How to Become an Expert in Anything

John Spence

Several years ago, I read a book called The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance. It’s a 969-page book written by experts about becoming an expert. For credit union leaders, there are many areas you could become an expert in, but the one most important for your institution’s success is your ability to strategize. If you’re looking to become an expert in strategy or anything else, I’ll save you the reading: It all boiled down to what I will call the 4 P’s.


It just stands to reason that it would be impossible to become among the best in the world at something you don’t love. Interestingly, passion isn’t always there initially as a driving force. Sometimes people become passionate as they begin to improve their skills in a particular area and find that they enjoy it. Whether you have it from the get-go or develop it over time, passion is a key component of reaching the expert level.


To become great at anything, you must practice. Experts do something called “deliberate practice.” They have a coach, mentor, trainer or colleague who continually pushes them to get better. Amateurs usually practice on their own and focus on easy things because they don’t like failure. In contrast, people attempting to become world-class practice the most challenging things to achieve high expertise levels.


Several researchers have suggested that it takes about 10 years or 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to achieve excellence. Think of a swimmer who starts practicing with a world-class coach when they are eight and then swims in the Olympics when they are 18. They have spent 10 years getting up every morning to get in the pool, lift weights, run and compete in hundreds of events to earn the right to swim in a race that will be over in just a few dozen seconds (the current world record in the 50-meter freestyle is 20.91 seconds by César Cielo).

Pattern Recognition

The final step in becoming an expert is the ability to understand your area of interest in such detail that you see it in a way that other people don’t. This is how a great athlete can “see the entire field,” or a world-class musician can look at a piece of sheet music and hear it in their head. They have focused and practiced for so long that what seems impossible to others comes easily for them.

It is this fourth “P” — pattern recognition — that I believe is the key to being a world-class strategic thinker. To create an effective strategy, you must be exposed to a vast amount of information and then synthesize it into a pattern that will give your organization a strategic advantage. However, this information must come from a highly diverse collection of sources. It is this intermixing of different ideas and data that leads to strategic insights.

It’s called looking for the “Adjacent New.” Taking your expertise and personal experience and then actively searching out ideas and information you have not been exposed to before. To achieve this requires having a diverse team that brings their varied backgrounds to your credit union. It demands creating an inclusive environment where divergent points of view are welcome. Your organization must embrace innovative ideas no matter where they come from and use them to serve your members better.

I realize this can be scary. It’s challenging to break old habits. Doing things differently can be uncomfortable. “Innovative new ideas” can turn out to be bad ideas. Risk-taking can lead to failure. For all these reasons and more, many organizations strongly resist change. However, there is one thing I am sure of: If you don’t like change, you will like irrelevance even less.

John Spence is an international keynote speaker, executive coach and organizational trainer who has been helping credit unions for more than 15 years.