Interesting article from the Harvard Business Review on the development of expertise. The article is a more empirical elaboration of Malcolm Gladwell’s argument that practice, rather than innate talent, is what perpetuates expertise. Yet the research makes clear that practice alone (the 10,000 hour rule) doesn’t lead to expertise. It’s deliberate practice, which Ericson defines as a “considerable, specific, sustained efforts at doing something you can’t do well–or even at all.” Further, the process of navigating challenging, unfamiliar situations enhances long term learning, and promotes greater self-efficacy.
Developing expertise also requires deliberate thinking, i.e., honing your powers of concentration, and focusing on quality over quantity of practice time. As Ericson notes, the emphasis on quality explains why very few experts “appear to be able to engage in more than four to five hours of high concentration and deliberate practice.“ Cognitive load theory also supports the importance of quality practice time; when the mind is flooded with discrepant learning tasks, its processing capacity diminishes, and task completion suffers.
Ericson also focuses focuses on the problems and perils of automaticity. Here we see the clearest challenge to the notion that experience alone guarantees expertise:
Experts who reach a high level of performance often find themselves responding automatically to specific situations and may come to rely exclusively on their intuition. This leads to difficulties when they deal with atypical or rare cases, because they’ve lost the ability to analyze a situation and work through the right response.
The solution to the problem of automaticity is engaging in practice that moves you outside your comfort zone, and demands fresh, flexible, resourceful thinking. This type of deliberate practice may offset what some call “the curse of knowledge,” or losing the capacity to understand knowledge in new ways. The “curse of knowledge” is why so many intellects and scholars exercise poor judgment, despite years of learning.
The research also shows that starting at an early age is beneficial to the development of expertise. The fewer opportunities someone has to develop mastery, the less likely he or she will be to reap the rewards of sustained, deliberate practice over time. But research demonstrates that the development of expertise is not the exclusive domain of the young:
Research has shown that musicians over 60 years old who continue deliberate practice for about ten hours a week can match the speed and technical skills of 20-year-old ex- pert musicians when tested on their ability to play a piece of unfamiliar music.
Just listen to David Gilmour practice the guitar and perform in his 70s; I’m not sure the younger Gilmour (who of course was unbelievable) is any better than this version of Gilmour, who still works on his craft as if he were an aspiring amateur trying out for a band.
The article also points to the importance of coaching, which can provide constructive feedback on performance, identifying what needs to be improved upon, and what methods can accelerate learning. Coaching also provides discipline and structure, which allows a performer to practice in a targeted fashion–goals, benchmarks, etc.–while spurring motivation, of course. Yet its also true that coaching may impede the development and accuracy of independent judgment, especially in diagnostic situations:
Relying on a coach has its limits, however. Statistics show that radiologists correctly diagnose breast cancer from X-rays about 70% of the time. Typically, young radiologists learn the skill of interpreting X-rays by working alongside an “expert.” So it’s hardly surprising that the success rate has stuck at 70% for a long time. Imagine how much better radiology might get if radiologists practiced instead by making diagnostic judgments using X-rays in a library of old verified cases, where they could immediately determine their accuracy.
Coaching doesn’t need to be cold blooded, given the importance of developing self-efficacy, confidence, etc. But unsentimental approaches to coaching may also focus attention on skill development, and exposing learners to the appropriate level of challenge.
Then there’s the case Benjamin Franklin, whose intelligence extends across a stunning array of subjects and disciplines. Was he naturally talented? It’s hard to argue that innate capacities didn’t influence some of his insane contributions to democracy, science, and literature. But he was also a creative thinker who practiced in a deliberate and non automatized fashion:
When he wanted to learn to write eloquently and persuasively, he began to study his favorite articles from a popular British publication, the Spectator. Days after he read an article he particularly enjoyed, he would try to reconstruct it from memory in his own words. Then he would compare it with the original, so he could discover and correct his faults. He also worked to improve his sense of language by translating the articles into rhyming verse and then from verse back into prose.
This anecdote is also an inspiring example of the benefits of self-coaching. It’s just hard to believe Franklin conceived of this habit by himself; he was either naturally creative, or deeply aware (through exposure to other thinkers, scientists, etc.) of how true intelligence and expertise developed. Either way, the nation is grateful!