What is it that makes an expert, an expert?

Building expertise is a favorite here. New York Times magazine carried a superb article by the Freakanomics authors Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Boulder that attempts to answer the question – where does talent come from? [Lot of good links here]. The short answer to the question is – it comes from practice. They have picked a lot of material from the upcoming book The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance by Anders Ericsson:

a professor of psychology at Florida State University and the
ringleader of what might be called the Expert Performance Movement.
Ericsson and his colleagues have spent years trying to figure out how
the best pianists, golfers, soccer players, surgeons, writers,
stockbrokers, and chess players in the world got so good. How far can
talent take you? What role does selection play — and how about

One major insight for me and Priya Raju is – Ericsson’s emphasis on the need for effective ongoing feedback:

And it would probably pay to rethink a great deal of medical training.  Ericsson has noted that most doctors actually perform worse the longer they are out of medical school. Surgeons, however, are an exception. That’s because they are constantly exposed to two key elements of deliberate practice: immediate feedback and specific goal-setting. 

The same is not true for, say, a mammographer. When a doctor reads a
mammogram, she doesn’t know for certain if there is breast cancer or
not. She will be able to know only weeks later, from a biopsy, or years
later, when no cancer develops. Without meaningful feedback, a doctor’s
ability actually deteriorates over time. Ericsson suggests a new mode
of training.

“Imagine a situation where a doctor could diagnose mammograms from old
cases and immediately get feedback of the correct diagnosis for each
case,” he says.

“Working in such a learning environment, a doctor might see more different cancers in one day than in a couple of years of normal practice.”

<Via Arun Sankaranarayanan> I can easily relate to the aspect of practice, but probably did not realize the far-reaching impact of it. However, my personal experience has been in the one area for which there is a passing reference – Goal Setting.  I have found that by having very high expectations of people that work with you, you can actually get them to exceed stretch goals.  Coupling stretch goals with ongoing feedback can help you work wonders with people that are considered no-good by other managers.  I picked this idea from the Pygmalion Effect discovered by brilliant psychologists Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson. Excerpt from Wikipedia:

In their study, they showed that if teachers were led to expect enhanced performance from some children, then the children did indeed show that enhancement. In some cases such improvement was about twice that showed by other children in the same class.

1. Flashback – we had covered this expertise topic earlier, which has some additional material.
2. How to be a star at work by Robert E. Kelley   I read this excellent book a while ago. It has some great advice for becoming a star.  Technorati Tags: , ,