How to Become an Expert

By Philip Brewer on 7 October 2007 (Updated 13 May 2010) 13 comments
Photo: shoobydooby

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.

Old joke:

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.

Developing expertise

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

Deliberate practice is just this:

  1. performing your skill (or, more typically, a piece of it)
  2. monitoring your performance
  3. evaluating your success
  4. 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
  • Teaching
  • 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.

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW

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.

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Guest's picture
CSS

Great reminder. I find it far too easy to read (and sometimes write) about the things I'd like to be doing, rather than actually doing them.

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Guest

You're one of my favorite Wise Bread authors. You always write what I seek to improve my life. I find that your articles are concise, clean, inspiring and encouraging. Keep it up!

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Andrew

Philip,

The distinction you make is important.

I am a keen amateur magician. My "practice" sessions can amount to messing with a deck of cards. At the end I've learnt little but have enjoyed myself.

When I practice deliberately I achieve something - I find some tiny difference of action or a new handling.

Doing something unthinkingly but often will not produce mastery. Spending time on critical evaluation and with real focus on improvement dramatically improves your chances.

Andrew

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Guest

Actually reading a book, taking classes etc will also help you with the fourth point (figuring out how to do better). It isnt a substitute for doing but a much needed component to it.

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Re-mark

Hi everyone

This is my first post.
A bit off-topic but I'll start off with something in the news recently.

http://MyLongLife.com/lifespan.htm

Seems far-out, but who knows?
So did space exploration 100 years ago, and biotech is hot now.

Do you think this could be real?

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Guest

There is a stong contradiction regarding deliberate and non-deliberate practice. The article says that deliberate practice is "performing your skill (or, more typically, a piece of it)", yet is says in the followig section, "Most especially, actually performing your skill isn't deliberate practice"...

Philip Brewer's picture

What I was trying to say was that "giving a performance" (in the sense of performing on stage) is not deliberate practice. Performing a piece of your skill (in the sense of actually doing it) may be--if you are monitoring your how well you do and trying to figure out how to do it better.

To use the example of a magic trick that one of the commenters uses above:

  • Performing a magic show is not deliberate practice. Neither is doing the trick for a friend.
  • Deliberate practice would be standing in front of a mirror and doing one piece of the trick, while watching to see if the palmed card is visible. So would doing the whole trick to practice moving smoothly from one step to the next. (You can say that's "performing the trick," but it isn't giving a performance of it.)

I hope that makes it clearer.

Guest's picture

Haven't read the paper yet (love those links direct to the source) but I wonder if the deliberate practise element isn't a necessary condition to success but isn't sufficient in and of itself. Are most activities not self-selecting in that people who try hard but do not make enough progress eventually get no pleasure and give up? Sports are a good example since it is easier to distinguish success. It doesn't take long to spot the student who will become the best. They outperform from an early age and just keep getting better faster than everyone else. The others never catch up no matter how hard they try and eventually they realize they cannot and give up or settle for pretty good instead of excellence. Try as I might my improvement in playing the recorder came along so slowly after years of diligent deliberate efforts to play scales etc, I have little doubt I would ever play as well as my professional music teacher who only taught it as sideline to her main instrument the oboe.

Philip Brewer's picture

The data is gathered from people who had become experts, and looked at what they did to get that way.  As far as I know, there's no data from people randomly chosen to spend 10,000 hours trying to develop expertise, looking at what fraction succeeded.

That's almost beside the point, though.  As in the joke at the top of the post, you're going to spend the next 20 years doing something anyway.  You might as well spend part of the time applying yourself seriously to learn a skill that interests you.

There are many things that I dabbled in for a while, attained some level of skill, and then hit a wall.  Sometimes that was due to a lack of natural ability.  Sometimes, especially early on, it was a lack of understanding of how to take the next step toward expert performance.  Most often, though, I think it was simply an unwillingness to apply myself to the necessary deliberate practice:  It was fun to play chess; it was dull to force checkmate with two bishops.  It was fun to play the guitar; it was dull to figure out shifting from E to B7 (and then from Em to B7).

Because of that, I think I gave up too early on some activities--I could have more expertise than I do, if I'd understood deliberate practice earlier and been a little more willing to apply myself.  That may not be true for other people.

Guest's picture
Kenneth

Sorry I think that the overall concept is brilliant but I'm still in the dark about something.. I was just wondering, with a sport like skateboarding, what would be the difference between deliberate practice and normal practice?

Philip Brewer's picture

The keys in deliberate practice are monitoring your performance, evaluating your success, and figuring out how to do it better.

So, in skateboarding (as in anything), if you're just messing around, doing turns and jumps that you already know how to do—and especially, if you're paying more attention to what other folks are doing than to what you're doing—then it's not deliberate practice.

Now, even that is likely to have some aspects of deliberate practice, because even when you're distracted you're probably paying some attention to what you're doing. But good practice—practice where you focus on what you're trying to do, pay attention to how well you did, and then try to figure out how you can do it better—is going to produce much more improvement over time.

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Steve

I'm not sure I agree with the term "expert" in this case. Deliberate practice is important, I agree. But in order to claim expertise, one must also have experience applying the skills in varying contexts. If I want to learn to play golf, of course I must commit to deliberate practice with each club at the driving range. But, that will only get me so far.

To become an expert, I must also log hours on the links, playing rounds of golf. Dealing with a poor lie, handling poor conditions, recovering from an errant drive, and the unpredictability that only applying the skills in context provide will take the person toward "expert."

In short, while I agree that deliberate practice is a critical step, it seems to me that you are asserting it is THE critical step. My experience is that, if anything, the experience is what distinguishes the true expert from the skilled novice.

Philip Brewer's picture

I don't disagree, but I would say that your deliberate practice should (once you've made some progress on the basics) include many of the skills you mention (poor lie, poor conditions, etc.). It is entirely possible to practice those skills—and probably easier outside the circumstances of a real game.

But there's another issue: the difference between being an expert player and a great player.

An expert player, I'd say, is someone who has mastered every stroke, every club, every lie, who can read the green and the wind, etc.

But a great player has an additional set of skills. A great player can win the big points and doesn't choke. A great player can make a mistake and not get flustered. A great player can watch his opponent his a great shot and then step up and hit his own great shot.

I don't know if developing that set of capabilities is amenable to deliberate practice or not.

I do know that every field has its experts who are not great players. There are tennis players whose stroke is perfect for every shot, but whose rankings are in the mid-20s rather than number 1. Ditto for golfers. There are musicians who play every note perfectly, but whose performances never draw large crowds (but the small crowds they draw often include a lot of other musicians who are there to admire the player's skill).

Sometimes there are great players who are not expert players. But sooner or later they meet someone with the qualities that make for a great player who has also put in enough hours of deliberate practice to become an expert player.