Sunday, July 8, 2007

How to be an expert

“If you’re the first one in (to work) in the morning and the last one to leave (work) at night and you take fewer vacation days and never take a sick day, you will do better than the people who don’t do that. It is very simple.”[1]
That’s the advice New York City’s Mayor Bloomberg gave recently to college graduates. I had similar advice for my sons when they were growing up. The parental lecture went something like this:

Let’s say the recipe for success in life is equal parts intelligence, good luck, and hard work. Native intelligence and good luck are out of our control, but we can control how hard we work. Working hard tips the odds in our favor, giving us a better-than-average chance of success.

Now comes an article in the Harvard Business Review that says expertise in our chosen fields has less to do with IQ than it does with practice-makes-perfect. The writers report that research shows “there is no correlation between IQ and expert performance in fields such as chess, music, sports, and medicine…”[2] They give us the recipe for becoming experts:

  • Start early,

  • Practice a lot (for at least ten years); and

  • Find good mentors along the way, preferably unsentimental ones who give us honest feedback

Years of doing something does not necessarily make us expert at it. Experience alone is not sufficient. Performance improves to expert status only by “deliberate practice.” Deliberate practice means the concentrated rehearsal of skills that we cannot do well. One example from the article is that of a novice golfer who, in a relatively short amount of time (perhaps 50 hours), learns to play a reasonable game. Without deliberate practice, however, that golfer, even after decades of social games, will not significantly improve.

With deliberate practice we improve the skills we already have, plus we work on new skills, especially those outside our comfort level. “Moving outside your traditional comfort zone of achievement,” the authors report “requires substantial motivation and sacrifice.”[3]

Even if we don’t have a teacher or coach, the article suggests we can learn from people in the work place who are more expert by closely observing what they do – and then by deliberately practicing on our own the skills we’ve observed in others.

I do think there’s something to Mayor Bloomberg’s advice. The person who takes his job seriously and devotes time to it will succeed. But continuous learning – deliberate practice – helps make one a true expert in one’s field. Significantly, practice, like hard work, is something we control. It is not dependent on others or on lucky breaks. Becoming an expert requires only confidence in ourselves, some self-discipline, and perseverance.

[1] Michael Bloomberg’s address to graduates at of City University of New York’s College of Staten Island, May 31 2007, as quoted in “Bloomberg’s Roadmap to Success,” the Wall Street Journal Washington Wire, June 20, 2007. See:
[2] Ericsson, et. al., “The Making of an Expert,” Harvard Business Review, July-August 2007, p. 116.
[3] Ericsson, et. al., p. 119.


Tom Quinn said...

I received the following messages, via e-mail, in response to "How to be an expert":

From K, July 11, 2007

I like this letter very much!! One of my Uncle Francis's favorite sayings was: "patience & perserverance".
He passed away many years ago, but i still can hear him saying those words. He never quit at anything
or gave up on anything. He always had a very happy & outgoing attitude on life. To me he was a very successful man!!!

Thanks for the trip down memory lane!!!

From M, July 10, 2007

We tend to focus on those who slide by,make excuses, etc. I was so pleased to read the article. I was raised along with nine siblings and we were taught “whatever you do-do it well or don’t do it at all-its’ a reflection of who you are”!!!

Thanks for the moment to pause and reflect on life and how we choose to do it…

Rob said...

Perversely, the technology business is upside down. If you're putting in long hours, you haven't done your job and built reliable, supportable systems - you're headed for burnout.

And if you still know the same stuff after ten years? You're probably already unemployed because things change completely in that many WEEKS.

Different environments invite different approaches.

In the geek world, "expert" means you know how little you know for sure, but you know how to find things out, and you instead fill your brain with ways to deal with people. Yes, people. Technology? Any idiot can practice that and pass a test. Technology that works for PEOPLE? That's art. It doesn't succumb to practice, because if you can't get it right after once or twice, you're benched.

The sports or music metaphor is nice, but what good are either of those at healing people? Right. Different place entirely.

cghRN said...

A comment from the flip side of this is that being the first to arrive and the last to leave will leave you a very lonely person with an alienated family (if any family at all) Being an expert is having the updated knowledge base in your field to be an expert and to have the wisdom to ask for assistance or advice. It is also knowing how to balance a personal life, fostering family relations and keeping the important values close in hand. The motto should always be family first. Not work first. When you are retired and/or ill you work will not hold your dying hand.