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Posted by on in Rajan Sambandam
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Expertise: How to get it

In his most recent book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell talks about the 10 year rule -- a minimum of about 10 years (or roughly 10,000 hours) of work is needed to gain expertise in any area. While the idea originates from research in the early part of the 20th century, the rule itself was formalized by Nobel Prize winner Herbert Simon and a colleague based on their study of chess. The definitive review and experimental confirmation comes from a great article in the nineties by the psychologist K. Anders Ericsson (a student of Simon) and colleagues. It is a very interesting article with plenty of information and gets to the basic idea of how to become an expert performer.


Ericsson and his colleagues make two fundamental points. One is that the idea of innate ability (or inborn talent) is vastly overblown. To take a compelling example from this study, consider the amount of practice time put in by violinists till the age of 18.


Violin Students

Hours practiced till 18yrs of age



Very Good





The more time they put into practice the better they are with no crossover between the groups implying that greatness is simply a function of effort. Since the publication of this work, similar results have been shown in many other areas. One could argue that talented children are identified early and get better and more coaching and inevitably end up with more hours of practice. The authors refute this by showing that there is little ability to spot “talent” in early childhood. They also cite research that shows that what is seen as inborn talent in early childhood is often acquired skill. In his book Gladwell uses interesting examples from birthdates of hockey players to show that children born closer to a cutoff age are bigger and more coordinated and hence assumed to be more talented (called the Relative Age Effect).


The second major point made by the authors is about the importance of deliberate practice.  What is deliberate practice? It consists of activities that have been specially designed to improve the current level of performance. A person engaging in deliberate practice has to be motivated and pay attention to improving performance. The practice task should be designed to take into account the prevailing level of expertise and should be understood easily by the practitioner. Immediate informative feedback should be available on the performance. Lastly the person should repeatedly practice the same task. It requires effort as it is not inherently enjoyable and can be sustained only for a limited time during a day before exhaustion sets in. While better performers tend to practice more, they also engage in more deliberate practice. In their study of violinists and pianists, the authors found that deliberate practice activities (such as practicing alone) were much higher for the better musicians.    


So, to achieve expertise in an area what one needs is long hours of practice and conscious engagement in deliberate practice. Is that enough to become the best in a profession? There is one more thing – starting early. Research has shown that international level performers generally start learning their craft before the age of 8. Approximately a decade or a decade and a half later, with sufficient deliberate practice they become experts in their area. Is it possible to start later and catch up? Generally no, say the authors. In fact, starting early and not practicing enough will also make it impossible to catch up.      


Of course, there is also the question of physical characteristics especially when it comes to sports. Surely there are certain body types that are better suited for exceptional performance in certain sports? The authors cite research that shows that most anatomical characteristics (other than height) are remarkably adaptable under intense physical activity. Extreme physical adaptations in elite athletes could be because of intense training more than anything else.


It is important to note that the authors have not said anything about levels of motivation and predisposition to practice. It is entirely likely that there are innate differences between people on these dimensions and in fact that is what shows itself up as differences in “talent”.


The other point to consider is the trade-off between spending thousands of hours practicing a particular skill to gain expertise and what is lost in the process. Much of childhood and adolescence as generally understood will be lost and its impact on the social, mental and emotional wellbeing of the practitioner is unknown.             


This research was conducted by K. Anders Ericsson, Ralf Th. Krampe and Clemens Tesch-Romer. It was published in the journal Psychological Review. 


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Guest Monday, 03 August 2020

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