You’ve likely heard it over and over again — narrow down into a niche and position yourself as an expert.
Today I’m here to tell you, from the brain science perspective, what it really takes to be an expert in your niche. It’s more than blogging about a range of topics relevant to your niche and it’s more than being quoted in the media. It’s way cooler than that, actually.
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In any domain we can all see that there are those who have knowledge + experience, then there are those who have knowledge, experience, and also this indescribable ability to do everything better. Doctors, entrepreneurs, musicians, athletes. The first will still go on to be a good doctor but the second will go on to extend what it means to be a doctor. Why?
Well I’m all about focusing on the 20% (most significant / important information) and here’s what it is:
What scientists have found is that it comes down to how they learn. How they go about acquiring new skills like responding to a crisis in the operating room or diagnosing a patient.
Whaaa? Yes. The way they approach a problem is different than their peers.
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Getting a better picture of the expert at work
You see, every single one of us forms an idea about how the world works. As we gain new knowledge or experience, we fit it into our mental model of the world (or that specific domain). But the method of how that new piece fits is different between the expert and the non-expert. And to help us get a good understanding I’m going to use an analogy of putting a puzzle together. First, let’s talk about how we put puzzles together:
When you start a new puzzle, do you just start trying to put pieces together or do you first study the box? Do you categorize the pieces? Often you see someone begin with the border, then move on to the bigger sections (the main image or the very colorful ones), then they fill in the details or the more mono-colored pieces (like the sky or the snow).
Why is that an effective method? The edge pieces are of course easy to spot and the big, colorful parts of the picture are easier but I observe that there are deeper principles afoot:
Establishing the border constrains the puzzle. It gives you a concrete edge in which all the remaining pieces must fit. The border acts as your first frame of reference.
Moving next to the big, colorful spots you are able to get a clear orientation to the puzzle. This helps you to be able to start predicting where pieces go as you begin to envision how this first image affects the other elements of the big picture (like distance, perspective, orientation, etc). (Psychologically speaking, these first two steps also tend to build morale. Small wins and rapid succession of success boosts you enough to be more patient with the more difficult pieces).
Finally, putting the rest of the sky together is made easier (most of the time) because it is more like filling in space. You’ve acclimated yourself to the tone of the puzzle so slight variations in color are easier to see and the unique shapes of the pieces are easier to identify. Since this is often the part of the puzzle where the box fails to be helpful, having the established reference points and familiarity with the puzzle helps you continue to be successful.
If you’ve read my previous posts on problem solving and learning, you might be starting to make the connections between a puzzle and learning:
- Understand what the problem is and establish the desired outcome
- Identify key concepts and language within the domain
- Use these first two steps to fill in the details, doing small dips into research on these more detailed elements.
These first two steps anchor you so that when the more detailed pieces become important, they don’t cause you to get lost, stuck, or confused.
So you want to be an expert in your niche?
This is how a woman becomes a real expert. The puzzle might be a picture of entrepreneurship, or it might be her specific domain as a graphic designer or biz coach, or it may be a specific project like building her first training program. No matter the scale, the expert-like learner will constrain the problem, gain orientation to the language + the various elements involved, and use those anchors to fill in the details. Also:
- They will refer to the prior art (the box) — and not someone else’s unfinished puzzle.
- They will not assume they understand the puzzle just because they got the border together.
- They will not start with the sky.
- They will not try to place single, random, stand-alone pieces on the table as if they know exactly where they belong.
- They will not assume that the next puzzle can just be thrown together because they figured this one out (they use the same method every single time, even with the same puzzle).
- They remove pieces to be reconsidered when a new piece starts to make it look out of place.
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So…is this how you solve a problem?
Let’s take one last look at that idea of a mental model I mentioned at the beginning of this adventure. You have a model in your mind of what it looks like to be a graphic designer or a biz coach or how to create your next product. And because you are still young – even if you’ve been building your biz for a handful of years already – your mental model is incomplete. Do you see it that way? Are you continuing to carefully reference the box and consider the border or are you assuming your puzzle is done? Are you open to having a piece in the wrong position and willing to remove it so it can be placed correctly?
You care about your clients. You’re here, at this point in your life + career, because you want to make a difference in people’s lives and you want to grow into the type of person that people can depend on and even look to for guidance and encouragement.
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Look at the domain where you repeatedly feel lost, stuck, or confused. Have you done the border work or are you neck-deep in anchor-less details? Take a step toward building that border:
Write down the bigger problem – you have an outcome in mind for your biz or for your clients, now what obstacles are standing in the way?
Example: Are you dreaming of building a course about a certain topic but wondering how to ensure people buy it before you waste your time? One of your bigger problems here is: How do I effectively influence people? What builds trust between producers and consumers? What are people looking for when they buy something?
Write down all the words you can think of that relate to that problem and outcome.
Influence, building trust, marketing, consumer behavior, positioning, etc.
Look beyond other bloggers.
Influencing other people or any other business topic is going to have principles that transcend our fast-paced online business world. Bloggers will give you the detailed steps to follow but it’s rare for them to teach you the underlying principles. When you look at the bigger principles, the details will become much more obvious.
So tell me in the comments — is this how you put a puzzle together? Does that analogy reveal anything new or interesting about how you go about learning?