How to become an expert

Dear colleagues,

Becoming an expert is not easy, but it can be done. It requires deliberate practice - lots of it - over many years. Experts are made, not born.

That's the message of a massive compendium of research reviews, The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance, published last year. It is massive in several senses, with 42 chapters, 900 pages, vast numbers of references and weighing over 1.6kg.

The book includes studies of expertise and expert performance in a wide variety of fields, including chess, mathematics, transportation, medicine and acting, studies of how to analyse expertise, and studies of theoretical and empirical connections between expertise and other fields.

The "ten-year rule" is one of the fascinating findings. Across a wide range of fields, it seems to require at least a decade of dedicated practice and training to produce world-class performance, like winning an international chess tournament. This applies to Mozart and the Beatles as well as to writers, inventors and athletes.

However, doing something for ten years - in other words, having lots of experience - is not enough to become an expert performer. What is required is "deliberate practice", namely concentrated effort at improvement. An amateur musician, for example, may have lots of experience playing through pieces, but a high-level professional will spend untold hours practising ever-more-difficult pieces, striving to master them.

As one set of chapter authors puts it, " ... to improve performance it is necessary to seek out practice activities that allow individuals to work on improving specific aspects, with the help of a teacher and in a protected environment, with opportunities for reflection, exploration of alternatives, and problem solving, as well as repetition with informative feedback" (p. 60).

Deliberate practice is hard work. According to one contributor, "Expert performers from many domains engage in practice without rest for only around an hour, and they prefer to practice early in the morning when their minds are fresh." How frequently do experts practise? "... elite performers in many diverse domains have been found to practice, on the average, roughly the same amount every day, including weekends, and the amount of practice never consistently exceeds five hours per day." (p. 699). Too much practice can lead to burnout.

Another important general finding is that expert performance is highly specific to limited domains, reflecting the adage that experts know more and more about less and less. Hardly anyone achieves world-class skills in multiple areas, being a swimming champion and performing violin concertos, or even performing both violin and cello concertos. The same applies to academics: it is rare to find a scholar separately prominent in two fields, say economics and chemistry, though it is certainly possible to be an expert in an interdisciplinary field involving both economics and chemistry.

Two of the chapters are especially relevant to arts disciplines. One is on expertise in history, with assessment of research on expertise as it relates to ten characteristics of history experts. The other is on expertise and professional writing. The author of this chapter says professional writers work in many different ways but all these diverse habits have three common features: they "(1) focus attention inward by eliminating distractions, (2) may alter consciousness to facilitate entry in a flow state, and (3) help regulate the writer's emotional state to keep at the task." (pp. 395-396). Professional writers sometimes are blocked in their writing, which can devastate a career. The solution is "Self-regulation through daily writing, brief work sessions, realistic deadlines, and maintaining low emotional arousal" whereas "Binge writing - hypomanic, euphoric, marathon sessions to meet unrealistic deadlines - is generally counterproductive" (p. 396).

This suggests that setting aside one day per week for research is less likely to be productive than putting aside one hour per day - though two or more hours per day would be even better!

The book doesn't systematically address how to develop expert performance in academics' roles as researchers, teachers and leaders/managers, but some implications are fairly clear. Dedicated practice is essential in all cases, in an environment with support, helpful feedback and enough success to maintain motivation. Many scholars first begin research in their honours year. Starting earlier - in high school or even primary school - would allow high-level research output at younger ages.

In the early years of research - typically honours, masters and PhD years - a beginning researcher has the support of supervisors and peers. But on obtaining an academic position, this level of support is sometimes less readily available. Junior staff in large collaborative scientific projects can learn from senior researchers, but in arts there is a tradition of independent study, which often means working in isolation. Without a secure environment with encouragement, regular feedback and the incentive to put in regular hours striving to improve, it is easier to fall into a routine of occasional research.

There are even more obstacles to the development of expert teaching performance. A chess grandmaster spends far more hours studying positions and games - namely practising - than playing in tournaments. Likewise for top performers in other fields. Few academic teachers, though, spend a lot of time analysing subject design, experimenting with different teaching methods, inviting advisors to sit in on their classes and offer feedback, or engaging in reflective practice. Most academics spend far more time teaching than they do striving to improve their teaching. This is satisfactory for normal work but is not the way to develop high-level performance.

For learning leadership and managerial skills, the requirement is likely to be similar: years of deliberate practice aimed at improvement, preferably with support of mentors. But, like teachers, most academic managers spend far more time doing their jobs than practising the skills to do them. Learning is further hindered by a culture of criticism, in which mistakes are attacked rather than used as guides for improvement.

It is to be expected that great leaders will be those who have worked at it for a long time. The research in this volume suggests that it is foolish to expect a top researcher to become a top manager overnight - or even in a few years.

There's a chapter in the book about ageing and expertise. As people get older, their cognitive and other functions decline, and experts' general cognitive capacities decline like everyone else's. But, miraculously, expert performers show little if any decline in their efficiency at skill-related tasks. But to maintain their skills, older performers have to keep practising.

Studies of expertise can throw light on old debates about technocracy, namely rule by experts. If expertise is highly specific to domains, this gives no support for experts having a disproportionate decision-making role. You can trust a skilled pilot to fly a plane, but not to make superior transport policy decisions.

The Cambridge Encyclopedia is testimony to the huge increase in knowledge about expertise. There are now many experts on expertise, from whom we all can learn. But it is still necessary to keep practising.

K. Anders Ericsson, Neil Charness, Paul J. Feltovich and Robert R. Hoffman (eds.), The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006).

Brian Martin
8 March 2007, revised 28 May 2007

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