What does it take to become an expert at anything?

expert

Let’s round up the research so we can get to key actionable elements.

In 95% of cases natural talent does not determine who will be an expert at something. So what does it take to become the best?

 

10,000 Hours Of Deliberate Practice

It’s quantity and quality. You need tons of time spent training but it has to be the right kind of practice. Just showing up is not enough, you need to continually challenge yourself with the right kind of effort. “Deliberate Practice” is a specifically defined term. It involves goal setting, quick feedback, and countless drills to improve skills with an eye on mastery. It is not “just showing up” and, plain and simple, it’s not fun. What are the key elements?

  1. You want practice to be as close to the real challenge as possible. Want to be a boxer? Hitting the bag is not enough. You need to be in a ring, against opponents, like a real match.
  2. Don’t be passive. Testing yourself is far better than reviewing.
  3. Practice is not just repetition. Be ruthlessly critical and keep trying to improve on the constituent elements of the skill.
  4. Alone time. Top experts are more likely to be introverts. Why? You need alone time to really engage in deliberate practice. Even for team activities, solo practice is vital. More info here.
  5. Practice a lot. It’ll likely be 8 weeks before you have a basic level of competency but closer to 10 years before you’re an expert. “One factor, and only one factor, predicted how musically accomplished the students were, and that was how much they practiced.
  6. Know the “Sweet Spot”. While practicing, you want to be succeeding on 50-80% of attempts. Fewer than that and you’re going to be confused and feel like it’s all luck. More success than that and you’re not pushing yourself.

More on the essentials of Deliberate Practice here.

 

Have Grit

Perseverence. Persistence. Plain and simple, you can’t get to 10,000 hours if you give up. Researchers have found grit is more predictive of success than IQ in a variety of challenging environments from Ivy League schools to military academies to the National Spelling Bee. And you must commit to the long term. Sounds cliche but it’s vital. With the same amount of practice, the long-term-commitment group outperformed the short-term-commitment group by 400 percent. More on being grittier here and here.

 

Find A Great Mentor

You want someone who will not go easy on you, who gives quick focused feedback and emphasizes fundamentals. The best coaches use the system of “Explanation, demonstration, imitation, correction, and repetition.” More on how to pick the best mentor here.

 

Focus On The Negative

How often do you hear that recommended? It’s true: An eye for the negative makes you more likely to learn from your mistakes. Novices focus on positive feedback (“good job!”) because hearing they’re doing well helps them stay committed. Experts focus on negative feedback (“You’re doing that incorrectly”) because they’re interested in progress. The shift to focusing on negative feedback is one of the marks of an expert mindset.

 

Focus On Improvement

When challenged, focus on “getting better” — not doing well or looking good. Get-better goals increase motivation, make tasks more interesting and replenish energy. When perfectionism is focused on internal goals it’s great and enhances performance. When you’re trying to impress others, it’s a negative.

 

Fast Feedback

You need to know what is working and what isn’t so you can course correct as soon as possible. Whether feedback comes from a boss, a stopwatch, or analytics software you can’t get better without it. More here.

 

It’s Worth It

I think it’s important to keep in mind that training for expertise does not live in a vacuum. Deliberate Practice is stressful in the moment but brings greater joy later. Using our best skills is one of the most powerful ways to increase happiness. This has been shown time and time again.

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