Updated: Aug 24
I enjoy watching world class athletes compete in the Olympics. Like experts in any field, they make complex and challenging tasks look easy to us mere mortals. For those of us rocking along in everyday life, being a world class expert at something can seem out of reach. However, whether striving for career improvement or pursuing a favorite hobby, we all have the ability to significantly develop our expertise.
For those building organizations, you want people who are effectively developing as experts on your team. I have been thinking about what it takes to truly become an expert at something. Out of this research, I have identified three key components to developing as an expert.
A Passion for Excellence
After Tiger Woods won the Masters in 2005, he still was not satisfied. He reportedly watched his near perfect swing and found ten areas of improvement. Relentlessly, he committed to breaking apart his swing and relearning a new one. He could have played it safe. He could have stayed comfortable with his level of success. Instead, he pursued excellence. The common denominator seems to be a passion for innovation and improvement.
Do you have a desire to do things a little better tomorrow than today? Are you looking for little ways to improve all the time? When interviewing, I look for people who are always innovating and thinking of creative ways to do things to make a difference. Passion alone though is not enough to become an expert. For those pursuing the path of expertise, there is also the key ingredient of work.
As many a coach has reminded his or her athletes, EFFORT comes before SUCCESS. It is commonly stated that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to master any craft. Dr. Anders Ericsson, the noted expert on experts stated, “the accumulated amount of deliberate practice is closely related to the attained level of performance of [most] experts.” In The Mental ABC’s of Pitching sports psychologist H.A. Dorfman stresses that, “Self-discipline is a form of freedom. Freedom from laziness and lethargy, freedom from expectations and demands of others, freedom from weakness and fear — and doubt.”
As I debate whether to get my lazy rear end out of bed and hit the gym, it is clear what really separates the experts from the rest of us. They push ahead. They go the extra mile. In the working world, this takes the form of continually learning on the job. Whether going to the next seminar or regularly reading in your chosen field, it is about a commitment to growing and expanding in your expertise.
We all know people who are passionate and work hard but still seem to be stuck on the treadmill of success never really getting ahead. What is the missing ingredient? What is the secret sauce that the true experts know? The critical differentiator is the debrief.
Dr. Ericsson calls this deliberate practice. Ericsson notes, “Just because you've been walking for 55 years doesn't mean you're getting better at it. You have to seek out situations where you get feedback. It's a myth that you get better when you just do the things you enjoy." A monkey can bang on a piano three hours a day. An expert practices with a purpose and constantly fine tunes based on the results. As a former tennis coach, I used to video my students to help them visualize the minor adjustments needed to improve their strokes.
Former fight pilot Jim Murphy in his book Flawless Execution introduces the reader to the Flawless Execution model the military uses. He describes that after every mission the first thing a pilot does is to debrief. The team candidly assesses every mission. What went right or wrong? What could be done better? How can the lessons be applied on the next mission? For these courageous military men and women, their lives literally depend on constantly improving in their performance. While your life may not depend on debriefing your last presentation, sales call, or meeting, we can all benefit from this acquired skill.
How about you? Are you ready to finally tackle mastering that golf game? How about in your parenting? Wouldn’t we all benefit from additional expertise in how we raise our kids? What about your career? Are you stagnating or on a path of success? Dr. Ericsson’s research concluded that “with the exception of some sports, no characteristic of the brain or body constrains an individual from reaching an expert level." Maybe I still have some hope.