The First Step to Expertise- Learn the Language

“How do I get into…?” This the question most frequently asked of me. Every week, I get inundated with e-mails starting out with this simple question. Sometimes the questioner finishes the question with coaching, other times it’s about writing books or articles. The ending phrase, or what they are interested in, doesn’t really matter, nor does their age or experience. The answer is always the same: learn the language.

Every profession has a unique language, a set of words or phrases that describe the intricacies of what they do. Hearing how someone describes a workout, for example, can tell me whether they learned about running from coaches like Jack Daniels or Arthur Lydiard, or if their foundational knowledge comes from a university degree.

For instance, in running, the moment someone says “HIIT,” my mind shuts off. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the phrase (it means “High-Intensity Interval Training”), and I’m not trying to be rude. Instead, it’s a natural reflex developed over time. A signal that the person standing in front of me has only a basic grasp of endurance development. How can I discern this from one phrase? Endurance coaches don’t use HIIT in their vocabulary. They recognize the nuance of interval training; that there is a large difference in someone running 200-meter repeats in 30 seconds versus 32 seconds. In the beginner personal-trainer world, this nuance is lost, and they all get thrown into the HIIT category.

Language serves as a filter, as a way to quickly judge if someone actually knows what he or she is talking about, or if they know just enough to be dangerous. In other words, are they an expert or are they faking their way through it?

If we are honest with ourselves, we spend most of our time faking our way through it. I know just enough about the latest musicians, the top NFL teams, or the trending movies to have a conversation about them. I can have a chat about Drew Brees throwing touchdowns with the casual fan, but put me in a room with a group of college football coaches and I’d quickly be exposed. The phrases I’d used to describe routes and schemes would give me away before I had any chance to show any semblance of an understanding of the game. My language would be my tell.

Which brings me back to the original question and why language is important. If you want to know how you become X, Y, or Z, it starts with speaking the language of the experts in that field. If you show up to a job interview, a coffee meeting, or a pitch without having taken the time to understand your chosen endeavor at a somewhat deep level, experts will see right through you thanks to the words you choose to use. Most people show up with a broad and somewhat superficial understanding of a job or interest. Before you can impress the gatekeeper deciding if you get the job or the funding, you’ve got to pass the language test. And, equally important, in doing so you’ll ensure you’ve got enough of a knowledge base to proceed.

Steve Magness is a coach to world-class runners, as well as the author of the new book, Peak Performance. He can be found on twitter @stevemagness