How Hard Is It to Become an Expert at Something?

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Expertise is what separates the amateur from the true master in almost any field, from medicine to science to sports to artistic performance. The idea of whether experts are “born” or “made” relates to the age-old nature versus nurture debate in psychology—do genetics or experience play more of a role in shaping who we are? In recent years, there has been a considerable amount of attention paid to the “made” aspect of the debate. Expertise is acquired through dedicated practice, many experts in the field suggest.

But how exactly do people go about becoming experts? Are some people simply born with the requisite talent, or can anyone become an expert with the proper study and training?

What Exactly Is Expertise?

While it might be easy to point out who is and is not an expert, agreeing on a formal definition of expertise is not always so easy. Is it about how much you know? Is it about being able to perform an action well? And at what point does a person move from being merely good at something to being a bona fide expert?

“Expertise is consensually defined as elite, peak, or exceptionally high levels of performance on a particular task or within a given domain,” explained researcher Lyle E. Bourne, Jr. of the University of Colorado, Boulder and his colleagues in an article published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology. “One who achieves this status is called an expert or some related term, such as virtuoso, master, maven, prodigy, or genius. These terms are meant to label someone whose performance is at the top of the game. An expert’s field of expertise can be almost anything from craftsmanship, through sports and music, to science or mathematics.”

So why do we so often label expertise with different terms? Each word tends to have its own subtle nuance that conveys what type of expert a person might be. If their expertise is perceived as being the result of hard work and practice, we might describe them as a master or virtuoso. If people see their abilities as arising from pure inborn talent, they might be referred to as a genius or a prodigy.

Some of the critical components of expertise are knowledge, skill, and achievement. People who become experts tend to acquire a body of knowledge that makes them one of the most informed individuals in their field. They also possess the skills that they need to determine when and how to utilize their knowledge. Such skills are often learned, but they can also be influenced by natural talent and ability. Finally, people who possess expertise also tend to excel in their field and achieve far above and beyond what the average person does.

How Long Does It Take?

Recently, a popular idea has emerged that the key to becoming an expert was devoting at least 10,000 hours to the study and practice of a subject. In a 1993 study, researchers found that the most accomplished violinists at a music academy had spent an average of 10,000 hours practicing their instrument by the age of 20. Pop psychology author Malcolm Gladwell coined the phrase “the ten-thousand hour rule” in his best-selling 2008 book Outliers.

Gladwell pointed to the results of the music study as well as observations that musical greats The Beatles had likely spent around 10,000 hours practicing playing music during the early 1960s. Gladwell also suggested that tech-entrepreneur Bill Gates had devoted 10,000 hours to practicing programming before he created Microsoft. According to Gladwell, a person could become an expert in nearly any field as long as they were willing to devote the requisite 10,000 hours to studying and practicing the subject or skill.

The idea has become enormously popular outside of academics, but just how true are the claims? Can spending 10,000 hours on a subject really guarantee that you will become an expert?

Anders Ericsson of the University of Florida is a world-renowned expert on peak performance and author of Peak: The New Science of Expertise. He has studied experts from all walks of life including areas such as chess, sports, music, and medicine. He is also the researcher behind the study from which Gladwell drew his conclusions about what it takes to become an expert.

Ericcson points out a few key problems with the “ten-thousand hour rule”:

First, while the students in the music study were very good violinists by age 20, they were not masters. In other words, they were excellent players, but that did not necessarily mean they were masters of their craft. Ericsson suggests that it is sometimes around the 20,000- to 25,000-hour mark that people truly become experts or masters of a skill or subject.

Secondly, not all skills are the same. Some skills require far fewer than 10,000 hours to reach the expert level, while others require much more.

Ericsson also points out that Gladwell’s interpretation of his research is flawed. While Gladwell assumed that all of the violinists in the music study had put in the 10,000 hours of practice, that number was really only an average. Half of the violists studied by Ericsson and his colleagues spent less than 10,000 hours practicing their instruments by the age of 20, while half spent more.

Can Anyone Become an Expert?

Ericsson believes that what separates the amateur from the expert is what is referred to as deliberate practice. Ordinary practice can help people become skilled at a task, but gaining true expertise involves practicing in a way that pushes the boundaries of current skill levels and knowledge. Such practice is highly concentrated and involves working on things that are outside of your current skill-level, setting goals, and receiving training and instruction from a qualified teacher.

Just putting in 10,000 hours rehearsing the same things over and over again is not enough to become a true expert. Instead, concentrated, goal-directed, deliberate practice that stretches your abilities beyond your comfort zone is what you should pursue if you want to gain expertise in any area.

While Ericsson believes that deliberate practice is the key to becoming an expert, not all researchers agree with his conclusions. Some recent studies have found that while deliberate practice is certainly important, it is not the only factor that explains the differences between the skilled and the unskilled. While psychologists are not yet sure exactly which factors might also play a role, personality traits, physical characteristics, and overall intelligence may matter as well.

So can you really become an expert in anything as long as you are willing to devote the time and effort to it? It’s a question that psychologists continue to ponder, although there is little doubt that practicing regularly will lead to improvement in both skills and knowledge. Whether you might eventually be able to become a true master in that specific domain is something that may only be known once you try. Before you decide to pursue it, consider whether you have the interest, dedication, and time to commit to gaining expertise in that domain.

How to Gain Expertise

So what does it really take to gain true expertise? What steps do you need to follow in order to become an expert?

It Takes Work

While the 10,000-hour rule is more pop psych myth than reality, there is one aspect of the idea that is accurate—becoming an expert takes a great deal of effort. People who become experts in any field devote a tremendous amount of time, energy, and hard work toward learning and practicing their skill. If you want to master something, you need to be willing to put in the time. It might not take exactly 10,000 hours, but it will take a lot.

It Takes Deliberate Practice

One study found that out of three different types of study preparation, deliberate practice was the most effective. Researchers looked at participants in the National Spelling Bee and compared study methods with performance. Deliberate practice, defined as studying and memorizing words alone, was more effective than reading for pleasure and being quizzed by others as a study method.

Interestingly, deliberate practice was also rated as the least enjoyable and most difficult study technique. Participants who persisted with the technique also possessed higher levels of the personality trait called grit, also known as mental toughness. The researchers suggest that this mental toughness may sometimes be an important part of being able to stick with deliberate practice. While it was less intrinsically rewarding, those with grit were able to persevere and keep their eyes on their long-term goals, making them more likely to stick with the deliberate practice and more likely to perform better during competition.

One recent study, however, found that deliberate practice may actually be less important than previously believed. Researchers Brooke Macnamara, David Z. Hambrick, and Frederick Oswald found that the amount of accumulated practice did not play a major role in explaining individual differences when it came to performance or skill.

In a meta-analysis of previous studies, the researchers found that practice accounted for just 12 percent of the individual differences found in performance.

However, practice still mattered. On almost all of the studies included in the analysis, there was a positive relationship between practice and performance. The more people practiced, the better they performed in their area of interest.

What the researchers found was that the domain itself also mattered. When it came to education, practice only accounted for four percent of differences in individual performance. This number jumped up to 18 percent for sports, 21 percent for music, and 26 percent for games. In other words, practice played a greater role in improving performance for activities such as music, athletics, and games, and less of a role for professional or educational performance.

So what else might be important in the development of expertise?

It Takes Challenge

Practice is essential for developing a skill, but becoming an expert requires constantly challenging yourself to do better, learn more, and acquire new knowledge and skills. Simply rehearsing the same skills over and over again will make you better in those areas, but it won’t lead to true expertise.

The seminal educational psychologist Lev Vygotsky proposed an important learning concept known as the zone of proximal development. This zone included the skills that were just outside of a person’s current ability level. While a person might not yet be able to do these things on their own, they can achieve them with the assistance of a more skilled mentor. By continually reaching for these new skills, mastering them, and then progressively expanding this zone of proximal development, people are able to learn and develop their abilities.

Becoming an expert requires constantly working within this zone of proximal development. Even once you have become very good at a skill within a particular domain, this does not mean that even greater expertise is out of reach. More learning, more knowledge, and better performance are still possible with further challenge and practice.

While we often think that it’s intelligence that separates the experts from the rest of us, research suggests that true expertise has more to do with acquired knowledge than inborn mental abilities. Some people might be born with the natural resources including physical abilities and access to the tools they need that allow them to achieve this expertise more readily. But becoming an expert takes effort and practice, no matter what your natural ability levels are at the start.

And even the experts are not always perfect. Experts do make mistakes, but they’re also ready to catch their own errors and eager to learn from them. Mistakes are a form of feedback. They tell us not only what not to do, but also provide information on what we might try instead. Experts are able to spot these mistakes, correct course, and apply this knowledge in the future.

Researchers continue to debate exactly what it takes to become an expert. There is no doubt, however, that it requires time, practice, and dedication.

By Kendra Cherry