The Secret to Expertise

How to be an expertThis graph from Creating Passionate Users is not exactly scientific but it illustrates a good point: The amount of expertise you gain in a field is directly related to the amount of effort you put in over time.

K. Anders Ericsson is billed as the “world’s top expert on expertise.” If I recall correctly, he’s the researcher who developed the rule of thumb that says it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert in anything. Ten thousand hours is equivalent to five years at a fulltime job. And that’s 10,000 hours for everybody — regardless of “innate talent.”

“The traditional assumption is that people come into a professional domain, have similar experiences, and the only thing that’s different is their innate abilities. There’s little evidence to support this,” Ericsson has explained. “With the exception of the influence of height and body size in some sports, no characteristic of the brain or body has been shown to constrain an individual from reaching an expert level.”

How, then, does Ericsson account for standouts such as Mozart, Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods? Surely their prowess is evidence that they are beneficiaries of random gifts of greatness. Not so, says Ericsson, whose landmark findings attribute the expertise of such phenoms not to their inherent talents but to, in a word, practice.

It turns out practice really does breed perfection. Ericsson’s distinguished research reveals that a pattern he has dubbed “deliberate practice” is what catapults individuals into the stratosphere of legendary performance.

“From the outside, it seems like talented people don’t have to put in a lot of effort. They make it look so easy,” said Ericsson in a recent interview. “But when you look closely, the opposite is actually true. The best performers are almost always the ones who practice the most. I have yet to find a talented person who didn’t earn their talent through hard work and thousands of hours of practice.”

Take another look at that chart. Do you think it applies to becoming a writer as well? Writing is hard and discouraging. A person could flounder for years at the “I suck” stage, never putting in enough consistent effort to become good enough for writing to become rewarding enough to continue with. They give up.

Another person might work hard enough to pass the “suck threshold.” They’re pretty good. They can relax a little. Maybe they don’t achieve some of their goals — being published, finishing a novel, writing for a magazine — but they figure, eh, I just don’t have what it takes. Or maybe they do achieve their goals and they’re satisfied with where they are.

A third person puts in the hours and the effort, gets themselves over the rough spots, is never satisfied, looks for mentors, tries new things, until they are able to cross the “kicking ass threshold.” After which they continue to put in the hours, pull themselves over the humps, and try new things. They’re an expert.

That’s my theory of the day, anyway, heavily cribbed from here and here and here and here. As for me, I’m about 9,500 hours behind in my efforts, and I’m not getting any younger.

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4 Responses

  1. Nice post and thanks for linking back. It’s great to find a C-ville blogger! I graduated from UVA last May.

  2. Being an expert is one of the self-promotion aspects of writing that plague me. Let’s say I finish the novel and polish it to a gleam. Then I must send query letters to agents promoting myself and my work.

    What have I done except use my imagination, life experience, and friendships to craft a story? As I’m writing a romance, do I say, “I’m an expert in romance because I’ve had a few of my own. I know the roller coaster ride of love.”

    An expert? In love? In romance? Ack! It all makes me want to stop writing instantly. But, I won’t.

  3. I’ve heard that that’s more important when selling nonfiction than when you’re selling fiction. In fiction, you hope that just being an expert writer is enough!

    And sometimes it works in reverse — after the murders at Va Tech, for instance, Lionel Shriver was asked to write op-eds about the shootings, because she had written a novel about a school shooter. Apparently this made her an expert on the topic.

    But, yes, you are an expert in romance, in friendship, in love, in loss, by virtue of being alive and *paying attention.* Don’t discount that.

  4. I’ve been making up stories in my head all my life, so I guess I’m an expert story-maker-upper even if I’m not yet an expert writer.

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