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How You Can Become an Expert through Purposeful, Deliberate Practice

How You Can Become an Expert through Purposeful, Deliberate Practice
Hello again. In this session you’ll learn how experts develop the knowledge, skills, and experience that make them exceptional at what they do. Regardless of whether you want to be a superstar in your field or whether you want to do a job that you can be proud of, having an expertise that is meaningful to you and others is essential to your long term success. It’s also important because organizations and societies need experts. As citizens, we don’t want to settle for good enough pilots, surgeons, nurses, and engineers. And we don’t want to drive cars with flawed airbags, listen to meh concerts, or tolerate mediocre managers.
If you want to become an expert in a particular area, you’ll need to invest in a special kind of practice essential to developing expertise. Experts in most fields develop their talents in similar ways and that’s the topic of this session. Researcher Anders Ericsson calls the kind of practice that develops expertise purposeful, deliberate practice. And it should come as no surprise that experts spend more time developing their craft. Eleanor Maguire of the cab driver studies found that the taxi drivers who passed the knowledge exams put in twice as many hours of studying than those who didn’t pass the exams. Ericsson and his colleagues found that it takes about 10,000 hours of practice, which takes several years, to become an expert.
This rule of thumb has applied to superstar musicians, mathematicians, athletes, as well as experts in many other professions. Although the 10,000 hour rule has been debated, for example, some researchers argue that the number of hours needed to become an expert differs based on the knowledge and skills in different areas, such as games, sports, music, and professions. But researchers generally agree that people who become experts practice more often than those who don’t. However, people with world class skills don’t just practice harder and longer than others to learn their craft. They also practice better, in a more focused, strategic, and structured way to increase their knowledge and skills in a specific domain.
It’s the quality as well as the quantity of hours of practice and experience that turns someone into an expert. Understanding how to practice better matters not only to individuals, it also matters to organizations and societies. Just consider how much time that people, organizations, and societies spend on education and experience. Billions of dollars are spent every year on leadership development programs globally. Undergraduate students in the US often graduate from public and nonprofit colleges with quite a bit of debt. With all this time and money going into training, education, and experience, you’d think that we’d have more experts than we know what to do with. But here’s the thing. Merely sitting through classes or leadership development programs does not count as learning.
And going to work every day and doing your job doesn’t count as experience if you’re spending a lot of time just going through the motions. To become outstanding in a particular area of expertise, requires that you engage in focused, intensive, and organized practice, day after day, and year after year. It requires delayed gratification and a lot of willpower. And that’s why most people settle for good enough. Good enough is okay in many areas of our lives, but it’s not okay if people are depending on us to do our jobs with a high level of expertise. Now people who engaged in intensive practice have the willpower to resist short term temptations, so that they can achieve their long term goals.
Researcher Roy Baumeister warns that willpower is a limited resources, so we have to use it wisely. And here’s what he has to say about willpower. People who engage in intensive practice have developed the willpower to resist short term temptations so that they can achieve their long term goals. Researcher Roy Baumeister warns that willpower can be depleted. You can think of willpower as filling a bucket. It doesn’t matter what you use your will power on, the bucket gets emptied a bit each time you use it. This means that if we use a lot of willpower in one area, we’ll feel like we have less willpower available to use in another.
And that’s why people who are experts in one area are often mediocre in several other areas. It’s also why successful people often do their hardest work early in the day, before the distractions of the day kick in and their will power begins to dwindle. For example, you can develop good habits so that you don’t wear yourself out making so many decisions everyday. That’s why Mark Zuckerberg, the founder and CEO of Facebook, wears the same light gray t-shirts and dark gray sweatshirts most of the time. He says he wants to save his energy for the more important decisions he has to make everyday. You can also manage the environment around you so you don’t have to engage your willpower.
For example, you can keep unhealthy foods out of the house, so you don’t have the option to eat them at home. Or, you can install an app that won’t let you search the Internet when you should be working. We’ll discuss these strategies as well as others for increasing your willpower later in this course when you start working on your action plan.
Now we’ll turn to five steps for becoming an expert through purposeful, deliberate practice. These steps include, first, identifying your purpose. Second, creating a mental representation of excellence. Third, developing your step-by-step strategy. Fourth, practicing with precision and push. And fifth, measuring your progress.
Okay, so first you need to choose a meaningful purpose. To commit to the rigorous of intensive practice, you need to sincerely believe that your long-term goal is worth the time, toil, and sacrifice it requires. Although most people stop practicing once the practice gets too difficult, or is no longer enjoyable, experts continue to practice to develop their outstanding talent. They do so because they’re committed to their goals and they connect them to making a positive difference in the world such as contributing to the well-being of others. Second, you need to create a mental representation of excellence. To become an expert, you need to have an idea in your mind about what expertise looks like.
To do this, you can watch experts in action in your desired area of expertise and figure out what they do better than novice or average performers. What makes them special? What knowledge and skills do they have? And how do they develop these? What degrees, certificates, and awards do they have? For example, when I started out teaching, I sat in on the classes of some of the top teachers at the business school. I watched how they taught. I paid attention to the techniques they used to engage the students. I looked at the strategies they used to organize their materials. And I went to workshops and read books about how to become a teacher who can inspire others.
Over time, of course, I developed my own style and strategies. But to this day, I still use some of what I learned by watching expert teachers earlier in my career. The third thing you need to do is develop a step by step strategy. Once you’ve identified what excellence looks like in the area you want to develop, you’ll want to work backwards from your long term goals and identify the specific knowledge, skills and experiences as well as credentials you’ll need. Then, you’ll need to assess the knowledge, skills, and experiences and credentials you already have. Once you’ve identified that gap, you can create your step by step strategy.
Now this involves breaking your goals down into smaller chunks of knowledge and skills and then developing a plan for learning, and practice each of these chunks until you master them all.
As you know, chunking helps you turn an ambitious goal into a set of achievable steps. Specifically, what knowledge or skill will you learn? And how will you learn it? Learning each small chunk of knowledge and skill on its own may not feel that impactful. But as Ericsson says,”Progress come as a series of baby steps. None very impressive on its own but they can add up to an incredible journey.” The next thing you need to do is practice with precision and push. Once you’ve identified the area of performance you want to improve, you’ll need to practice it in a purposeful and deliberate way.
For example, if you want to improve your communication, you might decide to say “um” and “ah” less often. Or you might decide to use more compelling gestures.
Give your full attention to the task each time you practice. Ericsson says, it’s better to train at 100% effort for less time Then at 70% effort for a longer period. Many experts engage in concentrated practice for only two or five hours each day. In one study, Ericsson asked expert, average, and least accomplished violinists to keep a log of the times they spent practicing each week. He found that the violinists said they spent the same amount of time practicing. But the most accomplished violinists used their time in a more focused way than the others. And practicing for just two hours each day in a focused way for ten years adds up to 7,300 hours of deliberate practice.
And the good news is that many experts take naps to rejuvenate after their intensive practice. Once you’ve reached a high level of competence in a precise area, push yourself on to the next chunk. Even if doing so means that you’ll make more mistakes. Doing the same kind of practice of the same skill over and over again may feel comfortable, but it will not increase your abilities. Competition figure skaters for example, fall more during practice than average skaters because they set more difficult challenges for themselves. Failure is part of the learning process because making mistakes helps you understand what skills you don’t yet have.
Ericsson says that the most learning happens at the edge of one’s comfort zone. Leadership researcher Scott Derue and Ned Wellman found that the best way to learn leadership is to create what they call, optimal challenges. If a challenge is to hard it can be overwhelming to the point that it’s disheartening and nothing can be learned. If the task is too easy, it often offers no opportunity for new learning.
Then you can also get a coach. Experts often have coaches, particularly early in their careers, who help them develop their learning goals and optimal challenges. A coach can also motivate you to push yourself harder than you would on your own. Over time, you’re likely to internalize the ability to develop your own stretch goals, and stay motivated even without a coach. The last thing you need to do is objectively measure your progress. You’ll need to decide how you’ll assess whether you’ve achieved optimal performance in a particular area. And one way is to create SMART goals for every chunk of knowledge or skill you want to develop. Now SMART stands for specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time bound.
Specific means that you’ve identified a clear and unambiguous area of improvement that you want to develop. Saying, I want to get healthy, wouldn’t be specific. Saying, I want to eat more fruits and vegetables, still wouldn’t be specific. Saying, I want to eat the equivalent of three cups of fruits and vegetables every day would be specific.
Measurable means that you’ve established concrete criteria for assessing when you’ve achieved the standard of quality you want to achieve for each chunk of knowledge or skill you want to develop. Clear quality standards are important because they help you self correct along the way before bad habits become etched in and hard to change. Attainable means that you can realistically achieve progress towards your goal. Remember that optimal challenges are those that aren’t too easy, but they are not overwhelming to the point that you can’t make any progress towards your goal. Said another way, you don’t want to bite off more than you can chew.
Relevant means that the knowledge and skill you want to master fits with your short and long term plan to become an expert in your area. It’s easy to become distracted, focusing on developing knowledge and skills that may be interesting. But they’re not central to the expertise you need to develop to become an expert in your desired area. And time bound means that you set clear times that you will spend developing the knowledge and practicing the skill. As well as the clear deadline by when you expect to have mastered that specific goal.
So that’s what expert do to build the knowledge and skills that put them at the top of their field. One of the most misleading things about experts is that by the time we see them do their thing, they make it look easy. We rarely see the toil behind the talent. But if you look at the history of anyone who’s a known expert, you’ll find that they engaged in years of purposeful, deliberate practice. For example, Chris Rock has achieved the pinnacle of success in his field of standup comedy. Rock makes his stand up comedy routine look easy, despite the years of purposeful, deliberate practice that he put into each of his routines.
Journalist David Carr described the work that Rock put into developing his routine for the New Year’s Eve show at Madison Square Garden in 2007 this way. He said, “For Mr. Rock being gifted is just about doing the things that make it look easy. For many months he has been piecing together his act in clubs in New Jersey, New York, Florida, and Las Vegas. Comedy bit by comedy bit, he has built two hours of material, one minute at a time, culling the belly laughs from the bombs. For him, the eighteen warm up shows he did at The Stress Factory in New Brunswick, New Jersey preparing for the tour are more important than his three Emmy’s.”
Vinnie Brand, the owner of The Stress Factory, said, “He knows that they are going to give him the first laugh because of who he is. But he came out here and worked on his material over and over, cutting and trimming. Until by the last show, you could not believe what he put together.” And so, there you have it. Experts master their craft through years of purposeful practice towards something they believe is worth doing very, very well. They develop systematic plans for developing small chunks of knowledge and skills that they build on to, step by step, create the vast body of knowledge and skills that puts them head and shoulders above the rest.
And when we see experts do what they do, seemingly so effortlessly. Think of Yo-Yo Ma playing the cello. It’s easy to attribute their mastery of their craft as being the result of natural talent because we don’t see how hard they worked for so many years, with so much discipline to develop a talent they have that now looks natural. So now you know a lot more about expertise than you did just a few hours ago. I’ll leave you with these questions. First, for you personally, what expertise is worth investing years of mindful, deliberate practice in to become an expert in that area?
Second, If you don’t want to become a world class expert, how can you use what you learn in this session to help you achieve your goals? Thanks for watching and learning about expertise.
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