Become an Expert in One Thing

I get calls and inquiries continuously about careers in global justice.  Common questions include: “How can I get involved?” or “How do I establish myself?”  These questions ultimately transcend the topic of global justice into any field.

It’s a hard question to answer.  There are huge needs, but few jobs (if you want to get paid that is).  Typically, people are involved generally, but haven’t narrowly focused their energy yet.  They just know they want to play some kind of role.  And, on top of that, there are actually quite a few people involved in the field.


I’ll give you an example: Human trafficking.  I get so many inquiries by people who want to help abolish modern day slavery that it’s almost the presumptive default. It’s a good thing—the issue naturally breaks people’s hearts, but its also tough to plug people into it. Most just have an unfocused desire to be involved somehow.

My recommendation for those who want get involved in something is to focus deep.  Become an expert on a tiny sector of a topic.  Unless you are charting completely new water, there are already many purported experts who have gotten there before you.  Find the niche that few have uncovered.

Let me give you an example of how this has played out for me recently.  Rather than cast my net wide broadly on human rights issues, I’ve concentrated most of my efforts on statelessness, with a particular focus on Burma.  In Go & Do, I wrote about being in Mae La Refugee Camp to try to share the stories I heard there.  In my scholarship, I wrote about statelessness along the Thai-Burma border—proposing a solution—and about systematic persecution amounting to genocide in Burma.  I’ve also visited, blogged, and spoken about these issues many, many times.

Sometimes, all of this work seems to be for naught.  While I think it’s worthwhile, there’s not always a clear target.  Then, this past week I got a call about a situation related to one of the issues above.  It was a legal case involving a refugee that held a woman’s life in potential jeopardy.  It related to the matters that I’ve worked on and published about.  They were unable to find an expert witness and it was becoming an emergency.  I could help.

Drive around the industrial park of your city one day.  You’ll notice that the companies there often fill very tiny niches.  You don’t see “Acme Manufactuing: We Make Anything.”  Instead, you see companies that specialize in making one tiny component really well or providing an obscure, but needed service.  Someone makes the glass on my MacBook really really well.  Someone else makes the power button on the glass-forming machine that pressed that glass.  Someone else serviced that matching.

We would be well-advised to follow the same model: Develop deep knowledge in a specialized area.  Your time will come one day in an important way.

How do you become an expert in something?  Start by learning everything you can about the topic.  Collect all the books; read all the articles.  Truly focus and get rid of that which is a distraction.  Once you are versed and experienced, start writing about it.  From my own experience, keeping a blog is a good way to accomplish that.  Write often about that topic.  Then, start finding outlets to take that further—write for newsletters or trade journals; write an op-ed piece for your local newspaper.

Drill down, become an expert, and see where it takes you.


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