How to Be an Expert

In an upcoming post, I’m going to write about how to monetize a hobby. I feel I’ve achieved some success in this area, to the point where at the age of 42, I don’t have to go to work anymore; I pursue what I love and find a way for it to pay for itself. In the words of Joseph Campbell, I follow my bliss. Bliss is all well and good but only professionals get the kwan. So if you’ve ever wondered about how to become an expert beyond your day job and get paid for it, I’m writing this for you.

Are you a quitter, camper or climber?
Are you a quitter, camper or climber?


First let’s define exactly what an expert is. After checking a few sources, I found a comprehensive definition that I like at the online business dictionary which lists an expert as a “professional who has acquired knowledge and skills through study and practice over the years, in a particular field or subject, to the extent that his or her opinion may be helpful in fact finding, problem solving, or understanding of a situation”. I recognize that there are many levels of expertise, and that being the foremost authority on something (ie; mating habits of hookworms) doesn’t mean you will be paid more. But helping people solve a problem (aka being a “solutions provider”) is valuable. So it’s important to first take an inventory of your expertise. In what areas, beyond your normal scope of work, would your opinion make a difference?

I started to make a list of some things in which I had attained some level of expertise: Chinese culture and language, tea, startups, training, expat life, wine, ultra-marathons, design, leadership development, high-altitude climbing and some other things that I can’t print here. These were just a few, but I encourage you to really look at subjects in which your input would help people benefit from your years of study or experience.

Study here, doesn’t necessarily refer to years in a traditional institution. A Harvard trained expert may be better compensated than a community college-trained expert, but there are vast numbers of people who are self-taught or learned through apprenticeships and on the job. Looking at my list, the only thing that college contributed was Chinese history and culture, but I learned much more about these by actually living in China and besides, I could have as easily read the same books on my own.

From my list, one could easily spot opportunities that combine interests:

  • starting up a tea shop which I would design and train others to run 
  • hosting wine tastings and creating a wine cellar where we also sell wines
  • putting together an expat magazine in Chiang Mai, Thailand where I live much of the year and advertise my own tea shop and wine cellar

We pay attention to the things that interest us. For many years, I have been interested in design (industrial, architectural, landscape, interior) and subscribe to magazines and journals about them. My two favorites are Dwell and Wallpaper. I credit this interest to my years at Cranbrook School, many of whose buildings are on the National Historic Register. While I have no formal training in design, I’ve been creating scrapbooks where I scribble ideas and save design and engineering elements, such as roofs, alternative energy plans, floors, prefab panels, fireplaces, gardens and other things that I like. I didn’t know why I was doing this exactly. I didn’t have a plan to incorporate them into anything in particular, but I have a kind of passion for them. Does it make me a expert? Not at all, it just makes me interested at this point.

Over the years I’ve been able to use my design skills to enjoy building properties and selling them or running them at a generous profit. Unlike George Costanza, I’ve never had to pose as an architect or designer to do this, I’ve just approached these projects as hobbies, and my passion and commitment has paid off. Where my expertise fell short, I simply hired people to manage technical details, this blog included. As Einstein said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” If you can perceive it, you can achieve it. A grasp of the fundamentals is required, as well as relevant experience, but not necessarily a formal degree.

When I became interested in mountaineering, I never considered becoming a mountain guide, but I realized that I could combine this interest with another interest in experiential leadership to create a totally unique outdoor learning experience for corporate executives, the Tibet Leadership Trek. This would pay for my climbing interests, strengthen my leadership capabilities as well as my mountaineering skills. This business has yet to be firmly established, but should I choose to pursue it, I know it will be successful. I learned mountaineering by climbing for years with experienced guides, and learned leadership by studying and emulating great leaders through leading small organizations. I’m not aiming to be the foremost authority, I’m aiming to enjoy the process and be rewarded for quality of execution.

How is this not a job? I’m not selling my wage labor. I’m selling an experience that I myself enjoy and learn as much from as the client. For more on distinctions between work and play, see my post, “Workers of the World, Relax!

In my How To post of Raise Your AQ, the originator of AQ theory, Dr. John Stolz, talks about there being three types of AQ personalities: Climbers (who are motivated by challenge), Campers, (who reach a certain level of proficiency and then stay there) and quitters (who easily give up in the face of failure). To some this might sound dangerously close to Greg Kinnear’s “Winners” vs “Losers” mantra in Little Miss Sunshine, but it helped me to understand what’s required for expertise. Experts are continuous learners, campers are amateurs who are happy with minimum proficiency and quitters drop out. So if you can get past the “suck threshold” and have the passion and commitment, you’re well on your way to the “kicking ass threshold” and likely success.

The biggest challenge for me in being an expert is not how to break the ass-kicking threshold, but how to choose to pursue the things I really love, because there are so many. After 17 years of experience in China where I was able to parlay my cross-cultural knowledge into major corporate contracts, I decided that this was too much like work and so I abandoned it. Yet out of this came a corporate retreat and hospitality business, which has been enjoyable, especially because my enthusiasm for them as attracted great people to run them. Call me Tom Sawyer.

Enthusiasm is not enough. Passion for something doesn’t make an expert and a little bit of knowledge is dangerous. But if you are planning to change your work into play, you must identify in which sandbox you want to play and then enjoy building your castle. It takes vision, commitment and most of all a desire to keep learning while enjoying the process itself.

If you’re interested in a step-by-step process of how to Visioneer a hobby into equity and stop working forever, watch this space.