcome this mental block, create a focused work environment and set a timer for 20 minutes and don't quit until the timer goes off. Each successive session gets easier.

Malcolm Gladwell is his book Outliers goes to the other extreme of very high performing individuals. Those that are considered at the top of their game. Could you compete against Venus or Serena Williams in tennis with just 20 hours of practice? Play in the Symphony or sing at the Opera with 20 hours of practice? LOL. To compete at this level requires 10,000 hours of practice. A commitment that very few are willing to do. At this level of performance it goes well beyond any natural talent or ability. Research has shown a direct correlation between practice and achievement.

Geoff Colvin in his book Talent is Overrated researches what it takes to rise to the highest level. One of my favorite lines from the book- "Race Horses win by a nose". This is true in life and business. That little bit extra you are willing to do sets you apart from the pack. Discipline to do just a little more research, dig a little deeper into the data  and read one more book will set you apart in dramatic ways from your "peers". These are the practice of the business world. Your personal dedication to life long learning will make you a thought leader in your industry.

As we digest this research 3 distinct levels become clear.

  • Working Knowledge- dedicating 20 hours to learn a new skill set. Certainly not an expert, but you have enriched your life by learning discipline and strategies to accomplish goals.
  • Understanding- somewhere between 20 and 10,000 hours. This is the effort it takes to achieve certifications or an additional degree. Your level of understanding is far beyond a working knowledge.
  • Mastery- you are building on the previous levels and have committed yourself to lifelong learning. Discipline and Daily Rituals are an integral part of your practice. It makes you uncomfortable when you are not challenging your self.

The single most limiting factor in your success is you. Those individuals that are respected for being the best did not rely on natural talent or ability. You create your own luck. 

Are you working towards a certification?

Reading any new books?

Taking a class?

Failure to adapt leads to extinction.