How to Become an Expert
This article is not about how to fake being an expert, so it's not some quick, easy thing you can do and then be way better at something tomorrow. It's about actually becoming an expert, which will take time and effort. You can spend the time and effort, though, and fail to become an expert. Here's how to spend it and succeed.
Just to be clear, this is about becoming an expert at doing something. People use the same word to describe being an expert about something, but this is about doing.
At any skill that's difficult, becoming an expert will take a long time. The thing is, not becoming an expert takes just as long.
Q: Do you know how old I'd be, if I spent the next twenty years learning how to play the piano?
A: The same age you'd be if you spent the next twenty years not learning how to play the piano.
So, how do you become an expert at doing something? The answer, of course, is "practice," but there are two complications.
The first is that you can't really practice until you can do your activity, at least at some minimal level. That's one place where all the other activities besides practice come in: taking a class, reading a book, watching someone else do it. (There are also activities that are too dangerous to just jump in and start practicing on your own — clearing unexploded munitions, for example.)
The second is that there's useful practice (deliberate practice) and then there's all the other things you might do that are easier than deliberate practice, but that don't help you develop expertise.
Deliberate practice is just this:
- performing your skill (or, more typically, a piece of it)
- monitoring your performance
- evaluating your success
- figuring out how to do it better
and then repeating that sequence again and again.
That's it. That's how to become an expert. Most experts have done just that, for hours a day, for years.
Most of the information here is based on K. Anders Ericsson's paper The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance. That paper has data for violin players, piano players, chess players, gymnasts, runners, tennis players, and swimmers. The domain doesn't seem to matter — deliberate practice is the key developing expert performance.
Not deliberate practice
Deliberate practice isn't a lot of fun. What's fun is actually doing whatever it is you've learned how to do. You will even get better at your activity through just doing it (because to some extent you will be monitoring, evaluating, and figuring). But just doing your activity won't make you an expert, even if you do it a lot.
Becoming an expert takes deliberate practice, and deliberate practice is what's described above.
Everything else is not deliberate practice:
- Taking a class (although some classes might include some deliberate practice in them)
- Attending a lecture
- Reading an article or a book
- Watching an expert perform
- Most especially, actually performing your skill isn't deliberate practice
Now, any of those activities may be useful, but their use is largely in improving your monitoring and evaluating skills. When you're still trying to learn how to tell if you're doing well or poorly, a teacher can be a big help. If you're starting to feel like you're really getting quite good, watching a real expert can help you re-calibrate your self-evaluation.
Spotting deliberate practice
Once you've been made aware of the difference between "practice" (i.e. just doing your activity) and "deliberate practice," you'll begin to spot deliberate practice all over the place:
- A musician playing scales
- A kid playing the same level of a video game over and over again
- A child learning to walk
Actually, small children do this all the time. If you want to understand the acquisition of expert performance, just watch a child learning to walk, learning to talk, learning to make something work. You'll see deliberate practice in its purest form.
Becoming an expert writer
Happily for me, writing for Wise Bread is giving me a chance to develop some expertise as a writer. There's an internal cycle where I write something, read it, evaluate whether it clearly says exactly what I want to say, and then try to make it better. That is, my ordinary write-edit-rewrite cycle amounts to deliberate practice.
There's also an external cycle where I post it to the web and see if the comments show that people understood it and found it useful. That external cycle isn't deliberate practice, but it helps me get better at the monitoring and evaluating steps — it makes my future deliberate practice more effective.
That's it in a nutshell: Develop expertise through deliberate practice.