Achieving Expertise and Mastery

October 5, 2010

What does it take to build true expertise and mastery? Ten is the magic number: Ten years and ten thousand hours of practice is the generally accepted rule of thumb. These numbers aren’t absolutes, but they are useful to gauge the amount of time and effort that you should plan on to develop your own expertise.

One study that illustrates this point involves a study of thirty violinists at the Music Academy of Berlin. All of the violinists had begun playing the violin around the age of eight, placing them on equal footing in terms of when they started. The study involved collecting vast amounts of data, including each violinist keeping a diary of his or her activities.

It turns out that the top performers – those destined to have professional careers as part of orchestras, with the best of the best being soloists – practiced an average of twenty-four hours a week. Those who were destined to become music teachers practiced only nine hours per week. In the end, the best solo violinists logged far more hours (7,410) than future music teachers (3,420).

While this demonstrates that practice matters, there is more to it than that. The ten-thousand-hour rule by itself is inadequate. How you practice is vitally important.

The top two violinists practiced an average of 3.5 hours per day, but they split their practice into 90 minute sessions, mostly in the mornings when they were rested and less distracted. Intense practice followed by intermittent rest is important. Our bodies are asking for a break every 90 minutes or so – and great performers intuitively understand this.

Purposeful practice is also important. Top performers take active steps to stretch their limitations in every session. The top violinists in the study above pushed themselves harder for longer – they used practice sessions to stretch their capabilities and test their limits, to learn and improve and not just re-hash what they already knew. They concentrated on developing specific skills that were just beyond their current proficiency levels.

The notion of continually stretching yourself is important. Too many people go on autopilot, and the status quo becomes “all that you will be.” Golfing expert Bill Kroen notes, “Many players confuse hitting balls with practice. If you watch golfers at a crowded driving range you will see many that are hitting the ball with the same club without ever checking their grips, stance, or alignment.”

This purposeful practice isn’t always easy or fun. As Sam Snead said, ”It is only human nature to want to practice what you can already do well, since it’s a hell of a lot less work and a hell of a lot more fun. Sad to say, though, that it doesn’t do a lot to lower your handicap…. I know it’s a lot more fun to stand on the practice tee and rip drivers than it is to chip and pitch, and to practice sand shots with sand flying back in your face, but it all comes back to the questions of how much you’re willing to pay for success.”

Part of that payment involves expert coaching. As a student seeking to develop expertise, you need to be prepared to receive constructive – and sometimes painful – feedback. Purposeful, deliberate practice that is designed to develop your expertise should not be left to chance. Quality practice involves quality coaching, so seek out the best to learn from.

Finally, reflecting on what you’ve learned – considering how and why things work – will provide you with a deeper understanding; often times, teaching others becomes a great way to consider – or reconsider – your understanding and beliefs. Teaching will force you to examine areas that you might have neglected because they didn’t apply to you – but are important to those you are instructing. And you might even find yourself changing your mind about beliefs that you have held dearly.

In the words of K. Anders Ericsson, “Expert practice is different. It entails considerable, specific, and sustained efforts to do something you can’t do well – or even at all. Research across domains shows that it is only by working at what you can’t do that you turn into the expert you want to become.”

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