How to Become a Pro When You Have No Experience

Turning theoretical knowledge into practical skills.

Photo: Vlad Sargu/Unsplash

Picture this. It’s 2016, and I’m in a Business Studies lesson learning about Herzberg’s Two Factor Theory of Motivation. I’m struggling to see how it would play out in the real world. How does an employer identify what motivates their employees? So I put my hand up and ask. To which my teacher responds:

“…I’m not really sure… I’ve never worked in a business.”

That’s when it dawned on me. Most of my school teachers spent their entire lives in education, with no real-life experience in their field.

Sure, my Business Teacher had spent years memorizing the intricate details of key theories. She could recall Bowman’s Strategic Clock and argue for the importance of Ansoff’s Matrix — but had never seen them work with her own eyes.

She was a pro without the experience.

As a 22-year-old University Graduate, being a pro without experience is the best I can hope for. In the grand scheme of life, I’m quite young — and compared to other people in this world — there's a lot I’m yet to see and experience.

Like my school teacher — most of my knowledge comes from the books I have read. Unless I’ve encountered it in my daily life, there’s lots I know about but haven’t seen in practice. Things in completely different spheres and worlds to the one I live.

There’s nothing wrong with having theoretical knowledge. In some fields it’s actually desirable: teachers, philosophers, authors. Most of what they talk about is hypothetical or theoretical.

But in the world of business, practical skills trump theoretical knowledge. Being able to produce results or an end product pays the bills.

So how do you turn theoretical knowledge into practical skills and expertise? How do you make yourself employable when all you have is theoretical knowledge?

Dedicate time to the cause

People who are already successful teach you a pipe dream. I see it here on Medium all the time. With their abundance of wealth and success, they tell you how they managed to do it, and how you can too.

There’s a big difference between reading about something and actually being able to execute it successfully. Pros make things look easy, but what they fail to tell you is how long it took them to get to where they are.

Step 1: Practice makes perfect

It goes without saying, but putting things into practice is the first step. The more you do, the better your skills develop, and the more you see how things play out in the real world.

Take courses, volunteer to work, become an intern, or find out how to train yourself. Whatever you want to do, there’s probably a YouTube video talking through how to. As an aspiring writer, for example, I came to Medium to apply what I knew about writing, and see how it panned out in the real world.

Step 2: Be realistic to increase your odds

But forget practice for a second. According to author Eric Barker, there’s an even more important trait that is needed to become an expert at something: commitment and dedication. To succeed, you need to be in it for the long run.

Before you start training for a task, Barker implores you to ask yourself:

“How long are you going to be doing this?”

Are you expecting it to be as easy as your textbook made out? Are you willing to power through, or will you give up at the first hurdle?

According to research, committing to a task in advance correlates strongly with success. In his book “The Talent Code,” Daniel Coyle discovered that, even when practicing the same amount, people who made a long-term commitment to the task outperformed those with short-term commitments by over 400 percent.

Becoming a professional at something takes years, if not a lifetime to cultivate. Even if it seems easy in theory, you’re going to have more success if you’re willing to dedicate a significant amount of time to it.

Pinpoint what’s important

As humans hooked to our phones, we review over 105,000 words every day. That means we see over 23 words per second of every waking hour.

We don’t have the time to be an expert in everything and we certainly can’t know it all. Even within a profession, there are hundreds of different skills and hundreds of different ways of executing those skills.

Within the books and articles we read, only a sub-section of it is essential in helping us achieve our goals. The rest can be disregarded — doing so prevents us from wasting our already limited time on things that get us nowhere.

David Epstein puts it best:

“The hallmark of expertise is figuring out what information is important.”

At school, you have to memorize every single page from your textbook — just in case that one question pops up on the exam. The real world isn’t like that — to become an expert, it’s better to know a lot about a little: to be a professional in one key area, rather than an amateur in every field.

To become a pro, choose your training intentionally and only cultivate the skills that are useful to your interests. Doing so cuts out unnecessary bureaucracy and fast-tracks you to your desired ends.

Let’s talk through an example

When Tim Ferriss learned chess from professional Josh Waitzkin, they didn’t faff about with the normalities. They didn’t start off with the beginner's advice. Instead, they jumped straight into key moves applicable to the majority of interactions on the board.

The outcome? Tim was able to compete with top-chess players within a matter of days. A level that usually takes years to achieve.

The lesson here is simple: to shortcut your way to becoming pro, pinpoint the information that’s important for achieving your desired ends. Focus and work on that exclusively, as if nothing else matters.

Test yourself more

For the first few years of my academic career, I revised by reading my notes and my exam grades were average. It was only later on that I decided to shift my revision style — I started answering past questions and recalling the information I was trying to learn. My grades shot up.

The same is true in all aspects of life. We don’t improve by watching. We improve by doing. In the words of Dan Coyle:

“Our brains evolved to learn by doing things, not by hearing about them.”

Imagine that you spent 100 hours reading books on martial arts, while I spent just 50 hours sparring. Who do you think would win in a fight? The answer is obvious.

The Rule of Thirds

Of course, learning the technical intricacies and theoretical formalities is important. How can you become a pro at something if you don’t know what it takes? What standard should you be comparing yourself against?

Watching others and learning the basics helps us learn how to things properly. As we grow and develop, continuing to watch others gives us insight into creative, new and effective ways of doing things.

For this reason, we need to find a balance between learning about something and putting it into practice. In The Talent Code, Coyle argues you should adopt the rule of thirds: you should spend a third of your time studying, and two-thirds practicing.

Doing so will help you find the balance between learning how to, and actually being able to put what you know into practice.

“There’s a rule of two thirds. If you want to, say, memorize a passage, it’s better to spend 30 percent of your time reading it, and the other 70 percent of your time testing yourself on that knowledge.”

The takeaway

My Business Teacher inadvertently taught me an important lesson: like her, a lot of University Graduates are pros without experience. They have textbook knowledge, but they lack the skills to implement it in the real world.

They know how martial arts fights work and the traditions behind them, but put them in a ring and they wouldn’t know what to do.

While theoretical knowledge is beneficial in some industries, most businesses want practical skills. They want someone who can get results, rather than someone who’s just book smart. Schools only teach us theoretical knowledge, so how do we make ourselves more employable by turning that into practical skills?

  1. Dedicate time to the cause. Practice turning your knowledge into the skills you want; and be in it for the long run. As research shows, those who make a long-term commitment to training are 400 times more likely to succeed.
  2. Pinpoint what’s important. Stop wasting your time on the knowledge and skills that won’t achieve your desired end. Instead, hone in your goals and work backwards. To shortcut your way to success, only work on developing the skills that will get you to where you want to be.
  3. Test yourself more and adopt the rule of thirds. Rather than just reading and watching others, dedicate your time to putting things into practice as well.

It won’t be easy. But doing so will allow you to turn your theoretical knowledge into practical expertise.

I write about Self-Improvement, Life Lessons, Philosophy, Psychology & Business — to help you reach your full potential. To stay in touch, and to receive free and exclusive content, sign up to my mailing list.

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