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“Experts are not born; they are self-made – they earned it.” – Paul Schempp

Watching Jose Fernandez throw a blazing fastball, witnessing Tony Robbins effortlessly command an audience, or listening to Idina Menzel belt out a Broadway tune, it’s easy to imagine that their talent is innate.

It’s not; they have worked hard to master their craft and continue to hone them. This is an important lesson as it means the rest of us, the mere mortals, can also “elevate [our] level of expertise and success.” Dr. Paul Schempp, an “expert on experts,” makes the case that everyone can become more expert in what they do.

Five Steps to Expert

What inspired author and Vistage speaker Paul Schempp to write his popular 5 Steps to Expert: How to Go From Business Novice to Elite Performer? He writes that, like most people, he wanted to be good at what he did. “The truth?” he writes. “I wasn’t.” This realization didn’t slow him down; rather it prompted him to find out how experts are made.

He posits that there are five steps in the “journey” from beginner to elite:

  1. Beginner.
  2. Capable.
  3. Competent.
  4. Proficient.
  5. Expert.

At any given point, and for any given activity, people fall along that continuum. Michael Jordan, for instance, was an expert basketball player. But as a pro baseball player? He found himself further down the spectrum!

One of the threads of Schempp’s book is as folks go through their lives, they find themselves at different points as they work towards mastery in various endeavors.

Say I’m an experienced business coach and an expert in my field. I decide I want to take up scuba diving, and all of a sudden, I’m a beginner. Am I concerned with rules and procedures? Absolutely! I want to be told exactly what to do, and I’ll do it because I’d rather not die. How do I advance? I get into the water, with an instructor, and work on skills with his or her direct help.

Then, I gain a functional level of knowledge. I’m a bit more comfortable and can dive with others (without that instructor hovering within arm’s reach). I gain more experience until I’m competent. At this point, I can ask my instructor which goals and strategies will help me reach the next level.

Next, as a proficient diver, I can create those strategies myself. When I become an expert, I’m ready to put my training to use, and I add another ingredient: my intuition. Finally, I’m ready for a trip to The Great Barrier Reef. Expertise is a progression: a journey, as Schempp emphasizes, rather than an endpoint.

The Competence Trap

A critical part of that journey is continuous learning. Experts don’t get “there” and stop. To move from one level to the next and to add new capabilities, people have to be willing to put themselves in the position of being beginners all the time, of discovering both new skills and new gaps in their learning or performance. That’s how they expand. When they stop becoming the beginner, they stop growing.

Those who become experts know to avoid the “competence trap.” Many people reach a point and decide, “I’m good enough.” Whether they’re talking about their golf game or their careers, they become competent – and then coast. One might also call this the “comfortable couch.” The mindset is: I got here. I can do my job. I’m just fine staying right here.

Look around: who is comfortable? Who has fallen into the competency trap? Who’s camped out in their metaphorical sweats, becoming couch potatoes in their lives and careers? The idea of comfort is antithetical to experts, who continuously force themselves into new territory. Even as they climb the steps to mastery, they do so with the mindset of a beginner: eager to learn and realizing they don’t know it all.

As Paul Schempp writes, “While experts represent only a small percentage of the top performers in a field, everyone can become more expert in what they do.” His book can help get them off the comfortable couch and on a journey towards expertise.