Overcoming the Four Barriers to Expertise – Part 2

In the first part of this two-part post, I covered the first two barriers to expertise that Walter Dill Scott presented in his 1910 book on Increasing Human Efficiency in Business. In this second part, I will cover the last two barriers, which have to do with a dose of reality and a dollop of initiative.

As a reminder, here are the four barriers rephrased to be directly applicable to modern information workers:

  • The enthusiasm for the topic or skill is based upon a current fad or trend.
  • All easy improvements have been made.
  • A period of incubation is required in which the new skills and ideas have time to develop.
  • Voluntary attention is difficult to sustain for a long period of time.


Incubated Potential

The third barrier is really more of a frustration than a problem. The human species tends to need a digestion window before it can benefit from any new input. This is true of food and it is also true of knowledge and skills. Therefore, you might call this third barrier impatience, if you are seeking a one word reminder. Impatience has been the fuel behind many failures on the road to expertise.

The pain caused by this barrier is only exacerbated by the fact that we often need several incubation periods along the journey from novice to expert; however, you can use the following strategies to get through the incubation periods and experience the birth of expertise on the other side:

  • Watch your self-talk. Be careful to focus on the positive outcome of commitment through the dry times. Tell yourself things like, "I’ve been here before and it only lasts a little while. Then, I can move to the next level." or, "Even Tiger Woods goes through periods where his game does not improve at all." The point is simple: focus on the fact that plateaus are normal along the journey to the peak.
  • Enjoy the relaxation of the plateau. Take advantage of the fact that your brain and body need time to absorb and associate the new knowledge and skills. Don’t worry about gaining new levels for a few days or even weeks. Relax and renew.
  • Speed the process. If the incubation period is due to lack of understanding, go to new sources and methods of learning. If you tried to learn the information by reading a book, try attending a class. If you tried to learn by attending a class, read a web page. The key is to mix it up and gain insights from different viewpoints. These activities will help you "light the bulb."


Voluntary Attention

I’ve saved this one until last for a very important reason: It is my biggest challenge. Having a personality of an adult ADHD behavioral mode mixed with the varied curiosity of P. T. Barnum, it is very difficult for me to focus on one knowledge domain or area of interest at a time. Research shows that this is becoming more difficult for modern young adults as well. Some suggest that it is the result of the media craze of the 80s and 90s. I don’t know if that is the driving force behind it or not, but it is a very real phenomenon.

In order to achieve expertise in any area of study – particularly authoritative expertise, an individual must have times of voluntary attention or focus. She must focus on learning new concepts, facts, skills and thinking methods. This can be difficult for some, but here are some great ideas for overcoming this barrier (I have dozens in this category since it has been my area of greatest challenge. Feel free to contact me, if you want more ideas.):

  • Accept distraction. By this, I do not mean that you should give up. I simply mean that you may need to accept that distractions lure you more than most. If that is the case, don’t be alarmed. You can still achieve expertise. You will simply need to focus during smaller units of time. I have days where I may research a concept for 30-40 minutes and then I will not come back to it for 3-4 hours – at which time I will give another 30-40 minutes. It is certainly acceptable to learn in this way and, in fact, it could be argued that it is often better.
  • Focus on focus. Study techniques that can be used to help you focus. There are many books that provide suggestions, but you can often discover methods by looking more closely at your own behaviors. For example, I find that I can write for 4-6 hours – without interruption – if I go to a library and use one of the empty study rooms. There are no distractions there!
  • Be more reasonable in your goals. Sometimes we try to bite off more than we can chew. Give yourself a goal you absolutely know that you can meet. If you meet it, you can go beyond it. Next time, stretch that goal a little bit more. Continue this process until you find out just how much you can read, write, practice, study or any other activity in an allotted time.


Remember, these are just a few of the tips that you can use. The key with all four barriers is to remember that you must blast through them if you hope to become an expert. I’m confident that you can do it. Why? Because I’m just a simple hillbilly from West Virginia and I’ve found a hero in me.

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