For those who have chosen to work in a profession that requires lots of thinking, such as programmers, medical doctors, researchers, scientists, etc., you need to be in a state of constant learning. Have you ever questioned yourself what it takes to achieve expert performance? Or if it is even possible to become an expert in such rapidly evolving fields? Well, I have struggled with these questions myself, so I decided to look for scientific content that could give me useful answers. I will share the result of my research in this article. I will present the work of Psychologists who have extensively studied this topic and give it a practical perspective – how you can achieve expert performance by following five (not so obvious) steps.
I started by trying to understand what defines an expert. An expert is a person that has mastered a domain of knowledge or skill to the point of contributing with new insights for that domain. In other words, one can attain expert level as he or she surpasses the accomplishments of recognized experts on the same field .
The difference between Mastery and Expert Performance
Mastery refers to the ability that one has to demonstrate having acquired the desired educational outcome. For example, let’s say your goal is to learn how to play the piano, so playing the piano is the desired educational outcome. You have achieved mastery once you are able to repeatedly play the piano. Competency and proficiency are concepts related to mastery. Competency is mastery, plus the personal feeling of being competent (confidence). Proficiency refers to efficiency. Let’s get back to the piano example, one can know how to play the piano (mastery) but does not feel confident to do it which will impair performance (lack of competency). Also, one can be competent to play the piano, yet does not do it with ease (lack of proficiency) .
It is possible to achieve the level of expert in a field, as long as you sit in the middle of the four domains described in the figure above. Knowing what an expert is, is nice, but it has no use if you don’t know how to become one. After researching the subject, I came across the fantastic work of Dr. Anders Ericsson, Professor of Psychology at Florida State University. He studies the factors that shape people’s performance into becoming an expert. I will describe a few exciting aspects of his work in this article and mention other fascinating resources.
Step Number 1: Change your Beliefs
The difference between natural and acquired abilities
There is a common belief that experts are gifted somehow and that their talents were born with them. Numerous people spend their lives thinking that they can not be successful because they were not born with the innate characteristics that define one’s success. Nevertheless, research reveals that practice, more specifically deliberate practice (I will explain this term further in the article), plays a more significant role in the development of essential abilities than inherited features .
When a child exhibits some sort of ability, which does not need to be objective evidence of real ability but if it is perceived by parents or tutors as so, there is a tendency that this child will be exposed to more resources (training, tutors, material, social support, etc.) .
In his paper, Ericsson demonstrates that essentially all characteristics displayed by an expert are acquired during his or her lifetime. The author exemplifies this by reviewing studies that have explored the life of expert musicians, athletes, and chess players. A common factor among experts in those fields is that they have started deliberate practice at a really young age. Furthermore, despite having shown “natural” abilities as children, they (with rare exceptions) have trained for more than ten years before they could reach the level of experts .
In summary, there is very little evidence that unique talents are inherited, yet they are developed with practice.
Step Number 2: Be Patient
It will take time before you become an expert
According to Ericsson, the approximate amount of time until someone becomes an expert is ten years of sustained, conscious practice (or deliberate practice as named by the author). Besides that, even for those people that are perceived to be naturals on what they do, there is evidence that they have practiced a lot before they reach an outstanding performance .
In the paper, The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance, violin students from the Music Academy of West Berlin were divided into three groups, the first group consisted of the “best” students (the ones with the highest performance levels according to the Academy’s professors). The second group contained students with “good” performance, and the third group included students from a different department in which the entrance levels were less rigid. When comparing the accumulated amount of practice in hours, the group with the best violinists had a significantly higher amount of practice. Hence, they were not “naturals,” they practiced more . In short, there is no shortcut to becoming an expert.
Step Number 3: Focus on Deliberate Practice
Practice alone won’t make you an expert
Deliberate practice is practice with structure. The structure is composed of specially designed activities whose prime goal is to develop or improve skills. So, for example, playing the violin requires the ability to hold the instrument in a way that allows the movement of the cords to produce music. Activities that will teach the proper way of holding the violin, for example, lectures and tutor guidance are deliberate practice activities .
As already stated, the principal goal of deliberate practice is the improvement of skill. Other activities, like work and leisure, as mentioned by Ericsson, might help developing abilities, but as a secondary gain . To clarify, “work” is described by the author as an activity in which the main purpose is to either produce income or personal significance, like receiving money or positive recognition by friends or by the community. Leisure is an activity in which the main goal is feeling pleasure or fun.
Work is different from deliberate practice because, during work, the success of your actions rely on external validation (your work is useful if someone will pay for it or if someone praises you for doing it). For this reason, there is a natural tendency to remain in safe zones and use proven methods to get things done. There is nothing wrong with that, but this goes on the opposite way of developing new and better abilities, as deliberate practice aims to do .
Flow and Deliberate Practice
Deliberate practice is also distinct from leisure because it is not intrinsically entertaining. Moreover, conscious practice requires full attention, while leisure puts you on a state of immersion and unconscious practice . To elaborate further on leisure activities, I have looked into the work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Professor of Psychology and Management at Claremont Graduate University. I wanted to discover the difference between “flow” and deliberate practice.
In his book “Beyond Boredom and Anxiety”Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes the concept of an autotelic activity, as an activity that requires energy by the actor and provides no standard reward for doing it. After performing an autotelic activity people usually share a feeling of enjoyment or accomplishment. They describe the experience as the feeling of being taken by the current effortlessly, in a state Mihaly called “flow” .
In conclusion, conscious practice is not like flow as it is not effortless, it comes with that little discomfort you feel when you’re trying to unveil something or learn. Deliberate practice is the activity that results in that unique moment before you solve a puzzle.
Considering the difference between activities (work, leisure and deliberate practice) is eye-opening because many people assume that because they don’t feel pleasure during deliberate practice, they don’t have (natural) talents or are not suitable for that specific skill. In summary, merely engaging in activities won’t necessarily improve your skills, but conscious practice will and remember, these activities are not designed to provide pleasure or “flow.”
Step Number 4: Plan structured practice
Deliberate practice is not free neither effortless
There are three main obstacles in the path to expertise – resource, effort, and motivation. Deliberate practice demands a lot of time and money for lessons, tutors, and materials. Besides, practice will only improve performance when a high level of attention is dedicated to it. And finally, motivation to go through the resource limitations and the large degree of effort required .
The Cycle Diagram of Conscious Practice describes the structure of purposeful activity. The first phase is to assess the current level of knowledge. This step is necessary because the activity needs to match the expectation of the student. The level of challenge must be enough to promote improvement while avoiding excessive demand or boredom. The second phase is the practice itself. The practice should not be too long to preserve the natural span of focus. The third phase is an evaluation of the activity and getting feedback, and the last stage is rest, so the process can be repeated again.
Step Number 5: Find your motivation
Overcoming the motivational constraint
The field of Positive Psychology is related to motivation. Positive Psychology is a movement that describes the roles of positive experiences and emotions (love, courage, sensibility, perseverance, forgiveness, etc.) in inducing well-being, satisfaction, and happiness . According to Barbara Fredrickson, Psychology Professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Positive Psychology aims to understand the factors that allow individuals and societies to flourish .
What is the connection between motivation and positive emotions? Finding a task that brings up positive feelings is a way to keep high levels of motivation. Research has shown that positive emotions are crucial elements of optimal functioning .
Motivation is the “X-factor” in the learning process. Given the incredible effort and resources necessary to maintain conscious practice for long periods, a lot of motivation is needed. Besides that, understanding the learning process if the first step to improving it and making it more efficient.
In summary, to reach expert performance, it is essential to practice for thousands of hours. Practice, however, is not the mere passage of time, but a deliberate and conscious activity designed for the improvement of a specific skill. It requires effort, focus, resources, patience, and most of all, motivation.
Further reading on Expert Performance
- The Road to Excellence: The acquisition of Expert Performance in the Arts and Sciences, Sports, and Games by K. Anders Ericsson
- The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance by K. Anders Ericsson, Robert R. Hoffman, Aaron Kozbelt and, A. Mark Williams.
- Peak: How All of Us Can Achieve Extraordinary Things by Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool.
- Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
- Ericsson, K. Anders, Ralf T. Krampe, and Clemens Tesch-Römer. “The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance.” Psychological review 100.3 (1993): 363.
- Treffinger, Donald J., J. Kent Davis, and Richard E. Ripple, eds. Handbook on teaching educational psychology. Academic Press, 2013.
- Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly, and Isabella Csikszentmihalyi. Beyond boredom and anxiety. Vol. 721. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1975.
- Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. Flow: The psychology of happiness. Random House, 2013.
- Seligman, Martin EP, and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. “Positive psychology: An introduction.” Flow and the foundations of positive psychology. Springer, Dordrecht, 2014. 279-298.
- Fredrickson, Barbara L. “The role of positive emotions in positive psychology: The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions.” American psychologist 56.3 (2001): 218.