So You Want To Be an Expert?

In high school I used to wonder how many levels of expertise could be defined between rudimentary and world class capability in any activity. By a level, I mean an increase in expertise such that a contest between two adjacent levels would be no contest. This subject occurred to me while I was a manager of my high school tennis team. One’s brain has to be engaged in something while performing menial duties.[Aside: I was not good enough to be on the team, but being manager got me an A in PE and an excuse to skip 5th period English some days. Actually I liked English and this class was taught by my favorite high school teacher. But I tended to be a bit of a smart ass and knew it drove him nuts, and knew that he knew that I knew that it drove him nuts. It was a joke between us. In the end, it was probably his recommendation letter that got me into my first choice of college.]

I considered myself to be a level 0 (novice) tennis player; i.e. someone with no prior experience could pick up a racket and give me a contest. I considered the sixth man on our team proficient; he could beat me at love without breaking a sweat. Because this seemed an order of magnitude improvement, I assigned him to level 1. Following this argument, our number 1 player was capable of beating our number 6 at love, and I assigned him to level 2, expert. A nearby high school had the city champ as their number 1 player, and he beat our number 1 at love in a match, so I assigned him to level 3, championship. I thought he was really hot stuff until someone told me there was a kid my age up in Bakersfield that had beaten him at love. Wow, there was a level 4. How high did the ladder reach?

I couldn’t answer this question until a few years later when the Bakersfield kid became a Davis Cup and Wimbledon star. Then I knew I had found the top rung, world-class. Based on these observations, it seems that there are arguably five levels of expertise distinction. The next question is how hard does one have to work to reach each level of expertise? A book that Owen gifted me, This Is Your Brain On Music, reports that to achieve world class expertise in any activity, researchers have determined that 10,000 hours practice is required. I have since discovered this figure quoted by other sources as well. This estimate appears consistent over a variety of activity types, and seems independent of the quality of instruction and any differences in talent (but I think one must start with some level of talent to succeed – for example, I expect I could spend 10K hours practicing drawing and would still be outclassed by a talented kindergartener.)

Ten thousand hours equates to three hours a day for 10 years. That’s a lot of practice. But I don’t want to be a level 4 in anything. Rather, I would like to achieve proficiency (level 1) in a couple of things that interest me. So how hard must I work? Assuming linearity of the effort-expertise curve, I need 2500 hours to reach proficiency, equating to ninety minutes a day for five years. One cannot do that without gobs of dedication, discipline, and motivation. My hat’s off to all those who have reached level 1 in an activity. I am considering lowering my goal to advanced novice (level 0.5). One needs to know one’s limitations. Of course, the curve is probably not linear; the most obvious return on practice time seems to come early in one’s game. So my lowered effort might get me close to proficiency.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s