Article by Dr. Paul G. Schempp

In fields from medicine to music, extensive research has revealed a consistent set of characteristics unique to those who continually outperform their peers (Ericsson, Charness, Feltovich, & Hoffman, 2006).  In other words, experts are made, not born.  For those aspiring to improve their performance proficiency, these traits offer a guide for improving what you do and how you do it.

Extensive and Explicit Knowledge

The knowledge of an expert is built and crafted from many sources.  An expert has a passion for their field and an unquenchable thirst for learning all they can from anywhere they can to help them achieve a higher level of performance.   While areas outside their scope of expertise are often and regularly tapped, experts’ knowledge is largely confined to their explicit area of interest.

Experts recognize that experience is a great teacher, and therefore look to acquire all the lessons they can from what she offers.  Peers are a second major source for learning as who knows better the problems and challenges they face than their peers.  Clients are a third source of knowledge, because ultimately it is the success they have with clients that determine one’s level of expertise.  They listen and learn much from their clients in climbing the ladder of success in their industry.

Analytic Observation Powers

It is often thought that experts see more than the rest of us.  No, they do not.  They see no more than anyone else, but what they see is highly selective and focused on exclusively on critical performance criteria.  In other words, they see more relevant detail when surveying a situation of interest.  Accurate assessment and the ability to recognize the significance of their observations are skills keenly developed in experts.  Because they understand the significance of what they see and have experience with similar situations, an expert is often able to predict future occurrences from what they see now.  They can, thus, anticipate potential problems and make inferences for informed actions based on the information they see at the moment.

Problem Assessment and Solutions

In contrast to novices, experts invest significant time in:

a) defining the problem (they realize that if they don’t get the problem right, they have no hope of getting the solution right)

b) isolating factors causing problem (not symptoms)

c) identifying constraints in developing solutions

d) evaluating the adequacy of possible solutions

Thus, they are able to solve problems more thoroughly.  In solving problems, experts also develop a series of contingency plans, so if the first solution is inadequate, they can assess, make adjustments and go with a second solution, or even a third or fourth.   Due to their extensive knowledge and substantial experience, experts more often than not rely on an acutely developed intuitive sense in making decisions and seeking solutions.

Rituals and Routines

The practiced skills and behavior patterns of experts allow them to perform everyday, mundane tasks with fluidity, elegance, and ease.  These effortless appearing actions characteristic of experts often attract envy, but those skills were well won in tireless hours of sustained and deliberate practice.   Superior performers strive to do what they do well.  In the process, repeated behavior patterns become subconscious, automatic routines.  The highly refined routines permit the expert to work through the every day tasks with little thought, leaving more time for attention, reflection and deliberation to more important issues.


Experts are unafraid to recognize their limitations, knowledge gaps and weaknesses.  It was from recognizing and strengthening many of these deficiencies that led to them becoming experts in the first place.  They also recognize that the world is constantly changing with new information and resources available.  Experts are masters at assessing a situation to determine which problems will be most difficult for them to solve, weighing the adequacy of the solutions, and are keenly aware of the errors made and why they were made.  They see errors and failures, not as causes for embarrassment, but rather as magnificent opportunities to learn.  The search for improvement begins with understanding what needs to be improved.  By objectively and honestly assessing and identifying skill and knowledge deficiencies, and then taking corrective actions, the best continue to get better.


  • Ericsson, K.A., Charness, N., Feltovich, P., & Hoffman, R. (Eds.). (2006).
  • The Cambridge handbook of expertise and expert performance. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University.
  • Schempp, P.G. (2008).  5 Steps to Expert: How to go from Novice to Elite Performer.  Mountain View, CA: Davies-Black.