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What’s your secret?

Has anyone ever asked you what your secret is? It’s kind of like being asked about your superpower. It goes something like this: “Wow. That’s really something. I could never do that. (pause while they work up to asking….) What’s your secret?” 

I’m guessing this happens to you right after you’ve done something that you’ve done so many times and for so long that you could do it seconds after I woke you from a deep sleep at two in the morning (after you yell at me for waking you, of course).

Why do they want your secret?

While they don’t realize it, asking this question is usually about them looking for a shortcut. Sometimes “I could never do that” translates to “that isn’t important enough for me to practice for years (like you have) so that they can be as good as you.” Mostly it’s wishful thinking that there’s a secret to your skill and expertise. 

Can you imagine the answer you’d get if you asked your favorite musician about the secret to being an unbelievable musician? 

I’m guessing they’d tell you that they’ve played their instrument since the seventh grade, if not longer. They might even tell you that they hated it at first and perhaps even hated it a little later. Those days are gone now. They know that it’s become a part of them and that they’ll do it as long as they can – even if no one listens to them anymore. Possibly the worst thing you could do to them these days would be to take their instrument away for the rest of their life.

Shortcuts exist, but …

There’s nothing wrong with asking for help or seeking a shortcut, but expertise isn’t developed through shortcuts. It might help you get there, but developing expertise is about one thing. Practice. It might not be hard work, but you need the experience to gain the expertise. 

You can show someone a shortcut, but you can’t give them expertise. Expertise is learned.

Shortcuts can accelerate your learning process. They’ll probably help you avoid a few mistakes or skip a few things in the learning process – but they can’t make you the expert. Only doing the thing creates that level of skill. You can watch YouTube videos of Bob the curly haired guy painting happy little trees for weeks, but until you pick up a brush and start painting, you’re not getting anywhere. 

Taking shortcuts is useful when learning, but are seldom useful when it comes to developing a valuable skill that people will pay “your price” for, and without complaining.  

Do the thing. Over and over.

Do you know how to become a better hiker? By hiking. Does it help if you eat better, workout, etc? Those things will help you become healthier, stronger and better able to hike more, but they don’t make you a better hiker. Hiking does that.

The same goes for playing an instrument, drawing cartoons (something I’ve been thrashing away at for the almost a year), marketing, ice climbing, kayaking, cutting down trees, working metal, building web sites, or making a perfect sous vide steak.

Doing the thing that you want to become an expert at doing. Doing it again. Even when you’re horrible.

Educate yourself, practice the thing, repeat the process. Do the thing. Keep doing it until people start asking you what your secret is. Then keep doing it.

The other secret

There’s one more thing that grows your expertise: Teaching.

Teaching others what you know is a powerful way to refine your expertise and see it in a whole new way. Some say that you really don’t know a subject until you’ve taught it. Perhaps.

If nothing else, teaching the skill or subject that you’re an expert in will certainly remind you of the baseline skills you’ve taken for granted for years. Questions from those new to your expertise (ie: newbies, or “noobs”) will often shake you a bit. They tend to make you rethink that which you know so well. They’ll ask, horror of horrors, “Why do you do it that way?

Nothing wrong with that. Sometimes the answer to that question is the shortcut they never knew they were looking for. Sometimes, reflecting on and changing how someone looks at a problem or a challenge is the best shortcut of all.

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