How to be an expert

The only thing standing between “you-as-amateur” and “you-as-expert” is dedication. All that talk about prodigies? We could all be prodigies (or nearly so) if we just put in the time and focused. At least that's what the brain guys are saying. Best of all — it's almost never too late.

Seriously. How many people think they've missed their opportunity to be a musician, or an expert golfer, or even a chess grand master because they didn't start when they were young? Or because they simply lacked natural talent? Those people are (mostly) wrong. According to some brain scientists, almost anyone can develop world-class (or at least top expertise) abilities in things for which they aren't physically impaired. Apparently God-given talent, natural “gifts”, and genetic predispositions just aren't all they're cracked up to be. Or at least not in the way most of us always imagined. It turns out that rather than being naturally gifted at music or math or chess or whatever, a superior performer most likely has a gift for concentration, dedication, and a simple desire to keep getting better. In theory, again, anyone willing to do what's required to keep getting better WILL get better.

Maybe the “naturally talented artist” was simply the one who practiced a hell of a lot more. Or rather, a hell of a lot more deliberately. Dr. K. Anders Ericsson, professor of psychology at Florida State University, has spent most of his 20+ year career on the study of geniuses, prodigies, and superior performers. In the book The New Brain (it was on my coffee table) Richard Restak quotes Ericsson as concluding:

“For the superior performer the goal isn't just repeating the same thing again and again but achieving higher levels of control over every aspect of their performance. That's why they don't find practice boring. Each practice session they are working on doing something better than they did the last time.”

So it's not just how long they practice, it's how they practice. Basically, it comes down to something like this:

Most of us want to practice the things we're already good at, and avoid the things we suck at. We stay average or intermediate amateurs forever.

Yet the research says that if we were willing to put in more hours, and to use those hours to practice the things that aren't so fun, we could become good. Great. Potentially brilliant. We need, as Restak refers to it, “a rage to master.” That dedication to mastery drives the potential expert to focus on the most subtle aspects of performance, and to never be satisfied. There is always more to improve on, and they're willing to work on the less fun stuff. Restak quotes Sam Snead, considered one of the top five golfers of the twentieth century, as saying:

“I know it's a lot more fun to stand on the practice tee and rip your driver than it is to chip and ptch, or practice sand shots with sand flying back in your face, but it all comes back to the question of how much you're willing to pay for success.”

There's much more to the brain science around this topic, of course — I'm just doing the highlights. And a lot of the research is new, made possible today by how easy it is for researchers to get time with an fMRI or PET scan. And I stretched just a little… there is some thought that to be, literally, THE best in the world at chess, or the violin, or math, or programming, or golf, etc. you might indeed need that genetic special something. But… that's to be THE best.