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Becoming an Expert

March 11th, 2006 Leave a comment Go to comments

In the last week or so, I read two interesting articles about what it takes to become an expert. There is a perception that, to be really good at something, you have to start when you are two; I think most of us have seen those cute pictures of Tiger Woods as a kid and naturally assume that the reason he’s where he is today is the head start combined with his all-world athleticism. While there’s no doubting his athletic talent and the early start, Outstanding Performers: Created, Not Born? points to a different conclusion.

David Shanks says that practice plays a much larger role. He points to one study that says the best musicians simply practiced more:

Each of the musicians was asked to estimate approximately how many hours a week they had practiced each year since the outset of their musical training, and these estimates yielded cumulative totals of about 10,000 hours for the best musicians, followed by 8,000 for the next best ones and 5,000 for the least accomplished.

People forget that Tiger has spent literally thousands of hours hitting golf balls on the range, practicing his silky putting stroke, and chipping and pitching around the practice green. Talent obviously helps (some athletes are renowned for what they don’t do during the off-season…) but while we can’t all be born with Ken Griffey, Jr.‘s hand eye coordination, each one of us can carve out the time (well, maybe that’s not so easy).

Kathy Sierra echos this theme in How to be an expert (her emphasis).

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.

So, if you want to be good at something – dedicate the time to do so. Somewhere (can’t recall exactly where) I read that, if you study something for one hour a day for three years, you would be an expert. I can hear you now, where am I supposed to get an hour? Well, for a bit or perspective, 7 hours a week amounts to just over four percent of your week. Considering the average adult male watches close to 30 hours of TV in that same period, I’m guessing we could all cut back a bit. Of course if you’ve read Everything Bad is Good for You, maybe you’ll disagree!

But Kathy highlights another important point in her piece – it’s never too late to start. We’re living longer than ever so saying “I’m already 30/40/50/60 etc” doesn’t cut it (well, unless you want to be, say an Olympic gymnast). To quote Kathy again (her emphasis):

…actress Geena Davis nearly qualified for the US Olympic archery team in a sport she took up at the age of 40, less than three years before the Olympic tryouts.

What’s your excuse again?

The moral of the story – we can become experts if we are willing to put in the time but more importantly, we don’t need to begin as babies. My advice? Start now. In three years you’ll be three years older – you can either be three years older and and on your way to becoming an expert or you can be, well, three years older. Which would you rather be?

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