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How to Become an Expert. The Effective Way.

experts are made, not born – Scientific American

Disclaimer: This post is devoted to a person who wants to become an expert – the top player in a specific field as programming, soccer or chess. This post will be not interesting for people who are satisfied with their current performance and not interested to be the best.

If you want to become an expert, it is not enough to follow your work assignments or occasionally play with interesting stuff at home. You have to push yourself hard in specially designed way.

@Work
Your paid work tasks and projects are not designed to make you an expert. Your company expects results from your work: reliable, with minimal mistakes and focused on the company main goal – make money. Your employer could provide minimal training to help you with job requirements. However, your growth will be constrained by company needs, timelines, work assignments and acceptable methods. We cannot blame our organizations – this is part of the deal – they pay for your work and expect specific results. But… is this the best way for you to become an expert, acquire new skills and gain knowledge? To become an expert, you have to make many mistakes, learn from them, experiment with alternatives and work hard on your weaknesses. How many organizations do allow this risky, unproductive and unreliable way of working?

@Home
Your play at home with interesting stuff has problems too. To satisfy your programming instincts and curiosity, you will probably select what you enjoy to do and eager to try. You’ll immense in this activity and find great satisfaction from doing it. But…  is this the best way to become an expert by doing only what you like? Becoming an expert requires hard, sometimes unpleasant work, specifically designed to improve your performance and push you over comfort zone.

Genesis of an expert

Research shows that experts do not have more innate talent, but put more effort and dedication. Newcomers to the field need at least 10 years to become an expert. They move through several stages: from a novice, who blindly follows rules, to an expert, who does not need rules.
Most people will stop on the level of competent specialist acceptable for the majority of jobs in the field. Only few will continue pushing forward to achieve the top level.

We agree that expert performance is qualitatively different from normal performance and even that expert performers have characteristics and abilities that are qualitatively different from or at least outside the range of those of normal adults. However, we deny that these differences are immutable, that is, due to innate talent. Only a few exceptions, most notably height, are genetically prescribed. Instead, we argue that the differences between expert performers and normal adults reflect a life-long period of deliberate effort to improve performance in a specific domain. – Anders Ericsson

Even the novice engages in effortful study at first, which is why beginners so often improve rapidly in playing golf, say, or in driving a car. But having reached an acceptable performance–for instance, keeping up with one’s golf buddies or passing a driver’s exam–most people relax. Their performance then becomes automatic and therefore impervious to further improvement. In contrast, experts-in-training keep the lid of their mind’s box open all the time, so that they can inspect, criticize and augment its contents and thereby approach the standard set by leaders in their fields. Scientific American

Kathy Sierra wrote that you, to become an expert who kicks ass, should keep reminding: “I’ll keep pushing myself. There’s always some way to do it better…”. How should we push ourselves?

If you do same tasks over and over again, you will not become an expert. If you do what you are good at, you will not improve your overall performance. You should focus on improving skills beyond your present competence. Outcome of your practice as not as important as developing your capabilities.
You can spend years doing your favorite activities and still stay at amateur level while dedicated novice can quickly leave you behind. Practice should concentrate around your weaknesses and areas that are important, but you probably try to avoid. You should repeatedly progress to the higher level through persistent training and overcome your limits.

Anders Ericsson (his research is the most influential in this area) calls this approach deliberate practice:

“Deliberate 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.”

Design your practice

Follow 7 steps

1. Who is an expert?
You should understand what is the profile of an expert that you want to be – required capabilities, knowledge, areas of expertise and types of the problems experts work on.
Have a beer with guru and ask for opinion (early enough), study job advertisements for high skilled positions (don’t be carried away), read about top players – why they are considered experts, what makes them special (skip part how they spend money) and how they achieved top level.

2. Find your gaps and weaknesses.

You can identify areas which require improvement once you know the profile of the ideal expert. Put them on the list and assign importance.

3. Build roadmap.
Answer the questions: in what order you want to work on these areas and what are the major steps.
Instead of focusing for a long time on one area, I would recommend to go in spiral – learn and practice various areas in parallel. Each spiral cycle should add to your experience small, but integral chunk of core expertise. Often developing diverse skills together brings synergy – deeper perspective, holistic view and increased capabilities for wider range of tasks.

4. Design practice to improve performance
Set specific goals and methods – how do you improve performance, gain skills and knowledge for each area.
Consider famous SMART goals for practice: specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, time-boxed. Coach, who can effectively guide you, is very helpful on this stage. However, you can go alone if you are motivated and disciplined enough.
Don’t burn yourself too much – your mind and body should be ready and eager to practice. Give yourself time for recovery, life and other favorite activities, otherwise you’ll soon hate your practice.

5. Everyday practice on the edge of capabilities – at least 30 minutes
Deliberate practice is highly demanding and requires intensive concentration and focus. The practice should be scheduled, clear and focused – don’t give yourself chances to procrastinate. Concentrate on the excellence of execution – sloppy practice is not acceptable for top players. You should practice challenging tasks on the edge of your capabilities. Compare playing basketball with professional players or beginner kids from the neighborhood. Who will push you more and show how good you are?
Observe and understand how and what you do – this process will develop intuition and patterns in your brains for future fast automatic decision making. Train yourself to think and act on the higher level – what is difficult for other people, should be trivial for you.

6. Feedback
Constant feedback loop is the must in deliberate practice. Correct assessment of performance and results with following adjustment of practice will move you much faster. And certainly, interested and qualified coach capable of giving constructive and painful feedback is very important. Each day of practice should move you forward against higher and higher standards.

7. Correct your roadmap and practice.
Feedback, self-evaluation and practical use of your skills will tell if you are on the right track. Be fluid and open for change of direction, new knowledge and unexpected opportunities. Learn and adjust goals, plans and methods on the go. As Eisenhower said: plans are nothing, planning is everything. Your rise as an expert will open for you new horizons that definitely change your plans and original intentions.

Additional Requirements

  • Discipline, motivation, unsatisfaction – top experts are extremely dedicated, disciplined and motivated to grow and improve performance. Without the goal of improving performance, the motivation to engage in practice vanishes, and practice becomes boring routine.
  • Support – you’ll have ups and downs, moments of despair and disbelief. You need somebody who can understand, compassionate and encourage – friends, family, colleagues or a coach.

Deliberate practice in context

Practice @Work
Deliberate practice methods and work objectives are different. However, it is possible to grow as an expert and work productively.

  • First, your company could have work in target areas of your expertise growth. Position yourself to take advantage of any opportunity to move there.
  • Second, any company will benefit from motivated and competent player, who wants to grow his capabilities. A smart company will support and encourage your drive… and use for own benefits.

Strategy:

  1. Job intelligence – what are opportunities, potential projects and tasks to assist with your progress as an expert? How can your help your company while upgrading your skills? Invent new opportunities. You have to build case for your advance and show benefits for the company.
  2. Call for the job redesign – many companies will be flexible for people who wants to progress and contribute more (if no, maybe you are in the wrong place)
  3. Productive work and intensive practice – work in the best way to help with your goals, but don’t make a company victim of your practice. Separate prototyping and experiments from production work. Make them open, controllable with a clear statement of benefits. Seek for challenging assignments on the edge of your capabilities.
  4. Tap into company pool of talents, expertise and knowledge – this is free (actually paid) opportunity to use coaching and valuable resources for growth acceleration. Ask for advises, guidance and feedback.

You will find, as your star is rising (expertise growing), that you have more freedom to work in areas that have the most interest for you.

Practice @Home, @Train or @Cafe
This is time for

  • research, learning, thinking
  • crazy experiments
  • irrelevant to your work practice
  • practice that need special focus, time and conditions, difficult to achieve at work

Formal training
Qualified and relevant training can move you much faster. If you decide to invest in education be very specific what you expect and make sure that you’ll not waste your time.

Sample Road to become Web Development Expert
You can identify few key areas:

  • HTML / CSS
  • Graphic Design / Art
  • Usability / Aesthetics
  • Information Architecture
  • Client – side programming / javascript / AJAX
  • RIA (e.g. Silverlight / Flash)
  • Server – side programming and databases

And design practice for each of them, for example:

Area Strategic Importance
(or why I need this)
Expertise Gaps Practice / Learning Goals Actions
HTML/CSS core for building web sites lack of experience with advanced css and layouts master css, be comfortable with building any complex layouts phase 1:
@work:

  • build myself CSS for assignments at work
  • seek guidance of senior web designer
  • learn company’s best practices

@home:

  • learn advanced online css guides
  • read CSS Mastery book
  • absorb leading composition styles
  • dissect CSS Zen Garden designs
  • find interesting designs and build complex CSS layouts for them, make them better

Experts: Executive Summary

Experts are essential for the company/team competitive advantage. They enable revolutions and support evolution.

Experts are made, not born. Experts are made by themselves. It is a long, thorny and hard road. But this road makes their life interesting, positive, meaningful and brings happiness from achieving a rare gift – mastery in the field they love.

Albert Camus said: But what is happiness except the simple harmony between a man and the life he leads?

For few people the harmony is a journey to become The Master.

Resources:
The Expert Mind , Scientific American
How to be an expert , Kathy Sierra
The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance, K. Anders Ericsson, Ralf Th. Krampe, and Clemens Tesch-Romer

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Comments

Excellent article. Experts are those who are not happy with 80% knowledge, they want to explore the remaining 20% which might not be required for their job title or survival. Thanks for sharing the links.

Comment by noushad moidunny | March 16, 2009 8:01 am

This article was very enjoying. Maybe you could write a bit more about the “exercises” that people can do to achieve the expert status.

Comment by Geo | March 16, 2009 8:34 am

Excellent indeed. I guess anyone with a little bit of ambition for self improvement would significantly benefit from this article. However, I’d like to point out a thought about companies HR policies: some companies do adopt and implement Business Excellence models which requires them to provide further training opportunities for their employees; this way they can facilitate employee skills and abilities improvement, as a result of which employees would put much better effort to their work – as opposed to just getting the job that was assigned to them “done” – and they would stay with the company for longer periods of time, contributing to sustainable development of the company and last but not least, reducing company costs and boosting efficiency in the long term.
So, there could be a better company-employee relationship in this regard.

Comment by Michael Amin | March 16, 2009 9:19 am

This is really one of the betters post that I’ve read in all my live.

Thank you so much!

Comment by Roger Padilla | March 16, 2009 11:40 am

This article organize my mind. It’s beautiful and SUPER useful. Thank you!!!

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And then ? :) Good article anyway :)

Comment by nicholas | March 18, 2009 6:00 am

Well written. Well organized. Educational and inspiring. This is a quality post. Thank you.

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Pingback by links for 2009-03-23 « pabloidz | March 23, 2009 7:02 am

Poorly written. Overly simplistic conclusions. Could very well have been written by a bright 8th grader.

Comment by m0ntag | March 23, 2009 9:28 am

Thanks everybody for your comments and good words.

m0ntag: This post is not Ph.D. thesis. I use simple language to write about complex and important topics to be understood by the most software professionals. I believe that clarity is very important in our ambiguous information world.

Certainly, I would like to hear your counter-arguments and what conclusions are oversimplified. And also I am happy that this topic was approachable for you.

Comment by Andriy Solovey | March 23, 2009 11:56 am

I wish that all developers will follow this instruction in our company.

Comment by Skilled Web | March 23, 2009 2:16 pm

Just to stick up a little for m0ntag here – but also to back you up: the article is not that well written, but I don’t think you should be offended by this considering English is probably not your first language. However, this did make reading the article a little awkward and cumbersome at times. Nevertheless, I feel the sentiment of the article is good.

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Amazing and amazingly well-written article. it’s my 2nd read from this site, i think i’ll be a regular soon

Comment by Jay K | April 14, 2009 11:03 pm

Great post. I loved how you made it clear that the beginners follow the rules while for an expert there are no rules. Very liberating!

Another point. You mention dissatisfaction. There are experts who are absolutely satisfied with where they are yet still look to progress. Call it curiosity, call it openness to the new. But it is NOT dissatisfaction that is driving them forward!

Comment by Matt|Dofollow Cool|Money Blog | November 14, 2009 6:56 pm

Hi Andriy,
I am always late in replying at your post! I may agree that is about practicing, practicing and… practicing. I have just one comment; in today development you can not be an expert in all possible facets about an artifact. So, something that is missing in your post is: “keep exercise your social attitude!”
This is essential otherwise you will never be able to understand the requirements of your customers and your result may be an excellent piece of work but will not cover the need of your clients.

Talk next,
Francesco

Comment by Francesco | December 9, 2009 12:24 pm

This is certainly one of the best post I ever read online on becoming an expert specifically as an web developer.

Once again, thank you for such inspirational post for novice like me.

Kudos man.

Comment by Felix | January 18, 2010 12:23 pm

You’re an inspiration! Keep up with the good work.

Comment by Ben | April 26, 2010 6:30 am

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