Experts Needed

Commoditization is something that you want to avoid as a service provider. When your services become a commodity, they can be replaced by many other service providers. Then you end up competing almost solely on price.

There are many ways that you can make your services stand out from the crowd so that they aren't a commodity; I think that being an expert is one of the best.

But becoming an expert isn't easy. It's so hard, in fact, that some people even say you shouldn't bother trying to become one.

Becoming an expert is hard because it takes lots of time and effort. Many people will tell you that it takes 10 years to become an expert in a given domain. And that's not all: just putting in the time doesn't guarantee you'll even become an expert. The danger is that you'll reach competency after a couple of years, and just coast after that without improving much.

I'm like that with cars. I've been a car owner for over 20 years. I can check the oil in my car, top off the fluids, change a tire in a pinch. But I'm no expert on cars. I don't work on my car on the weekends; I take it to a mechanic. I don't even change the oil if I can avoid it. I've reached a basic level of competency in car maintenance, and haven't been inspired to progress any further.

Interestingly, so-called "natural talent" doesn't seem to play much of a role in becoming an expert. It's almost pure effort and stick-to-it-iveness. Also interestingly, an undergraduate degree followed by a PhD and two-year postdoc seem to be just enough to make you into an expert in some academic field.

The secret to becoming an expert

Now I'm going to tell you the secret to becoming an expert. The secret is: follow your bliss. Or to put that another way:

Do what you love.

This kind of sounds like the pitch of some shady late-night motivational speaker infomercial, but this really works. This is what will get you doing whatever it is you're doing for 10 or more years, and will give you the passion to keep improving after you've reached competency. There might be other ways to achieve expertise, but this is the only sure one that I know of.

So how do you know what you "love" — what you should be devoting your time to becoming an expert in? I like to use a simple test: imagine that you've just won the lottery. You're set financially for life. But you've still got to do something, right? What would it be? That's your "bliss" — that's what you need to do in order to become a real expert and get off the commoditization express.

If I won the lottery (and after I was done with a trip around the world), I'd be studying foreign languages, writing, and programming. These are the things that I really love to do, and the areas where I have the best chance of becoming an expert.

Of course, once you're an expert, barring a knock on your door from Ed McMahon (really dating myself, I know), you'll still have to make that work for you in order to make a living. In my case, nobody was willing to pay me to learn Japanese or write whatever I wanted, so I turned to translation as a way to leverage what I've learned. Likewise, I couldn't find anyone to pay me to write whatever programs I wanted, so I have to program things that other people want.

But the point is that you can make it work for you. The key is to become an expert; there's almost always a way to turn that into a career. It's totally backwards to pick some prosperous-looking profession and try to become an expert in that field. Nine times out of ten, you'll get stuck in the doldrums of competency, wondering why you aren't as successful as you would like to be and why you hate your job so much.

One last word of advice: you can change your mind. Don't be afraid to pursue new interests. The key is to enjoy it.

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