Saturday, August 23, 2014

How to become an expert

they soon master it!
What are you up to this weekend? I know SAT reader Jenna is going to be spending most of it with her new puppy!

What are you up to this weekend? Will you be devoting any time to practising a particular skill? Here at SAT we rarely find ourselves reading books about sport, but we were persuaded by some friends and teachers to read Bounce: the Myth of Talent and the Power of Practice.

Bounce was written by journalist and international table-tennis champion Matthew Syed. The central thesis is that supposedly talented individuals practice HARD. We see the fruits of that practice but feel compelled to turn a blind eye to the evidence of the blood, sweat and tears behind it. It’s easier sometimes to judge that someone is incredibly talented instead of considering that if we were to put in the hours, we could be that good too.

She is a Jack Russell terrier, just over 1kg.
So one point Syed makes very convincingly is that it takes a good TEN YEARS or TEN THOUSAND HOURS to make an expert. Even 2 or 3 thousand hours can make you very good at something.

“…from art to science and from board games to tennis, it has been found that a minimum of ten years is required to reach world-class status in any complex task….In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell points out that most top performers practice for around one thousand hours per year (it is difficult to sustain the quality of practice if you go beyond this), so he re-describes the ten-year rule as the ten thousand hour rule”p15.
This is fascinating in the light of a study I read a few years ago suggesting that the average career in veterinary practice in Australia was five years.  Think how often people in general change careers these days. Are we giving up when we’re good enough? The talent myth, he says, is disempowering because when we praise someone for being blessed with talent we a) ignore their hard work and praise them for something they feel they have no control over; b) fail to recognise the need for hard work to get there and perpetuate the talent myth.
Another point Syed makes is that experts just LOOK as if they have more time because with practice many moves and steps become automatic. And they’re not great at telling us HOW they do it because they develop “expert induced amnesia”.

“Federer has practised for so long that the movement has been encoded in implicit rather than explicit memory. This is what psychologists call expert-induced amnesia”p34.

But JUST DOING IT for 10K hours won’t get you there exactly. It might get you close, but the difference between so-called talented performers and the rest is purposeful practice. Top skaters, Syed argues, fall MORE during their training sessions.

“Purposeful practice is about striving for what is just out of reach and not quite making it; it is about grappling with tasks beyond current limitations and falling short again and again. Excellence is about stepping outside the comfort zone, training with a spirit of endeavour, and accepting the inevitability of trials and tribulations. Progress is built, in effect, upon the foundations of necessary failure. That is the essential paradox of expert performance,”79.

The argument is very persuasive, although when I think of the development of surgical and medical expertise such falls are unsustainable. So I would love to hear a surgeon’s take on this (Dr Charles Kuntz discussed being a surgeon in this previous post and has done some reading about expertise and the ten-year/ten-thousand-hour rule).

Contemplating becoming an expert: its hard, hard, hard, hard work!
Syed’s discussion about the mindset of different people, taken based on Dr Carol Dweck’s work, is fascinating. People who think intelligence/talent/whatever desirable property are set in stone have a fixed mindset. Those who think these things can be gained and transformed with effort have a growth mindset. We often making the mistake of praising one another, and students, in a way that promotes the former which can be dangerous.

“…we should praise effort, not talent; that we should emphasise how abilities can be transformed through application; that we should teach others and ourselves to see challenges as learning opportunities rather than threats; that we should interpret failure not as an indictment but an opportunity,”p123.

How long does it take you to develop a new skill? How long are you prepared to work at it? Do you do things the same way or a little bit differently each time?


Being able to deliver praise in a way that promotes a growth rather than fixed mindset can be very helpful. Next on the reading list: Mindset by Dr Carol Dweck.

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