The Simple Formula for Expertise

There is a simple formula for expertise. A recipe for greatness.

“Expertise, as the formula goes, requires going from unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence to conscious competence and finally to unconscious competence” -Atul Gawande

Break down a skill into sub-skills

Practice each sub-skill individually, over and over, thousands of times.

Seek out immediate feedback on these actions so you know at once where you went wrong, and how you can fix.

Find out what you did right and how you can repeat it.

That’s it. Wash, rinse, repeat. For hundreds of hours. Then thousands of hours. Then 10,000 hours, where you’ll begin to see neurological changes.

However, you have to be practicing the correct sub-skills, at the proper difficulty.

Broadly speaking, sub-skills are divided into three zones of difficulty

1) The Comfort Zone

Here are actions that you’ve mastered. They have become such an ingrained part of your neurology that you can perform them effortlessly, with very little cognitive resources being tapped.

Examples of this are walking or talking. Which is why we can so successfully perform both of them at once

2) The Learning Zone

This is where the magic happens. This is where you’re faced with a level of difficulty in a task that is just outside of your comfort zone. It will require effort, discipline, and intelligence to solve it.

However, you can solve it.

This zone is also called “The Cognitive Phase”. Here you have to be cognizant and thinking about the strategies and tactics that you’ve read in books or have been told about by your teachers.

This is where you bridge the gap between learning and doing, between knowledge and skill.

These tasks are not subconscious.

When you’re performing tasks in the cognitive phase your prefrontal cortex lights up like a Christmas tree because of your intense analysis and concentration.

These tasks aren’t fun.

You’re taxing your cognitive resources and pushing yourself to your limits.

It’s hard.

It hurts.

You think you don’t understand and that you never will.

Then you do.

And then you do it again, to make sure you understand.

You do.

Now, you’re back in The Comfort Zone.

Find something harder.

Approximately 4% harder, to maximize stretch and minimize anxiety

3) The Panic Zone

This is where the challenges you face are too great for you to ever understand or figure out at your current skill level.

This is the most dangerous zone to be in while learning.

If you find yourself in The Panic Zone you’ll feel anxious, frustrated, feel like an idiot, and grow furious that you’re wasting your time on something completely nonsensical.

You’ll panic.

Avoid tasks that are more than 5% harder than your current skill level


The key to greatness is simply maximizing the time spent in The Learning Zone. Simple idea, not easy to implement. But the steps to do so are

1) Define clearly what your objectives are
 2) Define specifically what the crucial subskills to achieve your objectives are
 3) Find clear metrics that will allow you to determine your current skill level (this is often very hard to do)
 4) Use your metrics to rank learning challenges in order of complexity (this is often much harder)
 5) Rinse. Repeat

Comment below with a framework that you’ve used to learn a complex skill, some of the metrics you’ve devised, or just what you liked/loathed about the post.

Originally published at

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