4 Ways To Apply Leverage In Becoming An Expert

Have you ever wondered what it takes to become an expert in your field without investing 10,000 hours of practice? In the book Outliers, Malcom Gladwell explains that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert or to master a skill. Working 40 hours a week for 48 weeks a year, you’ll reach 10,000 hours in roughly 5.2 years.

“Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world.”
— Archimedes

You don’t have to work for 6 years to become great. Understanding how to apply leverage will significantly reduce the amount of time it takes to build expertise. Jeff Bezos doesn’t put in 6-8 hours of work a day, based on the napkin math George Mack did. He's working 244 million hours a day. He can become an expert in anything. It’s the strategy that allows him to go from eCommerce through Amazon to becoming an expert in space flight with Blue Origin.

There’s 4 ways you can apply leverage to your craft that opens you up to asymmetric opportunities – making it easier to become an “expert” at what you do. 

The 10,000 hours rule doesn’t apply to well positioned experts that have applied large amounts of leverage to their craft.

Take advantage of adoption curves

Every industry has an adoption curve and every adoption curve has a tipping point. At this inflection point, there’s a rapid bend in the growth as the idea or technology becomes mainstream. You want to find industries that are about to hit this growth point. It’s the perfect way to catch tailwinds and surf. Becoming an expert in an industry about to hit its tipping point provides a unique advantage.

When you begin to develop skills or knowledge during the early adopter phase you gain the added benefit of leverage. This is the best time to become an expert in any field. It’s how you get the highest potential for luck. The demand for your skills and knowledge grow without any additional work or effort. The early majority will approach you for insight. You become associated with expert status strictly from being an early adopter.

You can spot these emerging trends by working to become an information bottleneck. As you build up your knowledge, expertise, and social group with those involved in the same space, you’ll realize there’s a societal slope that impacts the growth of that field.

Culture undergoes a process of natural selection and evolution on its own. The norms are constantly shifting and changing. You can trace back the path of how ideas, practices, and products have evolved over time. Understand that taste, norms, and new technology impact cultural selection. 

How will people’s taste and progress affect the adoption of the industry that you want to build your knowledge and skills in? A business, movement, or art piece from the past will not have the same success today because society has evolved past the point of relevance. To become an expert in what has already been adopted by the masses requires you put in 10,000 hours. Doing so puts you on the wrong end of the inflection point.

Arm yourself with knowledge

When you’ve found the next wave, it’s important you arm yourself with knowledge. The knowledge becomes your sail that is positioned at just the right time and place to catch the most wind. A lot becomes possible when you have a wealth of information to pull from.

David Ogilvy would spend weeks preparing to write an advertisement for a product. His secret to effective advertisements was doing his homework. Combining his depth of knowledge, frame of competition, and consumer research, he was able to develop the best sales promise to drive people to buy. Your prior knowledge provides the leverage needed to become an expert in more settings than you may expect. David Ogilvy wasn’t an expert on cars, yet he established Rolls-Royce as a car known for luxury through his advertisements and 4x Mercedes sales in one year compared to the previous year. It was easier for him to become an expert on car advertising, because he had prior understanding of great principles in marketing. Ogilvy had the knowledge to know what to look for.

Knowledge improves your aim. To be an expert you don’t need to know everything. You just need to know the right things. When you have knowledge of the core fundamentals on the topic, it is easier to emulate that of an expert. People can be the best source of knowledge. Build a personal development team to further remove your need to put in 10,000 hours of work. Instead pool the collective hours of others, like Jeff Bezos does, to reap the benefits of their expertise.

Joseph Duveen monopolized the millionaire art-collection market in the 1940s. He would learn everything there was to know about his prospects: their habits, tastes, and even phobias. Duveen may have had more knowledge about his consumers than they did about themselves. He would pay people that were close to his prospects for information. For example, Duveen used this information to become Andrew Mellon’s sole art dealer, despite Mellon swearing to never do business with him.

If you're ambitious and competitive, leave nothing to chance. Knowledge is the leverage that gives you the advantage of having a “sixth sense” while making you seem clairvoyant. Knowledge is the boat that you will use to set sail in an industry that’s about to explode.

Copy the craft of greats

It’s a luxury that we have such a wealth of knowledge available to us today. In school, we are taught that copying is unacceptable. It’s a behavior that is looked down upon. When you’re beginning to develop a skill, making something great requires that you copy. Copy the methods until you develop a sense of intuition to create novel ideas. 

To have knowledge act as your sail, you must find others that you can emulate. Save yourself from figuring out how to steer the boat. Instead, copy the craft of those that have come before you. David Ogilvy copied Bob Gage for 5 years, down to the exact spacing between his advertisements lines. Before that Bob Gage copied Paul Rand, and Paul Rand copied Tschichold.

Copying from the greats that came before you is a right of passage that enables you to establish a foothold in an industry. Eventually, you’ll have enough of a foundation to begin to develop your own methods.

Identifying what to emulate and avoid can be agonizingly hard. Pioneers Project is about providing you the traits and ideas of those that are writing history now and the pioneers that have already made history. Copying the wit and skills of others both alive and gone gives you the pattern recognition to discover what’s truly timeless. Putting 10,000 hours of effort into these areas will compound with time.

The people today that study human nature, stupidity, and the lessons others learned the hard way stand out among their peers. There are no new ideas, just the hard lessons yet to be learned from others. Copying your craft is an arbitrage on the 10,000 hours the people before you have put in.

Develop scares skills

Max Levchin, the co-founder of PayPal, was really into security and developing software for handheld devices. It was a scarce skill combination to have in the 90s. He described these skills as “sort of an art and science unto its own.” His assumption was that enterprises would all use handheld devices as their primary communication. Max was partially right, but this was the societal slope he was leveraging to develop the skills for what he believed was a new frontier.

The demand for cryptographic operations (information encryption or security) was growing rapidly as more people started adopting the internet. Both of Max’s skills were complex and poorly understood at the time. No one really wanted to dig deep into it because of this, but Max started reverse-engineering what already existed – copying the craft of others. He wanted to combine his scarce skills to start a company encrypting handheld devices.

These niche skills birthed the beginning days of PayPal. All of them were developed because he had a hypothesis for how the future would go and leveraged the adoption of the internet to build a giant organization.

Specialization creates opportunities to solve niche problems. Generalization creates opportunities to solve problems no one else has before. Scott Adam’s popularized the idea of intelligently stacking talents – the Talent Stack. Why does he believe it’s one of the most important concepts you’ll ever be introduced to?

It’s the key to becoming a generalist and developing specific knowledge. If done right you become worth more than just doing a single thing. Thomas Jefferson was later asked why he chose Lewis to lead a cross continent expedition instead of a qualified scientist. 

He wrote back a response saying, “It was impossible to find a character who to a compleat science in botany, natural history, mineralogy & astronomy, who joined the firmness of constitution & character, prudence, habit adapted to the woods, & a familiarity with Indian manners & character, requisite for this undertaking. All the later qualifications Capt. Lewis had.” Lewis had a remarkable ability to learn and stack the talent he needed.

As a generalist there was no better person than him. Generalists exist outside the box of traditional domain expertise. There’s no one better suited to solve frontier problems. It was as if the specific knowledge Lewis possessed was dedicated to that moment. When you apply these forms of leverage to your expertise, eventually you’ll find yourself in the same position. Where your preparation led up to the perfect opportunity for the wind to carry your sails.

FOOTNOTES

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