Drezner’s 10 tips on how to become an expert

Daniel Drezner, who teaches international politics at Tufts University, gave this advice to an inquirer who wanted to know how to become an expert.

1)  Go to school.  There are people out there who are self-taught wunderkinds, capable of long, brilliant disquisitions about the intricacies of international relations after reading Thucydides just once.  There’s a 99% chance that you are not one of these people.  For you and almost everyone else, the path to expertise is paved through college and graduate school.  So go forth and take courses on these subjects.

2)  Read a lot.  I mean, read a whole damn lot.  Don’t just read the books and articles that are assigned to you in class.  Read the stuff that you notice popping up repeatedly in the footnotes and bibliographies of your assigned reading.  Read the classics.  Read cutting edge work.  Read anything that seems of value.  When you get to the point where you think you’re seeing recurring arguments, then you’re approaching the cusp of expertise.

Daniel W. Drezner

3)  Read a newspaper every day and a magazine every week.  World politics and current events are intertwined.  The more you read about daily events, the larger your mental database of interesting events that can be used as raw data when considering various puzzles in world politics.

4)  Hang around smart people.  Anyone who’s been to graduate school knows that the best education comes from your peers.  While the image of the lonely, eccentric, brilliant grad student is a compelling narrative, it’s also much more common in film than in real life.  You can pick up an awful lot from osmosis by hanging around smart people.

5)  Never be afraid to ask a question that betrays your ignorance.  One of the smartest political scientists I ever met told me that if I didn’t understand a concept or presentation, odds were good that the majority of other people in the room didn’t understand either.  People who don’t ask questions don’t learn anything.

6)  Walk the earth.  As recent events suggest, there is an appalling lack of knowledge about how politics function in other countries.  If you can develop a good working knowledge of another country’s language/culture/polity, then you can claim a relative amount of expertise.

7)  Get a job.  There are oceans of knowledge that cannot be acquired via books, coursework, or peers.  Michael Polanyi labeled these kinds of knowledge as “tacit” – they have to be experienced to be learned.  In world politics, sometimes the best way to learn is to do.

8 )  Grow older.   Aging doesn’t have a lot of upside, but one of the benefits is that you’ve probably done a lot more of items 1-7 than people younger than you.  Expertise has a relative quality to it, and as you grow older, you’re likely to have more of it than younger generations.

9)  Recognize your limits.  True experts don’t just know a lot — they are also aware of the vast oceans of knowledge that they don’t know.

10)  Quit reading blogs.  They rot your brain and give you cooties.

Daniel W. Drezner | FOREIGN POLICY.

Click on About Drezner for a brief biography

Click on Daniel W. Drezner for his web log.

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