It seems like everyone these days wants to become an expert in their field, and we’d all like to get there faster than the next person. But at the same time, there’s a school of thought that says it takes 10,000 hours to truly become an expert at something, and it can be really difficult to find shortcuts to becoming an expert.
That 10,000 hour rule may not be strictly true–it’s not as if a switch flips at 10,000 and you suddenly know more than you did at 9,999–but the truth is that becoming an expert in any endeavor takes a lot of hard work, and there aren’t really any shortcuts to an expert status. You don’t have to take my word for it; plenty of knowledgeable people have said the same thing.
Regardless of natural talent, becoming a true expert takes time.
“Achievement is talent plus preparation,” said Malcolm Gladwell, the economist who made the 10,000 hour rule a popular notion. “The closer psychologists look at the careers of the gifted, the smaller the role innate talent seems to play and the bigger the role preparation seems to play.”
The idea that expertise takes a long time to cultivate came from the work of K. Anders Ericsson, who wrote, “even for the most talented individuals, ten years of experience in a domain is necessary to become an expert,” though he also noted that 10 years isn’t a magic number, but a long time must be devoted to study and practice to get really good at something.
Psychologist Earl Hunt agrees. “Becoming an expert in almost anything requires literally years of work. People will do this only if they have some initial success, enjoy the work, and are supported by the social climate. Expertise is not solely a cognitive affair.”
Poet Maya Angelou has said, “all great achievements require time,” and becoming an expert surely would qualify.
Keep trying, even if you fail.
Whether or not you believe expertise requires a lot of time, it certainly requires a lot of effort, as the businessman W. Clement Stone noted.
“Try, try, try, and keep on trying is the rule that must be followed to become an expert in anything,” he said.
The Danish physicist Niels Bohr would add that all that trying is important because it allows you to make mistakes: “An expert is a man who has made all the mistakes which can be made, in a narrow field.”
Edward de Bono, known as an expert on creative thinking, put it another way, noting that experts know what not to focus on when making choices. “An expert is someone who has succeeded in making decisions and judgments simpler through knowing what to pay attention to and what to ignore,” he said.
Focus on something specific.
It’s a popular notion among experts on expertise that it’s likely that people will become true experts in only one field.
Ericcson noted this in research he did with Paul Fletovich and Michael Prietula, which said, “people hardly ever reach an elite level in more than a single domain of activity. There is little transfer from high-level proficiency in one domain to proficiency in other domains–even when the domains seem, intuitively, very similar.” So a person may become expert at one style of writing or playing one musical instrument or performing one sort of sport, but not have the same abilities in a related field.
Or, as Alex Trebek put it, “we are all experts in our own little niches.” Or Nicholas M. Butler, a philosopher and Nobel Prize winner, noted, “An expert is one who knows more and more about less and less.”
Because, of course, even experts have to keep learning. The motivational speaker Denis Waitley put it this way: “Never become so much of an expert that you stop gaining expertise. View life as a continuous learning experience.”
As indeed it should be. Perhaps we should spend a little less time worrying about how long it takes and whether there are shortcuts to becoming an expert and instead consider our life’s work to be becoming an expert at living our lives, in whatever particular niche we choose.
Skeptical about the 10,000 hour rule? Read about a refutation of the theory from the world of sports.