Becoming expert: Is it in you?

Posted by in Articles | September 23, 2011

In fields from medicine to music, extensive research reveals a consistent theme: no one is born an expert. Simply put, an expert is an individual who consistently outperforms others in their respective field. There is, however, no inherent set of qualities that destine someone for extraordinary achievement. Rather, expertise is a result of two factors and both are very much under our control: a) knowledge, and b) purposeful practice.


Find an expert and you will find someone with an uncommon understanding of their domain. Experts know more about their field and the factors impacting it than virtually anyone. This finding is no great discovery. But how the expert come to this knowledge is.

1. Information Sources.

Experts rely upon a great many sources for information—far more than those will lower levels of expertise. Peers, books, formal education, experiences, conferences, clients, seminars, newspapers, and any other source of credible information receive regular review for useful information. Thomas Edison confessed that he “readily absorb ideas from every source, frequently starting where the last person left off.”

2. Asking Questions.

Experts tend to ask more questions of their colleagues, clients, employees and even those outside their domain. In this way, experts locate information and perspectives that broaden their understanding, offer new insights, and provide alternatives–all of which allow them to make more informed decisions. Experts are also willing to question the status quo in an effort to find better solutions for recurring problems.

3. Listening.

Stand in a room full of people, and look for those who talk less and listen more. These are the individuals who will walk out of the room with greater knowledge. Experts listen. They listen because they believe that they have much to learn and as IBM’s Thomas Watson, Sr. put it “Listening is one of the best ways to learn.” Our research has found that those with lower levels of expertise, particularly novices, believed they pretty much know all they need to know to perform well. With this belief, one seeks little, if any, new information. Experts, in contrast, recognize that there is a vast body of knowledge out there waiting to be exploited, and they want to be first in line.

4. Failing and Succeeding.

When something attempted does not work, is it failure? Not to a man who in his lifetime registered 1,093 patents and along the way invented the phonograph, light bulb, the central power station, and scores of other devices that continue to shape our life a century later. To Thomas Edison “If I find 10,000 ways something won’t work, I haven’t failed. I am not discouraged, because every wrong attempt discarded is often a step forward.” To the expert, something the does not work offers a lesson not a set back. Similarly, when something does work, the expert doesn’t get carried away in kudos and congratulations. Success is not an end point, but rather part of a process. Because an expert is constantly looking for improvement, failures and successes are scrutinized to discover the lessons they hold. What went wrong so we can make it right?, and what went right so we can build on that in the future? are the reactions experts hold to failure and success, respectively.

5. Experience.

There are few teachers greater than experience. To Sir Francis Bacon “By far the best proof is experience.” Experience has no substitute for instructing because nothing is as meaningful to us as our own experience. Experts are masters at extracting information from their experiences. By being objectively self-critical, and monitoring closely their performances, experts identify facets of their performance done well, and facets left wanting. Further, experience locates the gaps in current knowledge, points out skills needing improvement, and tells us when assistance is required. But experience alone does not necessarily lead one to greater expertise. Is your handwriting better today than 10 years ago? Has 10 years experience improved your handwriting? The type of experience paying the greatest dividends is purposeful practice.

Purposeful Practice.

The research of Dr. Anders Ericsson, a leading scholar in the development of expertise, found that it takes at least 10 years of intense preparation and deliberate practice to acquire the skills, knowledge and perspectives of an expert. Further, three factors must be present for an experience to constitute purposeful practice.

1. Critical Skills.

One’s performance level in any domain depends largely upon the individual’s ability to perform essential or critical skills in a graceful, competent, and timely manner. This is as true for the CEO as the concert pianist. An expert’s extensive knowledge helps her/him identify the skills needed to get results. And once identified, these skills are relentlessly and purposefully practiced. Reflecting back on his 20 years that saw Kimberly-Clark transform into the world’s leading paper-based consumer products company, retired CEO Darwin Smith simply stated that “I never stopped trying to become qualified for the job.”

2. Informative Feedback.

Without informative feedback, purposeful practice would soon take on the appearance of mere experience. Informative feedback comes in two forms, and both are essential for improving skills: a) feedback on technique, and b) feedback on performance. Feedback on technique provides information on the correctness of the skill performed, while feedback on performance provides information on the level of success achieved when performing the skill. As an example, if you were attempting to improve your communication skills, feedback on technique would provide information on your communication mechanics such as diction, vocabulary, inflection, etc. (i.e., the actual things you do). Feedback on performance would provide information on the results of your communication such as audience comprehension or interest (i.e., the consequences of your actions).

3. Repeat and Refine.

The improvement of any skill is largely dependent upon the opportunity to repeatedly practice and refine. Improvement in skills is gradual, taking time to refine and ingrain the appropriate procedures until they become automatic. No one learns an effective sales technique, computer operation, or golf swing in a single practice session. Repeated efforts, combined with informed feedback aimed at refined performance over a sustained period of time are what take one from novice to expert. In our ‘one shot wonder’  society and desire for a quick fix or hot tip, this maxim is often overlooked. Becoming expert is not a birthright or destination. Becoming expert is a journey. Experts see themselves as a work in progress. With knowledge and practice becoming expert is within you.

©Performance Matters Inc. All Rights Reserved.

About the Author – Paul G. Schempp

Dr. Schempp, president of Performance Matters, Inc., is a professional speaker, coach and consultant. Paul has more than 25 years of experience in the fields of research, teaching and professional development. Individuals and organizations in business, education and sport have elevated their expertise and achieved exceptional performance by working with Dr. Schempp.

One comment on “Becoming expert: Is it in you?

  1. Paul:
    Rightly said that knowledge and purposeful practice are two ingredients to be an expert. I think the deliberate practice research and hype created by 10 year / 10000 hour rule basically undervalued the knowledge part which you outlined very well. This is particularly true in cognitive intensive jobs. Good article.

    May I suggest you add sharing buttons in your blog? It would be very easy for your readers to share your article at one click. Consider it.


    Raman K. Attri
    Researcher: Training strategies for speed to proficiency
    Check my research at Personal Resonance©: Accelerating Time-to-Expertise

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