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How to be an expert

The only thing standing between you-as-amateur and you-as-expert is dedication. All that talk about prodigies? We could all be prodigies (or nearly so) if we just put in the time and focused. At least that's what the brain guys are saying. Best of all--it's almost never too late.

Seriously. How many people think they've missed their opportunity to be a musician, or an expert golfer, or even a chess grand master because they didn't start when they were young? Or because they simply lacked natural talent? Those people are (mostly) wrong. According to some brain scientists, almost anyone can develop world-class (or at least top expertise) abilities in things for which they aren't physically impaired. Apparently God-given talent, natural "gifts", and genetic predispositions just aren't all they're cracked up to be. Or at least not in the way most of us always imagined. It turns out that rather than being naturally gifted at music or math or chess or whatever, a superior performer most likely has a gift for concentration, dedication, and a simple desire to keep getting better. In theory, again, anyone willing to do what's required to keep getting better WILL get better.

Maybe the "naaturally talented artist" was simply the one who practiced a hell of a lot more. Or rather, a hell of a lot more deliberately. Dr. K. Anders Ericsson, professor of psychology at Florida State University, has spent most of his 20+ year career on the study of genuises, prodigies, and superior performers. In the book The New Brain (it was on my coffee table) Richard Restak quotes Ericsson as concluding:

"For the superior performer the goal isn't just repeating the same thing again and again but achieving higher levels of control over every aspect of their performance. That's why they don't find practice boring. Each practice session they are working on doing something better than they did the last time."

So it's not just how long they practice, it's how they practice. Basically, it comes down to something like this:

Most of us want to practice the things we're already good at, and avoid the things we suck at. We stay average or intermediate amateurs forever.

Yet the research says that if we were willing to put in more hours, and to use those hours to practice the things that aren't so fun, we could become good. Great. Potentially brilliant. We need, as Restak refers to it, "a rage to master." That dedication to mastery drives the potential expert to focus on the most subtle aspects of performance, and to never be satisfied. There is always more to improve on, and they're willing to work on the less fun stuff. Restak quotes Sam Snead, considered one of the top five golfers of the twentieth century, as saying:

"I know it's a lot more fun to stand on the practice tee and rip your driver than it is to chip and ptch, or practice sand shots with sand flying back in your face, but it all comes back to the question of how much you're willing to pay for success."

There's much more to the brain science around this topic, of course--I'm just doing the highlights. And a lot of the research is new, made possible today by how easy it is for researchers to get time with an fMRI or PET scan. And I stretched just a little... there is some thought that to be, literally, THE best in the world at chess, or the violin, or math, or programming, or golf, etc. you might indeed need that genetic special something. But... that's to be THE best. The research does suggest that whatever that special sauce is, it accounts for only that last little 1% that pushes someone into the world champion status. The rest of us--even without the special sauce--could still become world (or at least national) class experts, if we do the time, and do it the right way.

Where this ties into passionate users is with the suck threshold and kick-ass (aka "passion") threshold. Your users will typically fall into one of the three categories in the graphic: expert, amateur, or drop-out. The drop-outs decide that during that "I suck at this" phase, it isn't worth continuing. They give up. Is that something you can work on? Do you know what your attrition rate is?

But the most troubling--and where we have the most leverage--is with the amateur who is satisfied with where they are. These are the folks who you overhear saying, "Yes, I know there's a better way to do this thing, but I already know how to do it this [less efficient, less powerful] way and it's easy for me to just keep doing it like that." In other words, they made it past the suck threshold, but now they don't want to push for new skills and capabilities. They don't want to suck again. But that means they'll never get past the kick-ass threshold where there's a much greater chance they'll become passionate about it. The further up that capability curve they are, the higher-res the user experience is!

Can we help make it easier for them to continue on the path to becoming expert? Remember, being better is better. Whatever you're better at becomes more fun, more satisfying, a richer experience, and it leads to more flow. This is what we're trying to do for our users.

Oh yes, about that never too late thing... most of us can kiss that Olympic ice skating medal good-bye. And at 5' 4", my basketball career is probably hopeless. But think about this... actress Geena Davis nearly qualified for the US Olympic archery team in a sport she took up at the age of 40, less than three years before the Olympic tryouts.

And if the neuroscientists are right, you can create new brain cells--by learning (and not being stuck in a dull cubicle)--at virtually any age. Think about it... if you're 30 today, if you take up the guitar tomorrow, you'll have been playing for TWENTY years by the time you're 50. You'll be kicking some serious guitar butt. And if you're 50 today, there's no reason you can't be kicking guitar butt at 70. What are you waiting for?

Posted by Kathy on March 3, 2006 | Permalink


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What do you say to the person who is constantly picking up new interests, staying with them a while, then dropping them to pick up some more? Is this person a chronic quitter? Or just one who hasn't discovered a driving passion yet?

Great blog, btw.

Posted by: J. Michael | Mar 3, 2006 10:00:19 PM

I always though that I'd picked up guitar too late, even at the young age of 17, but now at the ripe old age of 31 I've been at it for almost 15 years. (Wow... 5 away from 20!)

And now for some reason I barely have to work at it at all to get better each year. People keep noticing new little riffs and sounds and say how much I've progressed. But I barely practice at all (mostly RSI puts a stop to it quick smart). All I do is play with the band once a week or so and I go from strength to strength. Not that I'm complaining, I think it's great.

I guess just "doing" your craft once your into the kick ass level is enough to propel you along.

Posted by: Matt | Mar 3, 2006 10:28:32 PM

J. Michael,

I too find myself taking up something new, getting bored or just losing interest in it when I see something else I might like to try. It is irritating because I want to just latch onto something, but yet I can't seem to do that. Instead I am always starting projects but never finishing. I think it is lack of attention, I always find myself getting easily distracted.

Posted by: Bradleyscott | Mar 4, 2006 12:17:12 AM

J. Michael, Bradleyscott,

I too had this problem, but just lately I recognized a pattern to a lot of stuff (not all) I’ve been doing over the year: communication. Writing, theatre, teaching, marketing, layout, graphics, brain/mind, creativity etc.
Facing the close-down of my employer, I really got to look at those things and what drove me to it and away from it. In the end, I came to the conclusion, that my overarching passion was communication (as in one-to-one or one-to-a few, not mass communication).

Perhaps there is a deeper pattern to all the things you do and did?

And if not, finde peace of mind in the fact that with every thing you do, you learn a bit more about your self, eliminating all the things that you’re not passionate about.
Just enjoy the ride!

Posted by: Jens Reineking | Mar 4, 2006 3:05:27 AM

Most people never say that *they* suck: Always *it* or *this* sucks... never themselves.

Posted by: gmlk | Mar 4, 2006 5:56:03 AM

But how do we reconcile this approach with Buckingham's "go with your strengths" approach you posted on previously? On the surface they seem contradictory: to move from amateur to expert, Ericsson and Restak want us to practice the no-fun areas we suck at. But Buckingham wants us to focus on what we're good at, not what we suck at.

For the Ericsson approach, it's not that you select your domain using your strengths (e.g. Geena Davies). And it's not that you then manage "acquiring" domain mastery by focusing on strengths (e.g. Sam Snead quote). So where does that leave Buckingham?

Maybe a solution is that you need to recognize weak areas, and work on avoiding having your overall performance depend on these areas (you touched on this in your Strengths post: "I suggest taking a very hard look at the "areas of improvement" list and see if we can rearrange the context so that those things become less important"). And, at the same time, focus on the no-fun practice on improving weaker areas...?

But that solution doesn't really resolve the Ericsson vs. Buckingham issue, does it? In my profession (language teaching) there are interminable debates on methodology and the "right way" to do things. I think the solution to our debate here is the same as how we should approach any learning methodology issue: both can be “right” sometimes for some people in some circumstances. Every learner is unique: brain chemistry, family/social/cultural network, school or work environment – so any “this is how to do it” is affected by so many variables that it is tenuous as a generalization. In teaching, recognizing and helping learners understand their uniqueness, and how they can best learn with it, is the essence of being learner-centered.

So, if we want to be active, autonomous and accountable learners, we have to be aware of both the Ericsson and Buckingham approaches and how they could affect our individual situation. Both approaches are tools in our toolbox, we have to select the right one for each job, and each learner is the best judge of his/her tools, as long as they understand the tool.

Any ideas here Kathy, other than my "it all depends" sidestep?

Posted by: Cleve | Mar 4, 2006 8:41:33 AM

I really enjoyed this post. I share the same view on being good at something. Actually I have posted a "similar" post about getting succesfull at things:

Kind regards

Posted by: amix | Mar 4, 2006 8:52:52 AM

This post rings true in a lot of ways. What I'd like to add, without downplaying natural talent which is a real thing, is that it's very likely that the people who are perceived as having natural talent have the natural inclination to enjoying that activity.

I play the piano and program computers. I love doing both of these things, and I would consider myself in the expert stage of both. I probably have natural talent in these areas, but more importantly I have passion for them. I've heard enough sob stories from people who stopped taking piano lessons too soon to know that the primary difference between me and them is I practiced and didn't quit.

Actually, I did hate practicing when I was a kid and did quit, but luckily I was good enough that I could play interesting things and a couple of years later I started up again, of my own accord, and that's when I took off.

So "naturals" have not only some talent, but the natural passion to keep at it. I completely agree about the not too late point. Most of us have things we feel we would really enjoy being good at, so let's start making progress.

I like how the expert curve is steep through the amateur phase. You can really whip through that phase if you're dedicated enough.

Posted by: Hans | Mar 4, 2006 9:00:23 AM

When you're a beginner then any learning no matter how badly targetted is likely to increase your skills and pique your interest; when you're an expert you know exactly what you need to learn and you can spend your time well. In between it's difficult to find the right thing to work on, to find a class that's not too easy and not too hard, and it's difficult to see progress from class to class: the graph might be going upward when you look at it from a distance, but when you zoom on it there are ups and downs and plateaus.

I took up drawing a year ago at the age of 30, and I'm following a course that avoids the suck threshold by forcing you to always use your eyes, so if you've found a suck threshold trick say for drawing hands, it'll force you to unlearn it by say spending an hour drawing the pattern of wrinkles on the second knuckle of your little finger.

I gave up drawing when I was ten, so by the argument of 'the next ten years will go by anyway', if I keep it up till I'm 40 I could have the skills of a 20 year old art student, and that's the plan. The difficulty at the moment is that I'm a 31 year old with the skills of a moderately talented eleven year old; if I was eleven I could show off, people would think I was gifted, this would encourge me to practise more, and a virtuous circle would begin; at my age I'm judged by standards of adult competence, I'll have nothing I can show off for another four or five years, so my motivation has to be internal.

Posted by: dl | Mar 4, 2006 9:15:08 AM

and here I thought that the expert use of bullshit and assertiveness played a role in one becoming an expert, tells you what I know, lol.

Seriously though, any ideas (be it Kaizen or whatever) that focus on continual improvement are good ones. When it comes to excellence in any pursuit there are an endless supply of rungs on the ladder; the dilema for some folks however is there are also an endless supply of attractive ladders to climb.

Will you be successful if you choose to climb as many ladders as you can in the limited time you have rather than just one ladder in order to be considered an "expert"? The answer to that question lies of course in what your definition of success is.

Totally rockin blog btw, keep up the exceptional work...

Posted by: BIG SWINGING | Mar 4, 2006 10:32:08 AM


I wondered about this 'Play to your strengths' / 'Work on your weaknesses' split, too.

Maybe it depends on how one slices and dices one's domain.

If you aspire to be a kick-ass golfer, you work on the ugly stuff, too, because you can't stand sucking at ANY aspect of the game.

On the other hand, if you aspire to be the World's Far-est Hitting Driver, you will spend alot of time whacking long soaring drives, but you will also work on 'ugly' stuff like shaft dynamics, core-strengthening exercises, grip materials . . and all sorts tweaks and nuances that other golfers never think about.

Posted by: Walt Kania | Mar 4, 2006 11:17:37 AM

This relates to the Satir Change Model and the "Unconsciously Incompetent to Consciously Competent" idea.

I just blogged about it here: http://homepage.mac.com/keithray/blog/2006/03/04#SatirChangeModelComptency

Most people are unwilling to pass into the "chaos" stage of learning a skill ("Consciously Incompetent").

Posted by: keith ray | Mar 4, 2006 11:54:44 AM

Considering the weaknesses / strengths problem:

Think about plants and fertilizers. Liebig discovered that there the growth of a plant is limited by the chemical that is not supplied in sufficient quantity, forming a bottleneck for the growth, the "performance" of the plant. Add the chemical, and the plant performs better. And another chemical now becomes the bottleneck.

So, your weak areas are not necessarily the ones you need to work on. This is only the case if you a) consider your performance to be too low, if b) your weak area is the bottleneck and if c) you want to enhance your performance.
Then you would have to broaden that bottleneck, i.e. work on your weak area until your overall performance increases.
Over time, the same conditions a, b and c could again apply, this time perhaps with another weak area.

Posted by: Jens | Mar 4, 2006 2:12:59 PM

Hey Kathy. I took a course once where it was stated that the idiom "Practice makes perfect" is somewhat flawed and at best mediocre and it should be better expressed "PERFECT practice makes perfect". Funny, I've always remembered that.

Posted by: Dave the Lifekludger | Mar 4, 2006 4:52:55 PM

I'm good at a lot of things. I'm very good at quite a few. Becoming an absolute expert in area has not been my goal in life. Or at least I've not found that one passion yet.

Being a generalist has it's advantages - it's amazing how much trivia I've learned in different subjects :-) My goal is to keep learning new things.

Great blog!!

Posted by: dilbert07 | Mar 4, 2006 8:02:15 PM

I both play and coach women’s ice hockey and I’ve noticed that many female skaters tend to have a good idea of the level that they want to play at. Once they reach that level, they stop trying to get better and just enjoy the game. In ice hockey it’s easy to see who is competitive and who is just happy to be on the ice. When I first noticed this phenomenon it frustrated me because I could not understand why everyone didn’t want to improve. I’ve come to realize that some folks are just happy to be able to participate. That for them hockey is not an activity that they are driven to compete in. The activity fills some other need, be it exercise, social, or something else.

My athletic experiences support the idea that one of the differences between an expert and an amateur is the expert’s emphasis on the fundamentals. But one other difference is the expert’s emotional desire to go to the next level. An expert is often passionate about their activity of choice and they enjoy the challenges the activity presents.

And just a tip for those folks who want to be experts but find some of the fundamentals boring...make it into a game. In the post “Don’t forget square one...” Kathy talks about the Go master reading a fundamental book and trying to do the exercises faster than in the past. He made practicing the fundamentals fun. I suspect that the ability to make the practice of those boring, tedious skills fun is one of the big differences between an amateur who tries to become an expert and can’t, and the amateur who succeeds. We learn better when we are having fun and we learn deeper when we share the learning with others. And how many experts do you know who don’t share their passion for the chosen activity? Not many.

Posted by: Kim Greenlee | Mar 4, 2006 10:39:50 PM

You are so right, it’s never too late to change.

I once asked a fellow cyclist, on a South Island New Zealand tour, how long he’d been biking. Since he was over 80, and still happily riding 80km+ per day, I expected the answer to be in decades…

“About 5 years” was the reply.

Posted by: Robin Capper | Mar 5, 2006 3:33:43 AM

Stick at it and eventually you will begin to enjoy it/get better at it. That sounds a lot like what my parents say when I complain about certain lessons in school. Somehow your article makes it sound a lot more appealing and a lot like good advice!

Posted by: Lawsy | Mar 5, 2006 5:08:55 AM

Keep looking for new ground. Keep pushing yourself.

I don't know what I will be doing next(so much to choose from and so many possibilities), that is already such a kick!

I always say it to myself "Tarry, You're doing it now, why not do it all the way!"

Life is short. Stop dying all the time and go ahead and do something great starting today.

Posted by: Tarry Singh | Mar 5, 2006 7:20:23 AM

Mmmm. This is good thinking fodder. Great comment thread, too. Reminds me that I need to re-read George Leonard's "Mastery." Anybody enjoying this post or thread would probably dig it--it's a classic text on the subject of becoming an expert. He frames his arguements, in large part, through the lens of his akido practice. Good stuff.

Posted by: Bren | Mar 5, 2006 11:43:47 AM

This is very true. I have recently applied this to certain areas of my life and have the intention of putting more eforts towards my goals that are most important to me.

Thanks for the good article.

Posted by: Dustin Coffey | Mar 5, 2006 12:29:09 PM

I've lived this post. When I was in the ninth grade, I couldn't pass the academically gifted test and had an IQ of 104. Shortly before graduating from college, I had my IQ tested again and finished with a 161. The psychologist was astounded.

The difference? Over that time period, my health declined considerably, and all I could really do to entertain myself was read. In school, I was reading 2-3 books per week, in addition to my assignments. In college, I was reading at least one book per day. I moved from subject to subject, reading every major book in the industry. Then I journaled about it, frequently writing 5-10 pages per day.

In other words, I was thinking and reflecting almost all the time. It was like a bodybuilding plan for the brain. And the results were profound. So yes, dedication is the secret to becoming an expert, regardless of whether it's forced on you, such as in my case, or not.

That being said, I know two prodigies. I'll never, ever be as good as them on certain subjects. But that's fine with me. Being the best results in a lot of expectations, and it's enough to drive someone insane. Most prodigies are also savants, losing every day competencies in exchange for their extraordinary abilities. I would rather be (fairly) normal and second best.

Posted by: Jon Morrow | Mar 5, 2006 2:16:29 PM

I wonder about the economics behind these decisions we make here: http://isnotnull.blogspot.com/2006/03/economics-of-expertise.html

Thank you. Another great post!

Posted by: Joe Miller | Mar 5, 2006 3:45:25 PM

Very true, we can pick up any skill at any age. But behind the new skill and becoming an expert, is the discipline of discipline. Unless there is discipline, can we learn anything? Can we learn discipline at a later age?


Would really like to hear your thoughts on this.

Posted by: neelakantan | Mar 5, 2006 6:58:17 PM

What is the definition of an expert again?

"Someone who knows more and more about less and less until they know everything about nothing!"


Posted by: Simon | Mar 5, 2006 7:27:56 PM

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