Becoming an Expert

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“Once he understood that it wasn’t knowledge that was power, but the application of it, his life had completely changed.” – Act of War by Brad Thor

In Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers: The Story of Success the arbitrary 10,000 hours to become an expert was introduced to me. I’d never thought much about what it takes to develop expertise in a particular knowledge domain.

“In fact, researchers have settled on what they believe is the magic number for true expertise: ten thousand hours.

“The emerging picture from such studies is that ten thousand hours of practice is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert—in anything,” writes the neurologist Daniel Levitin. “In study after study, of composers, basketball players, fiction writers, ice skaters, concert pianists, chess players, master criminals, and what have you, this number comes up again and again. Of course, this doesn’t address why some people get more out of their practice sessions than others do. But no one has yet found a case in which true world-class expertise was accomplished in less time. It seems that it takes the brain this long to assimilate all that it needs to know to achieve true mastery.”

Practice isn’t the thing you do once you’re good. It’s the thing you do that makes you good.

This was the opportunity that greeted Bill Joy when he arrived on the Ann Arbor campus in the fall of 1971. He hadn’t chosen Michigan because of its computers. He had never done anything with computers in high school. He was interested in math and engineering. But when the programming bug hit him in his freshman year, he found himself—by the happiest of accidents—in one of the few places in the world where a seventeen-year-old could program all he wanted.

“Do you know what the difference is between the computing cards and time-sharing?” Joy says. “It’s the difference between playing chess by mail and speed chess.” Programming wasn’t an exercise in frustration anymore. It was fun.

“I lived in the north campus, and the Computer Center was in the north campus,” Joy went on. “How much time did I spend there? Oh, a phenomenal amount of time. It was open twenty-four hours. I would stay there all night, and just walk home in the morning. In an average week in those years, I was spending more time in the Computer Center than on my classes. All of us down there had this recurring nightmare of forgetting to show up for class at all, of not even realizing we were enrolled.

Gladwell, Malcolm. Outliers: The Story of Success (p. 45). Hachette Book Group. Kindle Edition

Reading about Bill Joy, I felt like I was reading about my life and introduction to computers and programming at Duke University in 1968. Bill Joy’s experience was my experience. But then my ego cut in and asked “so why is Bill Joy famous and I am not?”

I’ve spent a lot of time over the years trying to answer that question. I’ve also spent a lot of years trying to answer the question “can you become an expert in less than 10,000 hours?”

I found part of the answer to the first question a couple of pages later:

“At Michigan, I was probably programming eight or ten hours a day,” he went on. “By the time I was at Berkeley I was doing it day and night. I had a terminal at home. I’d stay up until two or three o’clock in the morning, watching old movies and programming. Sometimes I’d fall asleep at the keyboard”—he mimed his head falling on the keyboard—“and you know how the key repeats until the end, and it starts to go beep, beep, beep? After that happens three times, you have to go to bed. I was still relatively incompetent even when I got to Berkeley. I was proficient by my second year there. That’s when I wrote programs that are still in use today, thirty years later.” He paused for a moment to do the math in his head—which for someone like Bill Joy doesn’t take very long. Michigan in 1971. Programming in earnest by sophomore year. Add in the summers, then the days and nights in his first year at Berkeley. “So, so maybe…ten thousand hours?” he said, finally. “That’s about right.”

Gladwell, Malcolm. Outliers: The Story of Success (pp. 46-47). Hachette Book Group. Kindle Edition.

Bill Joy did a couple of things differently than we did at our Duke Medical Center computing laboratory. First he worked on open source software – Unix. Secondly, he worked in a geographic hotbed of computing – Silicon Valley. We worked on rewriting a proprietary version of the DEC PDP-11 DOS operating system to make it multi-user. There wasn’t much of a community either locally or nationally for us to work with. And we weren’t interested in sharing our work for free.

Since Gladwell published Outliers, a lot of articles showed up to explain the concept further. This article lists a lot of the additional research and points out that 10,000 hours is relatively arbitrary. In “You Will Never Become an Expert in Anything Unless…“, the authors add four more attributes to Gladwell’s 10,000 hours:

  • Clear, Timely Feedback
  • A Predictable Environment
  • Joy – does the activity bring you joy?
  • An opportunity to get out of your comfort zone

I would add a few other attributes to the list from my own experiences:

  • Shift from focusing on answers to focusing on powerful questions
  • Embed yourself in a community of other individuals wanting to become experts in the same knowledge domain
  • Spend an equal amount of time on maintaining the objects and tools of your expertise
  • Incorporate double loop learning, reflection in/on action and after action reviews
  • Overcome the four challenges to learning

Shift from focusing on answers to questions

During my time of mentoring by Russ Ackoff, my big takeaway was that Western Education has it all wrong by focusing everything on answers to questions prepared by a teacher.  He pointed out that most deep learning occurs when the student comes up with their own questions.  In On Questions, I capture a life time of wrestling with this switch to focusing on questions.

I notice how challenging this switch to questions versus answers is every time I ask a colleague to take notes for me when I give a presentation.  I instruct them to only take down the questions that are asked, not any answers I give.  I share with them that I can always recreate the answers.  What I have a hard time with while presenting is remembering what was the exact question that was asked.  I have yet to get back a set of notes that capture the questions.  My colleagues no matter how much I cajole them just capture my answers.  The problem with getting others to pay attention to the questions is one of many reasons I love the ability of tools like otter.ai to generate transcripts from digital conversations.

I also observe how difficult this switch is when advanced academic students switch from taking courses to performing research (like when they enter a PhD program).  Suddenly after a long successful career of taking classes, they are asked to come up with their own questions to drive their own unique research.  Most researchers find it a challenge to switch from answers to questions.

Embed yourself in a community of committed learners

I wanted to learn more about fine wine production.  I embedded myself at Benziger Family Winery while providing some technology consulting.  The director of marketing at the time was studying for his Masters of Wine certification.  I had recently picked up a bottle of Puccioni Zinfandel from Glenn Proctor that was produced at Benziger Family Winery and I wanted to see how good my colleague was at the practical part of the Masters of Wine (MW) exam.  This part of the exam tests the candidate in a 12 wine blind tasting for an assessment of variety, origin, commercial appeal, winemaking, quality and style.

Chris blindly tasted my Zinfandel and did a stunning job of assessing the wine according to the MW criteria.  At the end, he shared “but it isn’t really a Zinfandel.  It is a good blend that has some Zinfandel in it but there are several other varieties in it as well.  There is Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Cabernet Franc.”  I objected sharing that the winemaker assured me that it was 100% Zinfandel from his family vineyard. 

We heard laughter at the end of the tasting room bar from one of the assistant winemakers.

“Chris is right,” he shared.  “I am the one who tended the barrels of Zinfandel and when it came time to top off the barrels due to evaporation, we would add whatever red wines we had handy.  Those other red wines were what we had available.”

I was impressed.

Chris then asked if I wanted to join his community of MW students for their Wednesday night tasting sessions.  Absolutely.  I attended the next session where the wines for tasting that night were from the Priorat region of Spain.  One student volunteered for each session to pick out the wines and provide an overview of the region and styles.  Then the blind tastings occurred.  Each student wrote down their assessments about each of the 10 wines.  Then the group shared their answers.  I was stunned at how well they each did.  I thought I was viewing one of those movie experts given a random wine and they could place the vineyard and the winemaker.  I always thought that was a joke.  Yet, here I watched five MW students each be able to assess the wines in great detail.

I witnessed at the time a group that was discussing the attributes mentioned in the article above.  There was great joy in the session.  The reciprocal learning that occurred amongst peers as they gathered immediate feedback was extensive.  They were in a predictable environment with trusted colleagues.  Yet, each class session was an exercise in getting out of their comfort zones with wines and a region that they were barely familiar with.  I also observed them asking questions and making assessments beyond the MW questions.  By asking additional questions they were getting ready for the research paper phase of their MW exam.

Maintaining the objects of your expertise

Recently, my son John, shared the highlights of an off road motorcycle trip he’d taken with his tribe.  They explored the wilderness surrounding Moab, Utah, for days at a time.  He described the thrills and challenges of the riding on his bigger off road motorcycle along with the breakdowns and maintenance problems they encountered.

I realized that over the last ten years John had developed a 10,000 hour expertise in off road motor cycling. I had not connected that he had also developed a 10,000 hour expertise in maintaining his coterie of 10 plus motorcycles. 

I wondered aloud if maintaining motorcycles was the same expertise as riding a motorcycle.  As we talked, I realized that there were at least three separate 10,000 expert mastery that he achieved.  One is the art of riding.  One is the art of maintaining.  The third is the art of planning for different types of off roading and track riding.  Knowing how to assess the risk of a ride and the cost of not bringing the right tools and replacement parts was an expertise in itself that John had mastered.

John expanded on the two key expertises of riding and maintaining with the example of tuning the suspensions on each of his bikes.  “It is winter time so now is the time I can do the time consuming work of taking my suspension apart and replacing all the bearings and such.  I’ve been feeling the slight problems with some of the components of my suspension.  This is different than tuning my suspension for a particular off road or track environment.  I know there is something wrong now.  So winter is when I fix it.”

“During the rest of the year, when I am riding I am constantly evaluating how I want my ride to feel.  Prior to a ride, I tune my suspension for the kind of terrain we are going to be on.  I am constantly doing A/B comparisons with mechanically what I need to tune along with how I want my ride to feel.  Kind of like usability in software with all the A/B tests.”

I then asked John how he learned to do both the riding and the maintaining.  I was in for more surprises.

“When I first started riding street motorcycles, 20 years ago, I took Eric Robinson’s advice and read Proficient Motorcycling by David Hough.  The book saved me an enormous amount of time.  But riding an off-road and trail motorcycle was much different.  While many of the books or Youtube videos helped me get started,  I just had to go out by myself and make a ton of mistakes and learn from the mistakes.  The books and videos helped with what to look out for or avoid.  It was the repetition and practice that helped me get better.  Sort of a feedback loop of watch/read, go out and practice, come back and watch/read, go back out and practice ad infinitum.”

“Now that I am proficient at trail riding, I can learn from my peers.  When we go riding I pay attention to how my peers deal with obstacles.  When I see someone being more successful, I stop and compare notes to understand what they did better than how I navigated the obstacle.”

I then asked how he started maintaining his motorcycles?

John shared that he took my recommendation to read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.  From Pirsig he took to heart that maintaining a motorcycle is different than maintaining a car.  If something bad happens mechanically on a motorcycle you are in a bad place.  Pirsig also shared that motorcycle mechanics generally are not as able as auto mechanics to find and fix what is wrong.  Starting with his street bikes, John has done all of his own maintenance.  

At the start, John was able to learn a lot on motorcycle maintenance from online forums.  With the advent of Youtube, most every maintenance procedure he wants to do on a particular make and model of bike has a video of how to do the diagnosis and fix the problem.  

As we talked I realized that developing a specific expertise may require a specific type of learning and a specific medium for learning.

Reflection In/On Action

Donald Schon introduced several themes around reflection in action and reflection on action.  These themes included his description of double loop learning.  Hugh Munby of Queen’s University introduces these concepts:

“Schon’s two books (The Reflective Practitioner, Educating the Reflective Practitioner) advance the position that there is a fundamentally important aspect to the knowledge possessed by professionals that has been overlooked. Initially, he develops his case by arguing that our academic institutions place undue emphasis upon “technical rationality”~the disciplines of knowledge and the methods that are believed to make formal, prepositional knowledge reliable and valid. Our society’s emphasis upon technical rationality, Schon argues, has led to an undervaluing of the practical knowledge of action that is central to the work of practitioners. This form of knowledge, which he calls “knowing-in-action,” is the practical knowledge that professionals hold about their professional work and that cannot be formulated in prepositional terms. By exploring the elements of knowing-in-action, Schon demonstrates that professional knowledge itself has been virtually unrecognized because it appears not to be as “rigorous” as knowledge developed in the more familiar and public “scientific” research traditions. In his argument, Schon proposes a fundamental reorganization of how to think about professional practice and the relationship of theory to practice. For Schon, professional knowledge is developed within action, just as it is articulated within action.”

The US Military’s After Action Review process is another example of Reflection On Action.

While undergoing PTSD therapy after a severe auto accident, I encountered another form of reflection on action from Sharon Stanley:

“A somatic reflection can initiate a therapeutic encounter, be embedded within an encounter, conclude the processing of lived experience, or mark the closure of a therapeutic relationship. Somatic reflection begins with somatic awareness—an embodied higher cortical process, a totemic witness, that invites the integration of previously disconnected elements of lived experience into cohesion and connectivity. It is important for helping professionals to continually and intuitively reflect-in-action by recalling diverse moments of intersubjective connection, disconnection, and information regarding neural states, emotions, images, and thoughts, then integrate this material with right-hemispheric speed and acuity. The shared experience of somatic reflection informs the ongoing inquiry and interventions and gradually becomes more explicit in the therapeutic conversation. Once there has been some integration of subcortical elements, such as sensations with emotions, or movements with images, a somatic reflection has begun. At first, the moments of reflection and integration are short and to the point; however, as connectivity with higher cortical processes is formed, they become more frequent and expansive. The following example demonstrates the use of somatic reflection at the closure of a therapeutic session with a client.” – Relational and Body Centered Practices for Healing Trauma

Sharon’s steps for a “Reflection in Action” are:

  1. Recall States of Mind Before the Experience
  2. Recall the Vivid Moments of a Shared Lived Experience and Embody Those that Offer Vitality
  3. Recall arousal and emotions in that Encounter
  4. Identify the Emerging “New”
  5. Association of the New Material with Prior Knowledge
  6. Valuing the New
  7. What do you Imagine Might Change with This New Knowledge

Overcoming the Challenges to Learning

Carlos Casteneda introduced me to the challenges of life long learning in The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge:

“When a man starts to learn, he is never clear about his objectives.  His purpose is faulty; his intent is vague.  He hopes for rewards that will never materialize for he knows nothing of the hardships of learning.

“He slowly begins to learn – bit by bit at first, then in big chunks.  And his thoughts soon clash.  What he learns is never what he pictured, or imagined, and so he begins to be afraid.  Learning is never what one expects.  Every step of learning is a new task, and the fear the man is experiencing begins to mount mercilessly, unyieldingly.  His purpose becomes a battlefield.

“And thus he has stumbled upon the first of his natural enemies:  Fear!

“And thus he has encountered his second enemy:  Clarity!  That clarity of mind, which is so hard to obtain dispels fear, but also blinds.

“But he has also come across his third enemy: Power!  Power is the strongest of all enemies.  And naturally the easiest thing to do is to give in; after all, the man is truly invincible.  He commands; he begins by taking calculated risks, and ends in making rules, because he is a master.

“The man will be, by then, at the end of his journey of learning, and almost without warning he will come upon the last of his enemies: Old Age!  This enemy is the cruelest of all, the one he won’t be able to defeat completely, but only fight away.”

I laugh every time I read the last challenge on the journey of learning – overcoming Old Age. I resemble that remark now.

In Summary

Becoming an expert requires intention and practice. This posts suggest that there are several practices beyond Gladwell’s 10,000 hour requirement to become an expert.

  • Clear, Timely Feedback
  • A Predictable Environment
  • Joy – does the activity bring you joy?
  • An opportunity to get out of your comfort zone
  • Shift from focusing on answers to focusing on powerful questions
  • Embed yourself in a community of other individuals wanting to become experts in the same knowledge domain
  • Spend an equal amount of time on maintaining the objects and tools of your expertise
  • Incorporate double loop learning, reflection in action, reflection on action, and after action reviews into your expertise practices
  • Overcome the four challenges of learning

This is the first in a series of blog posts on the practices to develop expertise and mastery.

This entry was posted in Content with Context, Knowledge Management, Learning, Personal Knowledge Mastery. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Becoming an Expert

  1. Hello Skip
    Hope you are doing well. I your expert has it wrong – we don’t typically use any CS or ME in our blend – it is Zinfandel and Petite Sirah. What was the vintage in question? Thanks Glenn

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