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Conquer Life - The Science of Expertise

Violin

The master musician plays his violin to a crowd listening in hushed admiration. The beautiful ballerina prances across a stage, making each movement with finesse. A professional athlete competes for the title in his sport after years of intense training.

What do these stories have in common? They’re all stories from a field of research that seeks to understand expertise. After digging through the scientific studies on expertise, there’s one simple concept that stands out: deliberate practice. On average 10,000 hours of deliberate practice over 10 years is required to bring a person with no skill to the pinnacle of his field. Mastery across many domains has been studied extensively by Anders Ericsson and others like him. The 10,000 hour concept was further popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers which was where I first ran into the concept.


In this article, I’ll explain a few relevant discoveries in the field of expertise research to help you achieve higher levels of performance. I will also question the relevance of a 10,000 hour requirement and offer you hints on how to reduce the time required to achieve expertise.

 

The Road To Excellence is a book edited by K. Anders Ericsson. This book outlines much of the data collected on expertise. I don’t necessarily suggest you plod through the mind-numbing journey of scientific banter; it’s not for the faint of heart. However, it offers a huge store of information on what is known about expertise. In this book, Ericsson and his coauthors outline various fields that commonly achieve measurable expert performance: chess, sports, music, medicine, … etc. They’ve collected years of data from peak performers across the globe in order to figure out what common practices they share.

The overall findings of the book were that expertise requires deliberate practice. Concentration was one of the most essential aspects of deliberate practice. It’s also crucial for deliberate practice to have immediate feedback and be relevant to the subject your attempting to learn. This type of training is goal-oriented with progress tracking.

Enjoyment of the activity and inherent skills were not major factors that contributed to obtaining expertise. This seems counter-intuitive to a culture that glorifies genius as an ambiguous, unobtainable goal. Many of us are astounded by cases of young geniuses who achieve incredible feats while still in their teens. However, Ericsson notes that childhood geniuses are very active in their domain of expertise at a young age. Generally, they require at least one of their parents to devote themselves full time to their child’s training. They start earlier on their journey to 10,000 hours rather than having a shorter journey. For example, Mozart’s father was a pioneer in music education and served as the catalyst for Mozart’s genius.

The main factor that separated the best from the rest was the amount of deliberate practice. This is an incredible statement. If it’s true, then you can achieve anything with the right level of practice. Well, at least if you’re willing to spare 10,000 hours over ten years. I must admit, I’m partial to the idea that genius has more to do with discipline than heredity. Below I listed a three of the guidelines of deliberate practice outlined in the research.

 

Guidelines of Deliberate Practice

-Concentration: Your focus may be the most important aspect of deliberate practice. Don’t let your subconscious automate your practice.
-Goal-Oriented Practice: This provides the trainee with continuous, accurate feedback.
-Time:  Continue practicing deliberately for 10,000hrs beginning with 1.5 hours a day and growing to 4-5 hours per day. This level of practice should land you among the top performers across the globe.

A Few Tips for Peak Performers

  • The best experts generally train in 1 hr increments since longer amounts of time reduce focus.
  • Peak experts often train in the morning when their focus is at its peak.
  • One problem people run into is hitting an “okay” plateau. This happens when your performance stops improving. This can be overcome by engaging your mind. Try going 20% faster or 20% slower to engage your focus. Automation is the enemy of improvement.

 

10,000 hr Benchmark for Achievers

I dug into the data in order to offer a typical timeline of practice. At what point did experts increase their practice times? Below is a break-down of expertise among expert violinists.

Experts Begin Learning
500 hrs of Novice Learning at ½ an hour per day:
-Early practice wasn’t considered in the 10,000 hours over 10 years.
5 yrs         0-1000 hrs        30-45 mins of training per day

10,000 Hours begin
1-2 yrs         1000-2000 hrs        1.5 hrs of training per day
3-4 yrs         2000-3500 hrs        2 hrs of training per day
5-6 yrs         3500-5500 hrs        2hrs 45 mins of training per day
7-8 yrs         5500-7500 hrs        2hrs 45 mins of training per day
9-10 yrs       7500-10500            4 hrs 10 mins of training per day

On average, these musicians began playing at the age of 5 years old and began their 10,000 hours at 10 years old.

Expertise Discussion – What does 10,000 Hours Mean?

When we look at the goal of obtaining expertise, much of the early years of expert practice is spent on building endurance and learning obvious skills. As this expertise continues to grow, the expert widens his depth and breadth of material. The hours of practice extend from 1.5 hrs per day in the beginning to 4-5 hrs per day as they approach the peak of their profession. However, this isn’t the only way to view expertise.

10,000 hours is a nice number to understand in the context of a highly competitive, well-defined arena of competition. People have been dancing, playing musical instruments, and competing in chess for centuries and the guidelines for what makes-up a good player is well-defined.

However, this isn’t the case in many arenas of study. Today, professions are constantly changing, and the more innovative a person is the less likely they have a chance to build 10,000 hours of expertise. Furthermore, many professions do not have the direct, continuous feedback that is required to gain expertise. When you get into ambiguous fields like the stock market, economics, or psychology the pursuit of expertise becomes disconnected from the underlying feedback of reality.

Professions without Deliberate Practice

Psychologists are very good at guessing what will happen with a patient while they sit on a couch in their comfortable office. However, long-term changes in a patient’s well-being do not have direct feedback. Therefore, psychologists are generally bad at creating long-term changes to people’s lives.

Experts in the investment field have similar problems. Oftentimes, the stock market fluctuates randomly and therefore does not give accurate feedback to the investor. The facts speak for themselves. Many studies have shown that mutual funds under perform the average stock market. This means that a monkey throwing darts is as effective at picking stocks as the average Wall Street professional. Actually, if you don’t have to pay the monkey, they would outperform the professional. I suggest that you invest your money in an index fund. Without direct feedback, psychologists, stock brokers, and similar professions end up following biases and not developing expertise.

How can we create deliberate practice in these professions that do not have direct feedback? This is a question that I’ve often asked myself. The best answer I can offer is that if you’re in a profession without direct feedback. You should be able to simulate deliberate practice by studying cases of great men in the past and use their outcomes to obtain instantaneous feedback. You could also take meticulous notes and judge your perceptions of an experience based on the outcomes a few years later. If you can collect a library of others’ past experiences then you should be able simulate the automatic feedback other professions use to obtain true expertise.

Here’s Tip on Examining Expertise: Pay attention to the feedback in fields of expertise. “Experts” that are not tethered to feedback do not have deliberate practice and therefore may be no better at prediction than the average Joe on the street. Expertise requires feedback and deliberate practice.

Expertise: Uniqueness and Competition

Expertise is well-defined in long-standing endeavors such as music and sports. However, the new and changing world we live in serves up a need for different perspectives of expertise. In the 1980’s when there weren’t computer experts, the first man to create a computer was the world-renowned expert. Therefore, expertise is not only a model of the number of hours a person spends in deliberate practice but also the uniqueness of the skills they practice.

Although it takes 10,000 hours to develop peak expertise in a well-established, highly competitive environment you may be able to achieve mastery in a new field of study with 1000 hours or less. Expertise research tells us that 10,000 hours is required in a competitive, well-defined environment. These environments are rare in the real world.

Another point along the same line of thought is that less competitive endeavors may require significantly less effort to obtain world-class expertise. This can be seen in the book, Moonwalking with Einstein. In this book, the writer decided to compete in the United States Memory Championships. Eventually, he ended up winning the championship. However, the amount of practice he put in was much less spectacular than the 10,000 hours required for expertise across more competitive domains of competition. For Joshua Foer obtaining mastery in this national competition took only 1-2 hours for less than a year. That’s under a tenth of the time suggested by expertise study. Why are the requirements for expertise so different for a national memory championship versus other national championships?

The simple answer is competition. Chess, music, dance and sports competitions have communities large enough to support full-time competitors. Memory championships in the U.S. don’t have that level of commitment. In the United States Memory Championships, the competitors are part-time competitors. For them, mental training is a hobby. They work during the day and don’t have enough time to achieve a 10,000 hour level of expertise. Instead, Joshua Foer, or another competitor may be able to win with 365 hours and a bit of luck.

Rapid Learning

Then there’s the Tim Ferriss’ pursuit of expertise. Tim Ferriss is the famous author of The 4-Hour Workweek and is a major proponent of rapid skill mastery. He has obtained world-level competitive status in numerous fields with less than 6 months of practice. He won first place in a national kick boxing tournament with only a month of practice. He was able to compete in the World Tango Championship and eventually set a world record with about 6 months of preparation and much less than 10,000 hours of expertise.

Tim Ferriss achieves expertise by thinking about the competition differently. He minimizes the skills required to learn, looks for loopholes, and focuses his effort on what isn’t being taught. To win a kick-boxing championship he found used a rule that said competitors would be disqualified if they left the ring three times. In other words, he minimizes the necessary skill-set by focusing on the skills no one else is working on. This maximizes his competitive advantage while minimizing his effort. He can achieve a level of expertise in 6 months rather than 10 years.

Let me be careful to clarify, Tim Ferriss is not the best kick boxer, dancer, or writer in the world. However, he has achieved world class recognition for each of these skills he’s developed.

So the 10,000 hour rule has a few caveats. Here are a few thoughts that I’ll leave you with:

•    Use deliberate practice (concentration, feedback, & relevance) to maximize your training.
•    Set goals, track progress, and speed up/slow down if you reach a plateau.
•    Focus on under-valued areas of the subject you’re attempting to learn.
•   Don’t compete in highly competitive endeavors unless you want to put ten years into training and 10,000 hours.

What are you attempting to achieve through deliberate practice? What would you like me to write future articles about? Email me! Send your thoughts to This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

 

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