Just about anyone can be a world-class expert in any field with two key ingredients . . . do you know what they are?

By Steve Moran

I am just finishing a book titled Talent is Overrated by Geoff Colvin. As leadership books go it is fairly old, having been first published in 2008.

The big idea of the book is that we have this notion that when someone is really excellent in their field, it is because they were born with the right winning set of genes. Colvin makes the case that this idea is a complete myth.

He makes a convincing case that just about anyone can be a world-class expert in any field with two key ingredients:

  1. The right kind of practice (which means the hard kind of practice, and enough practice)

  2. Insanely deep domain knowledge

Domain Knowledge

This idea of deep domain knowledge was not something I had really thought much about in terms of excellence. You can think about it like this: Have you ever watched how someone looks at a problem and comes up with a creative, new novel solution. You think to yourself: “How did they think of that?” . . . “That person is amazingly brilliant” . . . “I wish I were that smart.”

Well, it turns out that — pretty much every time — it is not actually a stroke of brilliance they were born with. Instead, it’s what is considered deep domain knowledge.  

Deep domain knowledge is continuously striving to know everything there is to know about a particular field. I am not talking about the big stuff, but the little stuff too. It comes from a driving conviction that the expert never knows enough, that there is one more person to talk to, one more book to read, one more article to consume, one more class to take, one more TED Talk to absorb.

Then Comes Practice

It turns out that even in leadership practice is a big part. The brilliant leaders take all the stuff they learn and spend a lot of time thinking about what it means to their organization. Then they do experiments to see if what they think they have figured out is better than what they are already doing.  

Then comes the really hard part! They know that more often than not experiments don’t turn out as expected and they embrace those failures. They do not consider them failures, but rather as opportunities to iterate and learn and grow. Then they run new experiments.

Finally, they are highly self-critical (in a very healthy way). What this means is not thinking “I am no good” but rather “What can I be doing better?” . . . “What can I learn from that experience that didn’t go like I hoped it would?”

Why They See Things You and I Don’t See

They see things that you and I don’t see because they have seen so many situations before — sometimes in their own leadership journey, sometimes by watching what others do and don’t do; right and wrong. When they are presented with a vexing problem, they have seen that problem or similar problems and seen solutions to many problems. It then becomes natural to ask the right questions and come up with cool solutions.

The Good News

The good news is that this is available to anyone. It takes commitment, time and hard work. But read and learn and ask questions. Develop relationships with great leaders. You will amaze yourself. In my own life, I am committed to being a leadership domain expert — particularly in the realm of senior living. I read every day. I talk to people. I go visit communities.

I have developed friendly relationships with some really significant leadership folks whose names you would know. I have also reached out to lots of great leaders — asking for a 5 or 10-minute phone call, where they often said no. Even that is okay because it is all a part of the journey. 

How is your domain knowledge?