Yesterday’s Thoughts

September 4, 2007

The Expert Mind

How does one become an expert and once you are an expert, what does that mean?

These to be important questions. For reasons I’ll go into below, I think that achieving expert knowledge in at least one field is critical for every thinking person.

As the final paragraph of this Scientific American article has it,

The preponderance of psychological evidence indicates that experts are made, not born. What is more, the demonstrated ability to turn a child quickly into an expert–in chess, music and a host of other subjects–sets a clear challenge before the schools. Can educators find ways to encourage students to engage in the kind of effortful study that will improve their reading and math skills?


The article, from which I take my title, summarizes some of the work over the past 100 years on the mental processes of chess grandmasters, “the Drosophila of cognitive science.” The advantages of studying grandmasters is that their area of expertise is narrow, the differences between individual masters are well measured and there is some evidence that the results from the studies of grandmasters can be generalized to expertise in other fields and even to the acquisition of basic skills.

What the grandmasters have done is transformed themselves into pattern matching machines of the highest order. “[The chess master] does not have to remember every detail at all times, because he can reconstruct any particular detail whenever he wishes by tapping a well-organized system of connections.” The master recognizes the pattern, having seen, and deeply experienced that pattern before. This is supported by results from the 50s that showed that although masters had much better recall of the positions of the pieces on the board from an actual chess match than lesser players or novices, they did little [define little, ed.] better than others when the pieces were arranged randomly.

This pattern recognition is built by “effortful study,” “continually tackling challenges that lie just beyond one’s competence,” which build the pattern matching or “chunking” structures in the brain.

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.

These are small differences that are magnified over time; small differences that accumulate and become a difference in kind. Apply yourself continually over 10 or more years to the study of anything and your performance in that field can no longer be compared to that of the person who has just bided their time. If expertise were wealth, and it is of a sort, this it is the difference between living paycheck to paycheck and investing ten percent of every paycheck in an profitable outside business. The compound interest theory of expertise.

But you’re not a genius, you don’t have talent. Wrong. Genius and talent are red herrings. What you need is motivation.

[M]otivation appears to be a more important factor than innate ability in the development of expertise.

How do you create/sustain/nourish the conditions for motivation for yourself, or for others? Years ago, I said of myself, when I had little motivation, “Enthusiasm is a state of grace.” I’ve been reflecting on my own experiences and those of other since that time, trying to find and to remain in that state of grace.

One obvious factor is success. If you are being successful at some activity that you love, there can be motivation aplenty. Your history in that activity is one step after another toward ever greater achievement and your rise appears, even to yourself, to be inevitable. In reality you are just getting much more practice, and that practice is productive “effortful” practice.

As one striving to become an expert, you need to maintain your motivation. As a leader, teacher, educator, or mentor of others, the goal is to create the conditions under which motivation stays high. This is the focus for leadership and it ought to be the focus for self-leadership as well. How are you going to run your group/business/self so that the motivation stays high.

I come back to motivation and leadership in a later post, but for now there are a couple of points I want to make about expertise.

1) Almost everyone can become an expert. The article discusses the development of tracking expertise. Peak skill levels in the tracking of animals are not reached until the hunter is in his thirties, after essentially 30 years of “effortful study.” The development of expertise has been critical in human evolution – we are designed for this – and we don’t really know what the limits are.

2) Almost everyone has become an expert. Those of us who have learned to walk, to speak, or to read have acquired an extra-ordinary level of expertise. How? We had a high degree of motivation to do all of these things. Acquiring these skills was pleasurable and opened up new possibilities to us. What else can we do with the next 10 years of our life and that degree of motivation? What will the possibilities be then?

3) Being an expert in one field doesn’t transfer to any other field. Quoting Scientific American, “American psychologist Edward Thorndike first noted this lack of transference over a century ago, when he showed that the study of Latin, for instance, did not improve command of English and that geometric proofs do not teach the use of logic in daily life.”

If expertise is not transferrable, why do I think that it is critical that every thinking person have the experience of expertise?

Firstly, because it is useful to have first hand knowledge of what expertise is. There is no shortage of people who have become “experts” by virtue of six months study, or by virtue of having a certain degree, or a certain credential. Sometimes these people’s degrees or credentials are quite similar to those of actual experts. It is useful to be able to tell the difference between these people. Sometime they might want to be operating on you, or telling you how to live, or how to raise your children.

Secondly, because acquiring expertise is the first step in acquiring expertise about expertise. Having engaged in the effortful study, you are in a position to engage in the effortful study of your own effortful study and that of those around you. You have “a” pattern and you can begin to assimilate more patterns and to recognize and differentiate between them. You are a better teacher, a better parent and a better communicator. You know what you know and what you don’t know.

Finally, I think that you can ease your path to expertise by understanding this process. There are some things that I thought could be taught to me, that weren’t really teachable. If you ask an expert, they don’t know how they know. They look into their experiences and pull out the answer the way you pull on your shoes. You don’t think about the details of each step you just do it. The same with the expert.

If you want to become an expert, you are going to have to have the experiences to draw on.

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