Expertise can be achieved and thought of in many ways, but one of the big obstacles you may have to overcome is the myth of innate talent and how it relates to the fixed versus growth mindset.
The myth of innate talent is that only certain people have enough talent to become experts—not true. This can be further supported by noting the differences between the fixed mindset (I can’t improve) versus the growth mindset (I can improve). Whatever you put your efforts toward, you can learn and grow expertise in. It’s not that you just have to use “the power of belief” or something ephemeral like that, it’s just a linear equation requiring effort and time.
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- Peter Hollins is a bestselling author, human psychology researcher, and a dedicated student of the human condition.
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- For narration information visit Russell Newton at https://bit.ly/VoW-home
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The concept of expertise is something of a moving target in our modern age. Many people only want to grant the title of “expert” to someone who has earned a doctorate in a certain subject, with everyone else needing to defer. Others assert that expertise is the opposite of academic knowledge, and instead comes from firsthand experience —so-called street smarts. Luckily for us, the reality is far different. Expertise can be granted, earned, or bestowed in any number of ways, which is a relief for most of us.
But however we define expertise, it’s clear that we all desire it. We know it’s something that has the power to command respect and attention. We think that if we have enough of the right kind of expertise, it can change our lives and make us rich. This leads us to sometimes think that if we don’t have expertise in something useful, our lives will be meaningless and empty. And so on. It can bring us to our highest highs and lowest lows. Regardless of whether or not this is true, the importance of having an expertise (or two) can certainly move you forward in life in tangible ways.
Let’s break down what expertise is for the purposes of this book. Expertise can generally be defined as the mastery over a certain field, skill, or topic. A bartender is an expert on alcoholic drinks and small talk with customers, while a pianist is an expert on musical rhythm and hand-eye coordination. A construction worker is an expert in working with power tools and estimating amounts of lumber and cement. It doesn’t matter if people have acquired their expertise intentionally or as a byproduct; their skills help all the same.
You may not yet be an expert on what you want, but that’s what this book is for. It’s to take you from Point A to Point B, where Point A is the initial awareness of an intriguing topic, and Point B is a level of mastery that outpaces that of 99.9 percent of the population. Surprisingly, this process is easier than you might imagine it to be. As you just read with the bartenders and pianists, gaining expertise doesn’t necessarily have to follow a set path. Also notably, you don’t need to be an Einstein-level genius to achieve the type of expertise you want. In this introductory chapter on accelerating your expertise, we’ll cover one of the most important mindsets for learning, and the biological basis of expertise.
The Myth of Expertise
In fact, that’s a handy starting point in our preliminary discussion of expertise: the notion of inborn genius. The myth of innate intelligence being the ultimate ceiling for our potential is a harmful belief that has been propagated over through the years. The myth that you simply have to be smart to start with, and if you’re not, you’ll never achieve the expertise you want. The myth that inborn intelligence is more important than hard work, perseverance, and effort.
Talent and innate intelligence can help, of course, but your attitude about learning is far more important when it comes to true expertise. If you believe your abilities are fixed in place, you’ll put up mental blocks that hinder your learning.
These blocks, and this overall myth, create a fixed mindset. Have you ever heard anyone say “I can’t draw,” or “I’m not good at sports,” or “I could never do that?” Each statement is a subtle way that our thoughts affect our actions. All of these are examples of a fixed mindset, of people who believe abilities are set in stone and don’t put forth an effort into improving them. Thus, their belief actually does come true. The tragedy of this mindset is that people don’t take the time to practice — to work through and puzzle over something until they actually acquire a new skill.
Take me, for instance. I used to think I’d never be able to draw. The way I understood the world was that there were artists, and then there were other people. I just so happened to be one of those unlucky “other people.” I had my own areas of creativity, but drawing wasn’t one of them.
For years, I carried around a belief about innate talent that meant, in my mind, I’d never be able to draw. It completely prevented me from even trying, though I would have loved to take art classes when I was younger. Because I thought no matter the effort I put into drawing, I’d never produce work I was happy with, I decided to focus on the areas where my natural talents were. Imagine my surprise when, just a couple of years ago, I finally signed up for an art class at a local community college, and I was one of the best students in the class!
The fixed mindset is harmful because it keeps you from taking even the first step. However, according to researcher Carol Dweck, mindset is something that we can change. People tend to fall into one of two predictable patterns as they go through life: they stay mired in the fixed mindset we’ve talked about, or they adopt a growth mindset.
A growth mindset believes that challenges are opportunities, and that failure is a chance for growth. If there is effort, then there will be some tangible reward; all things are attainable. Rather than seeking out evidence that proves they’re not smart, people with a growth mindset focus on pursuing process and progress, searching out opportunities to stretch their existing abilities. In other words, where a fixed mindset person would give up immediately and say “I’m just not good at it,” a growth mindset person would say “I’m not good at it yet, but I will be after working at it!”
This belief that intelligence and talent can be developed over time has profound consequences for our quest for expertise. Believing that your qualities are carved in stone (the fixed mindset) creates constant shutdowns. People with this mindset will avoid difficult situations, refuse to challenge themselves, and effectively evaluate every situation to see whether it will make them look smart or dumb, whether they will succeed or fail.
In contrast, believing that the hand you’re dealt is just the starting point for development (the growth mindset) creates possibility: that your basic skills can be can cultivated through effort. A person with a growth mindset embodies a passion for learning.
This mindset ties neatly into learning. If you are struggling with learning, you have two choices. You can either subscribe to fixed mindset and give up, saying “Learning just isn’t what I’m good at,” or you can follow a growth mindset and say “I just haven’t put in enough time and effort yet, I’ll work until I figure it out! It’s possible!”
Growth mindsets prioritize and even cherish challenge. People with a growth mindset know that:
Trying and failing is part of the process; in fact, attempts and failures are the best teachers you will ever have
Learning requires stumbling, correcting, and growing
You don’t have to know everything in advance to succeed eventually
Practice and skill-building are more important than inborn talent
You’re always a beginner, which means you can always grow and improve
Results aren’t important; the process is
Effort in is the important part; the outcome you want only comes with the corresponding input
You can see how these factors contribute to a mindset for learning and expertise. Try to embody those statements and set the correct expectations for yourself. No one is brilliant or perfect in their first go-round, and everyone struggles with different things. Many people struggle with everything. It is only through hard work and effort that anyone ever improves at anything, and this is certainly how it is to learn new information and material.
If you believe you can do it, you will probably be able to do it. If you don’t believe you can do it, you are probably wasting your time. That is the importance of the growth mindset, not just in learning and growing expertise. Struggle is all part of the process.
All this boils down to the proposition that you can indeed learn whatever you want, no matter what you think of yourself. Your IQ or the education level of your parents is not nearly as important as your attitude and beliefs toward learning.
There is a saying that “hard work beats talent until talent starts working hard.” At the very least, we can control half of that equation—the part about working hard. Experts are made, not born. We instinctively know that humanity does not operate within a caste system, so why should our pursuit for knowledge function any differently?