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Becoming an Expert: The Elements of Success

We’re massively impressed by a concert pianist, or a wide receiver, or a truly skillful visual artist. Their abilities seem otherworldly.

But what makes these people so skillful? How did they start out like you and I and then become something so extraordinary?

Part of us wants to believe that it’s something innate and magical, so we can recuse ourself from hard work. The other part of us wants to believe that it’s something earned through blood, sweat, and tears — that we too could achieve amazing performance, if only we could devote ourselves to something. 

In reality, it’s a bit of both. 

In the book Bounce: Mozart, Federer, Picasso, Beckham, and the Science of Success, Matthew Syed takes a critical look at all the factors underpinning the success of some of the most extraordinary athletes and artists in the world. 

The obvious place to start is with the popular Outliers idea posited by Malcolm Gladwell, the idea that many successful people are a product of their environment rather than ‘gifted’.

Gladwell shows how the success of Bill Gates, the Beatles, and other outstanding performers is not so much to do with ‘what they are like’ but rather ‘where they come from.’ ‘The people who stand before kings may look like they did it all by themselves,’ Gladwell writes. ‘But in fact they are invariably the beneficiaries of hidden advantages and extraordinary opportunities and cultural legacies that allow them to learn and work hard and make sense of the world in ways others cannot.’”

We think if you study the life and work trajectory of experts, two patterns seem to emerge.

One, they have specific backgrounds or opportunities, as mentioned above. Two, they put an incredible amount of time and effort into deliberate, effortful practice.

But not everyone will have access to the same facilities or teachers (this goes back to opportunity and circumstance), and some rules/regulations will inevitably favor some and add roadblocks for others in the quest for their 10,000 hours.

A good example of the latter is eligibility cutoff dates for children’s sports teams. If you’ve ever signed up yourself or your kids in a sports league then you’ll know there is always a cut-off birth date for the different age groups.

Say your child plays on a soccer team for kids born any time in the year 2007. If your child is born in January, then they will have almost a 12 month head start on a child born in December, and a year is like a lifetime at that stage of physical development. Those physical skills manifest themselves in playing time, which further develops the child. 

Month of birth is, of course, just one of the many hidden forces shaping patterns of success and failure in this world. But what most of these forces have in common – at least when it comes to attaining excellence – is the extent to which they confer (or deny) opportunities for serious practice. Once the opportunity for practice is in place, the prospects of high achievement take off. And if practice is denied or diminished, no amount of talent is going to get you there.

Thus, if you have the time and opportunity to devote to practice, you’ve crossed the first hurdle. The second is understanding the characteristics of the type of practice which will push you ahead.

The best type of practice does two things:

  1. It helps us to acquire the skills that speed up/automate processes and feedback (see how Brazil develops its soccer players, for example.)
  2. It pushes us to the edge of our competence and forces us to focus. This is where the learning happens

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Let’s explain the first point in greater detail, using an example of a specific process happening in the brains of experts.

becoming-an-expert

We all do something called chunking. You probably don’t realize you’re doing it, but you do it all the time. Say I asked you to read the line below once and then, without looking back at the page, repeat the letters back to me.

HOCBTELAKGD

The average person will find this difficult to do. Generally speaking, our mind can only keep track of about seven things at once, and I asked you to try and recall eleven. Now watch what happens when I rearrange the letters.

THE BLACK DOG

These are the exact same letters, but sensibly grouped in a way that your mind can understand: This is chunking.

Now, instead of trying to remember eleven letters you are remembering three words (which is still eleven letters). Even if you were able to recall the letters the way they were presented in the first example, think of how much quicker you could recall them in the second one.

This is one way that experts become so good. They learn how to chunk processes specific to their area of expertise. This helps them to use a sort of autopilot, allowing them to elevate their minds to a higher level. That’s why you’ll hear a great pianist talking about trying to use the instrument to “paint an emotion in the listeners’ minds” while you or I would struggle to eke out a few notes. 

As Janet Starkes, professor emerita of kinesiology at McMaster Univeristy, noted in Bounce,

The exploitation of advance information results in the time paradox where skilled performers seem to have all the time in the world. Recognition of familiar scenarios and the chunking of perceptual information into meaningful wholes and patterns speeds up processes.

This chunking and pattern recognition not only enables the expert to perform faster, it also helps them to make better decisions.

Unfortunately, figuring out how to best recognize, process, and use this information isn’t something that can be learned from a book or a classroom, it comes from experience. This may seem like common sense but it won’t happen just by putting in the time: You have to focus to find these patterns.

This is why (as dozens of studies have shown) length of time in many occupations is only weakly related to performance. Mere experience, if it is not matched by deep concentration, does not translate into excellence.

Put another way, someone with 20 years of experience, might be repeating one year of experience 20 times.

Let’s look at a great example from the book to illustrate this point.

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Take a look at the anagrams in List A and try to solve them. Then do the same for list B.

screen-shot-2016-10-29-at-12-47-16-pm

Both lists are the same words. The only difference is that one list was more difficult to solve. When researchers asked participants to list off words like those in List A, that were easy, the participants had problems recalling them. Their recall soared when asked to list words from more difficult anagrams like those is List B.

To figure out words like those in list B it takes more time, concentration, and effort: You are engaging much more of your brain. This means that if you want to remember something or maintain your focus, make it hard.

This example, taken from the work of psychologist S. W. Tyler, neatly emphasized the power of practice when it is challenging rather than nice and easy. “When most people practice they focus on the things they can do effortlessly,’ Ericsson has said. ‘Expert practice is different. It entails considerable, specific, and sustained efforts to do something you can’t do well – or even at all. Research across domains shows that it is only by working at what you can’t do that you turn into the expert you want to become.

This isn’t to say that a certain amount of time and effort don’t go into maintaining a certain skill. But if you want to grow, you need to strain. In other words, you must eat a lot of broccoli; and since most people won’t stomach it, they will never develop a high fluency in their discipline.

…world-class performance comes by striving for a target just out of reach, but with a vivid awareness of how the gap might be breached. Over time, through constant repetition and deep concentration, the gap will disappear, only for a new target to be created, just out of reach once again.

It is worth mentioning that this type of deliberate practice can only happen if the individual has made a conscious decision to devote themselves: We can’t make these decisions for other people. We have to go “all in”; no substitute will do. 

It is only possible to clock up meaningful practice if an individual has made an independent decision to devote himself to whatever field of expertise. He has to care about what he is doing, not because a parent or a teacher says so, but for its own sake. Psychologists call this ‘internal motivation,’ and it is often lacking in children who start too young and are pushed too hard. They are, therefore, on the road not to excellence but to burnout.

In theory we can all be that wide receiver picking the ball from the air, or that musician who speaks to us through their instrument. 10,000 hours of hard, correct work is all it takes.

But as they say, “In theory, reality and theory are the same. In reality, they’re not.”

If you want to make it there, the road is bumpy. It has to be. Only a difficult road will cause you to grow and learn. And you have to personally want to travel this road, because it will be long and if you can’t motivate yourself you’ll never get where you need to be.

And as much as we shy away from reality, we can’t also forget the roles of luck and genes in making it to the absolute “top” of a profession. The recent scholarship has been extremely egalitarian, emphasizing the necessary hard work that goes into creating high level performance.

But that doesn’t mean that different folks don’t have different biology — Is there a world in which Woody Allen could have played in the NFL? — and it doesn’t mean that for every Daniel-Day Lewis, there aren’t a few hundred other actors who are extremely talented but for whom life got in the way.

Top 0.01% success is a multiplicative system: Everything’s gotta go right. The world is too competitive to allow for anything else. The magical mix of luck, genes, and correct practice probably differ widely depending on the field.

So in your quest for success, realize that you’ll have to do deep, hard work for many years, you may need the right parents (to an extent) and you’ll need a whole lot of luck.

On a lighter note, even if you just work on the first one, the only one within your control, we suspect you won’t be disappointed with the result.

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Still Interested? Pick up the Bounce. It has more information on how to reach the top and how not to choke when you get there.