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Expertise Discussion

Deliberate practice involves two kinds of learning: improving the skills you already have and extending the reach and range of your skills.

"How can you tell when you're dealing with a genuine expert? Real expertise must pass three tests. First, it must lead to performance that is consistently superior to that of the expert's peers. Second, real expertise produces concrete results. Brain surgeons, for example, not only must be skillful with their scalpels but also must have successful outcomes with their patients. A chess player must be able to win matches in tournaments. Finally, true expertise can be replicated and measured in the lab. As the British scientist Lod Kelvin stated, "If you can not measure it, you can not improve it."

 

Things to Look Out for When Judging Expertise

Individual accounts of expertise are often unreliable.

Anecdotes, selective recall, and one-off events all can present insufficient, often misleading, examples of expertise. There is a huge body of literature on false memories, self-serving biases, and recollections altered as a result of current beliefs or the passage of time. Reporting is not the same as research.

Many people are wrongly believed to possess expertise.

Bear in mind that true expertise is demonstrated by measurable, consistently superior performance. Some supposed experts are superior only when it comes to explaining why they made errors. After the 1976 Judgment of Paris, for example, when California wines bested French wines in a blind tasting, the French wine "experts" argued that the results were an aberration and that the California res in particular would never age as well as the famous French reds. (In 2006, the tasting of the reds was reenacted, and California came out on top again.) Had it not been for the objective results from the blind tastings, the French wine experts may never have been convinced of the quality of the American wines.

Intuition can lead you down the garden path.

The idea that you can improve your performance by relaxing and "just trusting your gut" is popular. While it may be true that intuition is valuable in routine or familiar situations, informed intuition is the result of deliberate practice. You cannot consistently improve your ability to make decisions (or your intuition) without considerable practice, reflection, and analysis.

You don't need a different putter.

Many managers hope that they will suddenly improve performance by adopting new and better methods--just as golf players may think they can lower their scores with a new and better club. But changing to a different putter may increase the variability of a golfer's shot and thus hinder his or her ability to play well. In reality, the key to improving expertise is consistency and carefully controlled efforts.

Expertise is not captured by knowledge management systems.

Knowledge management systems rarely, if ever, deal with what psychologists call knowledge. They are repositories of images, documents, and routines: external data that people can view and interpret as they try to solve a problem or make a decision. There are no shortcuts to gaining true expertise. 

How to Practice Deliberately

To people who have never reached a national or international level of competition, it may appear that excellence is simply the result of practicing daily for years or even decades. However, living in a cave does not make you a geologist. Not all practice makes perfect. You need a particular kind of practice--deliberate practice--to develop expertise. When most people practice, they focus on the things they already know how to do. Deliberate practice is different. It entails considerable, specific, and sustained efforts to do something you can't do well--or even at all. Research across all domains shows that it is only by working at what you can't do that you turn into the expert you want to become. 

To illustrate this point, let’s imagine you are learning to play golf for the first time. In the early phases, you try to understand the basic strokes and focus on avoiding gross mistakes (like driving the ball into another player). You practice on the putting green, hit balls at a driving range, and play rounds with others who are most likely novices like you. In a surprisingly short time (perhaps 50 hours), you will develop better control and your game will improve. From then on, you will work on your skills by driving and putting more balls and engaging in more games, until your strokes become automatic: You’ll think less about each shot and play more from intuition. Your golf game now is a social outing, in which you occasionally concentrate on your shot. From this point on, additional time on the course will not substantially improve your performance, which may remain at the same level for decades. 

 

Why does this happen? You don’t improve because when you are playing a game, you get only a single chance to make a shot from any given location. You don’t get to figure out how you can correct mistakes. If you were allowed to take five to ten shots from the exact same location on the course, you would get more feedback on your technique and start to adjust your playing style to improve your control. In fact, professionals often take multiple shots from the same location when they train and when they check out a course before a tournament. 

 

This kind of deliberate practice can be adapted to developing business and leadership expertise. The classic example is the case method taught by many business schools, which presents students with real-life situations that require action. Because the eventual outcomes of those situations are known, the students can immediately judge the merits of their proposed solutions. In this way, they can practice making decisions ten to 20 times a week. War games serve a similar training function at military academies. Officers can analyze the trainees’ responses in simulated combat and provide an instant evaluation. Such mock military operations sharpen leadership skills with deliberate practice that lets trainees explore uncharted areas. 

 

Let’s take a closer look at how deliberate practice might work for leadership. You often hear that a key element of leadership and management is charisma, which is true. Being a leader frequently requires standing in front of your employees, your peers, or your board of directors and attempting to convince them of one thing or another, especially in times of crisis. A surprising number of executives believe that charisma is innate and cannot be learned. Yet if they were acting in a play with the help of a director and a coach, most of them would be able to come across as considerably more charismatic, especially over time. In fact, working with a leading drama school, we have developed a set of acting exercises for managers and leaders that are designed to increase their powers of charm and persuasion. Executives who do these exercises have shown remarkable improvement. So charisma can be learned through deliberate practice. Bear in mind that even Winston Churchill, one of the most charismatic figures of the twentieth century, practiced his oratory style in front of a mirror. 

 

Genuine experts not only practice deliberately but also think deliberately. The golfer Ben Hogan once explained, “While I am practicing I am also trying to develop my powers of concentration. I never just walk up and hit the ball.” Hogan would decide in advance where he wanted the ball to go and how to get it there. We actually track this kind of thought process in our research. We present expert performers with a scenario and ask them to think aloud as they work their way through it. Chess players, for example, will describe how they spend five to ten minutes exploring all the possibilities for their next move, thinking through the consequences of each and planning out the sequence of moves that might follow it. We’ve observed that when a course of action doesn’t work out as expected, the expert players will go back to their prior analysis to assess where they went wrong and how to avoid future errors. They continually work to eliminate their weaknesses. 

 

Deliberate practice involves two kinds of learning: improving the skills you already have and extending the reach and range of your skills. The enormous concentration required to undertake these twin tasks limits the amount of time you can spend doing them. The famous violinist Nathan Milstein wrote: “Practice as much as you feel you can accomplish with concentration. Once when I became concerned because others around me practiced all day long, I asked [my mentor] Professor Auer how many hours I should practice, and he said, ‘It really doesn’t matter how long. If you practice with your fingers, no amount is enough. If you practice with your head, two hours is plenty.’” 

 

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