Expert practice

Don’t waste the 10 000 hours — Become an expert as fast as possible!

Introduction — Practice makes perfect

You may have heard of the ten thousand hours rule saying that you can be an expert at anything with 10 000 hours of practice. This rule is based on research by K. Anders Ericsson and was named by Malcolm Gladwell.

What is an expert? An expert demonstrates measurable and consistent superior performance compared to her peers, in a specific well-distinguished domain.

The 10 000 hours “rule” can be applied for all imaginable expert domains, such as for

  • cultural performance (music, theater, writing, and more)
  • sports (including table tennis, golf, chess, e-sport, motor racing, high diving, and all the others)
  • occupational professions (e.g. computer programming, surgery, foundry, linguistics, and many more)
  • behavioral skills (leadership, public speaking, negotiation, and more)

Ericsson‘s research tells us that, contrary to popular belief, innate talent has no significant impact on the skill level (except, of course, height and body size, for some sports). Experts are always made, not born.

Apart from age and height, the only thing that matters is to perform the training or practice the right way, in great amount, and with the right quality.

I should also mention that the number 10 000 is an arbitrary figure to indicate the great effort, dedication and effective time that are required to be among the very best. In some expertise domains, the 10 000 hours of practice are probably far too little (some domains might need more than 25 000 hours), in other domains it might be enough with less. It is also individual. Besides, you might be lucky to have access to the right contacts, resources or technology, that enables you to increase the pace.

So, we should not lock ourselves at the number 10 000. It is not the exact number of hours that is important, it is what you do with the time. To achieve expertise will take you a decade. You will need to use this large investment in time wisely.

What is then the right way of practice, and how can we achieve the right quality? What are the specific requirements for the practice sessions, that makes an expert, given that the practice is performed intensively during several thousands of hours?

Continue to read the list of requirements below to find out. I hope you’ll get some insights on how you can improve your learning, and become an expert in your domain.

1 — Expert practice need to be aimful

Aimful practice is purposeful and goal-directed practice.

Random repetitions without any reflection over the results makes no expert.

You need to fully understand what you are practicing, why you are doing the practice, what you should achieve and how you know if you have achieved it.

You need a well-defined goal with the practice. We sometimes talk about SMART goals — Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Result-oriented and Time-bound. Each of your practice sessions should have a smart goal or be part of a smart goal. Try to define the goal in such a way it helps to analyze what you do wrong and how to correct it to achieve the goal with the practice.

You don’t need to overdo this; it should be more of a basic mode of operation. The minimum is to always be sure you understand exactly why you perform each exercise or practice session and the value it brings to you.

2 — Expert practice needs to be deliberate

The deliberate practice session should be planned so that you are always challenged.

The practice should be on the edge to be too difficult for you. It should be outside of your comfort zone. But not too far off, nor too difficult. The exercises should focus on tasks that are just beyond your current level of competence and comfort.

You should both improve what you already do very well, and increase or widen your skills.

Most important is to practice on what you can’t do well (within your domain of expertise).

If you want to become an expert, you must dare to fail. Nobody likes to fail. But don’t be afraid, instead, minimize your cost of failure. Smile, try again or increase the difficulty.

Intuition, or trusting your gut feeling, is the result of deliberate practice, reflection, and analysis. You also have to think deliberately — so we move to item 3 below.

3 — Expert practice needs context based mental representations

You need to be able to make mental pictures of real or realistic solutions and situations and use them to make decisions.

This is true for all expert domains, be it playing the violin, table tennis or chess, IS/IT solution architecture or financial analysis.

As the future expert, you’ll need to make up your own mental system to remember good solutions and their logic, data or requirements.

These mental representations are context based. They help you remember, analyze and make good decisions.

To practice this, you study and analyze historic events and try to foresee the right decision. The objective is to train your ability to make the correct decisions yourself.

4 — Expert practice needs full focus

Needless to say, you need to be fully focused on the task throughout the practice session. Focused at the moment, here and now.

At the same time, it is equally important to focus on the end goal. You should have a long-term view.

Expert practice requires your full engagement and devotion.

Make an individual strategic action plan.

In your plan, include to repeat and rehearse what you have learned. Not too soon or too late, after you’ve learned a topic.

5 — Expert practice need qualified feedback

When you practice something you need to get qualified feedback to make the practice session effective. Immediately when you do something wrong you should know what is wrong and how to correct it. If you have a coach he or she should work with you in real time. It is important you prevent the wrong from being a habit. If you don’t have a professional tutor or coach, perhaps you can practice together with a friend or a colleague and then agree to actively coach each other.

As soon as you know what you do wrong, you Plan a correction, Do that, Check that is worked and Act (that is, you make sure to do it correctly from now on). This is the classic PDCA — Deming’s wheel of improvement.

If you learn and improve with this mindset, you will also become better in evaluating yourself when you practice. You might even be able to give yourself feedback and to coach yourself. Self-coaching is a growing trend and good tools help.

6 — Expert practice should rather be tutored practice

You should exert yourself to find a good and devoted tutor, mentor, instructor or coach. Supervised learning is much more effective than unsupervised learning or self-coaching, even if that too is systematic.

Many coaches in clubs today are more group leaders, running a set of group activities. This is not what you need to become an expert. You need a coach that, apart from being knowledgeable and skilled, have the ability, time and will to analyze what you do wrong and make sure you correct it as soon as possible. Don’t be afraid of getting constructive, perhaps painful feedback from your coach — instead, seek out that feedback!

The coach should give you

  • the right difficulty of each exercise (including to identify things you do not master yet)
  • smart goals to achieve before the next practice session starts (short-term, easy-measurable goals)
  • continuous, immediate feedback and correction of faults
  • emotional motivation
  • help to learn how to coach yourself

Of course, private coaching is a cost issue. However, for research and professions, you might be able to work together with your coach or mentor.

Usually, there is a three-stage approach:

  1. local coach/teacher, that gives lots of time and praise
  2. advanced coach/teacher, that accelerates your learning process
  3. work closely with expert coach/teacher, transferring their expertise

7 — Expert practice needs strong will

Expert practice needs long-lasting willpower and willingness to learn.

You need to be genuinely interested in the domain of expertise, have the interest and willingness to learn, to increase your knowledge and to improve your skills and your capacity. You need to have a strong inner drive and willpower.

You can not be impatient but need to have long-term goals and be prepared for struggle and sacrifice. There are no shortcuts to genuine expertise.

Your drive and ambition should come from inside yourself. You should have positive emotional connections to succeed.

8 — Expert practice needs family support

You need enthusiastic support from your family, especially throughout the developing years.

If you are a child, your parents should actively support your attempt to become an expert.

When you get older, you might still need the family support, but you need to assume the responsibility for your own development. Even if you have an excellent coach, you need to be in full control.