In the last twenty years we’ve learned a tremendous amount about how expertise is created. Scientists like K Anders Ericsson from Florida State University have been leading the charge. His new book, Peak, Secrets from the new Science of Expertise chronicles years of experiments examing how expertise is attained across a wide spectrum of domains.
Ericcson’s findings shatter three commonly held myths about experts.
The first myth—
Talent is bestowed upon you by winning the genetic lottery. Many people believe that their IQ, for example, is fixed and nonmalleable, as is their abilities in sports, mathematics, the arts and so on. In other words, you’re either born with talent or you're not. Repeated research has shown that IQ, like early talent in a given domain, has very little causal relationship to the level of expertise you can eventually attain.
Acquiring expertise, instead, shows a one to one correlation with the kind and quality of your training program. Ericsson calls it ‘deliberate practice,’ the intense and specific training protocols an individual can follow to realize steady incremental improvement. With deliberate practice, it’s possible to radically improve your skills in any field, even raise your IQ.
Given the neuroplasticity of the brain, with the right coaching, time commitment, and practice program, your abilities are only constrained by your ‘rage to master,’ your inner drive to achieve. In 1991 Susan Polgar was the first woman to become a Chess Grandmaster having followed a well-documented deliberate practice regime. Prior to that it was thought that only men possessed the ability to compete in chess at the world-class level.
The second myth—
If you do something long enough you’ll get much better at it. It’s not uncommon to hear companies tout their bona fides by adding the sum total of their employee’s years of experience. But there’s a problem with using this kind of sound bite to prove expertise.
Ericsson cites the results of 60 medical doctors studies which show the longer a doctor is in practice the lower his or her quality of performance becomes. How can this be? Its because unless a doctor follows a deliberate path for attaining new knowledge and skill acquisition, the technology and constant updating and revising of medical information passes them by.
Doctors show the same tendency seen in many fields, a fast learning curve of improvement, followed by a leveling off, followed by a period of stagnation, which eventually leads to a decline in their knowledge and skill set. Like the one time award winning car salesman who fails to keep up with the new state of the art hybrid engine technology, doctors can often become dinosaurs in their own field too.
The third myth—
If you want to improve, all you have to do is put in a more effort. More effort equals greater reward. “Try harder” is an admonishment uttered by countless parents, coaches and sales managers. Ericsson says, ‘The reality is, however, that all of these things— managing, selling, teamwork— are specialized skills, and unless you are using practice techniques specifically designed to improve those particular skills, trying hard will not get you very far.”
The bottom line: expertise is an effortful process that requires you to push the boundaries of your comfort zone, constantly adjusting as the body of knowledge changes, and requires the never ending pursuit of skill acquisition.