I am taking a course on developing graphical user interfaces, and the topics we cover span from HTML and CSS to PHP and MySQL.

Let’s pause for a bit. These abbreviations sound awfully geeky so I’m warning you, but once again, the fundamental principles apply, and these examples can be applied to any other subjects you might be working with. I want you to be able to apply the principles in any field or skill.

Back to the story. So in our school we have about 60 people learning how to design online graphical user interfaces, or GUIs in short. I believe you will agree if I say that it’s not an easy task to learn how to create a fully functional GUI from scratch. You’ll need knowledge of how to structure the system in HTML, stylize it with CSS, create the necessary functions with PHP and run a database with MySQL. These technologies are, more or less, the bare minimum of what is required to create a typical GUI for a commercial website.

We have to realize, of course, that not all of the 60 students attending the course are going to become experts at creating GUIs, or any online systems for that matter. Their interests might be something totally different. But those who do want to specialize in this field will have to learn the skills one way or another. And to become professional web developers, they need expertise. They need to know how to build these kinds of systems. The school will give you a diploma, but that doesn’t mean that you’ve mastered the principles introduced to you in class. Attending a mere introductory course can’t really amount to what we would call expertise.

As a student, you would assume that your school provides you with the right courses to mold you into an expert. After all, that’s why you enrolled in the program in the first place. Expertise is what made all those students apply. They came to learn the skills. I think that’s a fair assumption. But the truth is, most courses are way too short to make anyone an expert. The proper use of HTML tags alone might take the duration of the whole course to master. But when you have CSS, PHP, and MySQL on top of it, is it still realistic to assume that the school will lead you to mastery in web development? It is actually going to do only that—lead you there.

Schools promise to make experts out of you, but it doesn’t always work out like that. They often fail to emphasize the fact that you are also expected to invest a fair amount of your own free time to dig up supplementary information on the topics you’re investigating. And the information is actually not just supplementary. It’s the main kind of information that you should be acquiring. It is the kind of information that will eventually define you as an expert. Completing a course alone won’t get you there. Oh no…

If you pass the GUI course by satisfying the criteria related to it, you will probably have a general understanding of the subject. But alone, it is so superficial that it will be of little help in practice. You might know what other experts are talking about, but you wouldn’t be able to produce anything of your own unless you dig deeper into the subject. You’ll need much more. But don’t worry, if you have the determination to pursue such expertise, you can certainly achieve it. You’ll just need to start thinking out of the box.

Step 1. Stop assuming that expertise can be acquired by completing courses.

Step 2. Take out your school notes and start expanding on those topics. There’s a lot of information available for free on the Internet, so Google will be your best friend in the beginning.

Step 3. Research. Commit yourself to doing consistent research on your topics. If you’re serious about your endeavor, you should even be ready to pay a little bit of money to obtain additional information. But don’t go overboard and spend a fortune on workshops and how-to videos. Aim at knowing your field thoroughly. Don’t gloss over anything. Allow yourself to be passionate about pursuing knowledge.

Step 4. Join a community related to your topic. Start listening to what others have to say. Participate in online forums. Read high quality blogs. If there are offline groups in your area, try joining one. Teach others what you know and learn from them in return. Follow what’s happening in your field, and contribute to the communities. You get to kill two birds with one stone, because you’ll also be promoting yourself as an (future) expert, resulting in more opportunities.

Step 5. Start applying your skills immediately. Even if the initial results don’t show a lot of professionalism and elegance, just keep at it. You’ll show a lot of improvement in the long run. If you fail to put your knowledge into use, you won’t be actively involved in adopting the habits and mindset of an expert. You have to start using your skills if you want to gain professional insight and experience. By applying your knowledge and experimenting with things, you will generate more questions that need to be answered, and you will learn more as a result.

A school will get you started, but expertise and mastery can only be attained through your personal efforts. Getting an A from a university course isn’t going to make you an expert. Expertise is a trait of a self-learner, so stop depending on others, and start learning things by yourself.