The Making of an Expert: The 3 Key Factors Underlying Individual Elite Performance in any Domain

The July-August 2007 issue of Harvard Business Review contains an interesting article “The Making of an Expert” by Ericsson, Prietula and Cokely.

The article argues (on the basis of scholarly research since 1985) that outstanding or elite performance in any field is predominantly “the product of years of deliberate practice and coaching, not of any innate talent or skill.” Experts (and elite performers) are made, not born: that elite performers in fields ranging from music to arts to mathematics to neurology could not be correlated with significant early indicators that could have predicted success – research has indicated that “there is no correlation between IQ and expert performance in chess, music, sports, and medicine.” The only significant exception the research allow for is that genetic physical characteristics such as height and body size can play a significant role as indicators of elite sporting performance – but even then these factors alone aren’t enough to indicate elite success in the chosen field.

The key characteristics behind the development of “experts” (defined as outstanding leaders in their chosen fields of endeavour”) are

  1. deliberate practice
  2. outstanding coaching, feedback and mentorship
  3. A significant investment of effort over time (typically ten years or more)

Deliberate practice includes, focused, concentrated training, techniques of visualisation and scenario planning. It involves systematic efforts to practice and improve performance in any area of activity.

The key point with training and practice is not the length of time spent practising: it is the amount of quality focused practice and training undertaken on a regular basis. For example, the authors cite violinist Nathan Milstein. Milstein noticed other students around him practising all day, and asked his mentor how many hours a day he should be practising – to which the mentor replied “it doesn’t really matter how long. If you practice with your fingers, no amount is enough. If you practice with your head, two hours is plenty.” Milstein advises to “practice as much as you can with concentration.”

Practice also involves focused efforts to improve on weaknesses as well as to build on strengths.

The authors argue that “it takes time to become an expert” – typically “a minimum of ten years (or 10,000 hours) before they win international competitions.” The authors claim that in some fields it is longer: for classical musical performance, it can be 15 to 25 years. This result is well borne out by research studying successes from the Beatles to Nobel Prize winners, identifying that typically even “overnight sensations” have a solid ten years behind them during which they acquired skills, developed familiarity and relationships in their professional domain, and generally built the capabilities and relationship infrastructure to position themselves for success.

Finally, the authors argue that individuals who reach elite performance success or “expert” status “seek out constructive, even painful feedback” – and develop an ability to assess when and if a coach’s advice is appropriate and useful to work for them.

The article – and its observations – are certainly interesting. However, it is a rather superficial examination of the making of an “expert,” and does not begin to address a range of additional factors such as passion and motivation (presumably something along this dimension is needed to fuel people through a 10 year journey towards becoming an expert), intrinsic and extrinsic rewards and their roles in motivation, commitment, supporting social networks (e.g. family and colleagues), and the differences between acquiring expertise in different areas (for example, the differences in becoming an “expert” and leader in their field in Medicine or Law and in Olympic Athletics, Business, Creative Arts, etc). Does an “expert”mean the same thing in all these different areas, and is the path to get there the same? And is “expert” necessarily the best word to use for extremely informed and capable high achievers and star performers in a range of different fields?

In any case, the article is an interesting provocation for further thought.

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