Be expert

“We tend to like and trust experts whose expertise is born of a real love for their specialty instead of just a desire to be expert at something.”

David Foster Wallace

In December a few years ago, I managed to ski 17 days… in Vermont… over three hours from my house in Connecticut.

16 of these days, I skied as a coach for young kids. Getting this much skiing in required a great deal of logistical effort and creative juggling. I scheduled conference calls before or after skiing, depending on the time zone of the other parties. I wrote articles and finished business plans when others were sleeping. I used my vacation to coach kids over the Xmas break. Why? I love to ski.

When giving advice to a seven-year-old, there aren’t many skiing conditions I haven’t experienced personally. Unable to get back up after falling in powder? Check. Skiing down a trail 100% covered in ice? Check. Jumping over a stream that goes straight across a trail? Check.

Power Mountain, Snowbird, Whistler, Stratton, Killington, Beaver Creek, Alta, Wildcat, Heavenly, Sunapee, Crested Butte, Telluride… I’ve been there, and many more.

My wife just shook her head when on January 1, my day off from coaching and when the winds were blasting the mountain, I went skiing.

You can’t fake this sort of passion, but you can discover it. Whether you love carpentry or Lego, become an expert at something. In doing so, you will learn the difference between going through the motions versus devouring every detail.

Here’s the important part: then take this understanding, and apply it to all the other things you do.

If you are just out of college and in a training program, take every opportunity to deliver expert work – even if your assignments are deadly boring. The fastest way out of boring assignments is to show so much expertise that the people above you realize they are wasting your talents on grunt work.

As a freshman in college, I got a job on stage crew at the university's brand new 2,000-seat theater. For the first year, I tried my best to do what I was told. Near the end of that year, the stage manager stopped me and said, "If you showed a little initiative, you could become a crew chief. Instead of waiting for orders, look around and figure out what needs to be done."

This was the smartest thing anyone had ever said to me, or maybe it was the first time I paid attention to intelligent career advice. I eventually became a crew chief, one of only two students who held that role at the time.

If you accept a job, vow to become an expert at it. One of the first tasks I had to master on stage crew was sweeping the stage, which sounds trivial until you realize that the dancers of the Boston Ballet will be performing there and the stage must be immaculate.

Even if you are a generalist, become an expert at certain functions that other people value: negotiating, perhaps, or project management. The hard reality of the years ahead is that if you're not the best at something, you'll be underpaid or irrelevant.

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