Being an expert takes time, not talent

I’ve been walking around with the July/August 2007 issue of the Harvard Business Review constantly, for close to three years. Sometimes, if I'm getting on a plane, I'll put it with the other heavy stuff into my luggage, and then get it out later. When my last car broke down in the middle of an intersection, I got the magazine out of the trunk before I abandoned the car.

The article that I'm attached to is The Making of an Expert by Anders Ericsson, Michael Prietula and Edward Cokely. I would not normally bother to tell you all three authors for one article in my blog. This is not a medical journal. But I love the article so much, that I want you to know all of them.

The article changed how I think about what I am doing here. In my life. I think I am trying to be an expert.

Being an expert is not what you think, probably. For one thing, the article explains that “there is no correlation between IQ and expert performance in fields such as chess, music, sports, and medicine. The only innate differences that turn out to be significant”?and they matter primarily in sports — are height and body size. ”

So what factor does correlate with success? One thing emerges very clearly is that successful performers “had practiced intensively, had studied with devoted teachers, and had been supported enthusiastically by their families throughout their developing years.”

There are a few things about the article that really make me nervous. The first is that you need to work every single day at being great at that one thing if you want to be great. This is true of pitching, painting, parenting, everything. And if you think management in corporate life is an exception, you're wrong. I mean, the article is in the Harvard Business Review for a reason.

It used to be, more than 100 years ago, that you could be a prodigy and come out of nowhere and be great. There are stories like that, ones we hang onto when we do things like watch the Olympics and allow ourselves to think, “Maybe I'll be on the luge team in 2014.”

Today the standard for being an international success at anything is so high that the authors say you need to spend at least ten years working in a very focused, everyday way on the thing you want to be great at. Evidence: high schools swimmers today would beat Olympic records from years ago. (And in fact, the importance of hard work over raw talent is the subject of the most popular Freakonomics column ever in the New York Times.)

This part of the research worries me because there is not a lot I have invested this much time in. Maybe the only thing is writing. I'm not sure.

Well, there are other things, but I'm not sure I could be great. Figure skating is a good example. I figure skated for ten years. I was good, until I went through puberty and then was clearly the wrong body type to be doing double flips. I should have been a basketball player. Maybe.

A lot of being great at something is having the right coaching, and part of the right coaching is someone telling you where you're not gonna make it and where you are. I'm not sure I have this right now.

But the coaching that successful experts get is special. According to the article, usually someone starts with a local coach, for anything, and then the person moves on to a coach who has achieved huge success himself. And people who practice very hard every day start to have a sense of who can be a coach who is capable of helping them succeed, and who is a coach they have outgrown.

An example the authors use is Mozart. Yes, he had innate ability, but also, his father was a professional violinist, skilled composer and wrote the first book ever on violin instruction.

I am panicking that maybe I am just figure skating again. Maybe I am doing something I'll never be great at. I worry about this because I don't actually know what I'm doing. Am I getting good at bringing a startup from fruition to exit? Am I getting good at writing career advice?

I am thinking, maybe, the thing I'm getting good at is living my life out in the open. But I'm starting to worry that it's like figure skating. Because I have a natural limit: I don't want my kids to be psycho from overexposure. The farmer doesn't like being on my blog, and I am not getting good coaching right now. I mean, I'm not getting any coaching, I don't think.

This reminds me of the day I realized that my figure skating coach was an alcoholic. My dad picked me up at the rink. He asked why my skate guards were on. I said I never went skating. I said, “I think Ivar is sick.”

My dad said, “Yeah. I've been thinking that for a while.”

I said, “I don't think he really can teach me any more.”

My dad said, “I've been thinking that for a while.”

I remember the heartbreak I felt knowing that I didn't have a teacher. I remember also realizing that it's important to know who can teach and who can't. If you are a person who wants to be an expert, the thing you want most is a teacher. I think that's why I carry the magazine with me everywhere I go. To remind me to look. Like my life depends on it.

But I’ve recently started reading research beyond the article, and it turns out that the teacher isn’t the important per se, but rather, what you need is immediate, helpful feedback. And this is what you get when you have a blog. So maybe I am still on my path to being an expert, and I’m just crowdsourcing my coaching.

Posted in Fulfillment, How to blog, No image, Productivity
149 comments on “Being an expert takes time, not talent
  1. Dennis says:

    10 000 hours is what Malcom Gladwell said, right?

    • Jennifer Ellis says:

      I was thinking the same thing, Dennis. (If anyone hasn’t read Outliers yet, I strongly recommend it.)

      I love this post, Penelope, because it’s timely for me. I had the most amazing supervisor who moved a couple of months ago and I am very aware of the growth I’ve achieved since she left (minimal to fair) and the growth I would have seen if she hadn’t left (much more significant), especially because I’m new to my field.

      I want to be more diligent about finding a mentor to help me grow, outside of my supervisor.

    • Derek says:

      Malcolm Gladwell made it famous Dennis.

      But, the bulk of the discovery was done by Anders Ericsson through several social psychological experiments. Most notably, the violinists, who all seemed to share 10,000 hours of experience before they were considered world-class.

      If you want further reading about this, you should check out his article “The Making of an Expert” which was written back in 2007.

  2. Angela says:

    This is another great post. I have been looking for a coach for many years. I need the direct feedback because I want to be very good at what I do. I haven’t had it, at all.

    • Bengt says:

      Don’t waste time looking for THE coach. Learn from people around you, pick more than one. Ask for feedback from people you trust.

      We meet many in our lives that can become our coaches or mentors, for longer or shorter periods of time. Take every opportunity to learn from those who have something to share and are willing to share.

  3. Naomi says:

    I think you are an expert at talking about uncomfortable issues. You are like a talk show host, you ask the right questions and you share with your readers interesting findings.

    But I’m not sure if “generation Y in the workplaces” is the topic you should be spending your talent on.

    I think your interesting posts are not on young professionals (I am one and I don’t find them insightful) but rather, on identity. You write about being a female(at work), being an asperger(in love), being a Jew(in Madison), and being a person struggling with confidence and success. These posts inspire me because they are very relate-able, they give me ideas on how I should fit (or not care about fitting) into my social/cultural circles. And that in the end is what existence is all about.

    • Elizabeth says:

      Naomi,

      I wholeheartedly agree that P’s pieces on identity are where she shines, but I’d encourage you not to write off her Gen Y stuff as non-insightful.

      Us Gen Ys may not find them groundbreaking (goodness knows that most of the time when she writes something about us I think “um, we needed a post for that?”), but I led my Gen X boss to a few of them and he sang their praises for insight into our ilk.

      What’s insight to some may be the mundane to others. Maybe show the mundane stuf to your boss ;-).

    • Penelope Trunk says:

      Naomi, thanks for the commentary about what I’m good at. If I have to ever write a resume again — I hope I don’t — I think I might drop your comment into it.

      I am still convinced that my writing needs some kind of focus, though, and I have to say I learn an immense amount from how Gen Y works. It’s so different than how my fellow Gen Xers work that each post is sort of like a challenge to all my own assumptions about what work is.

      I think I need to Gen Y at work stuff in order to keep me off-balance enough to question where I am. And, frankly, I like to think that the other older people who read this blog do the same thing.

      Penelope

  4. Matt Wrench says:

    I don’t think talents should be defined as a natural skill in a field, but instead as a passion. Without a heavy interest, you will never put in the work to become truly great at something.

    Like traditional talents, we have almost no control over our passions. There are plenty of times when I wish I could appreciate a certain subject, work of art, or a person because I want to experience the happiness others get from it, but we need all need to understand that our interests have largely been decided for us based on our DNA and childhood experiences.

    • Erika Harris says:

      Matt, I was thinking the same thing! A week ago I toyed with the idea of innate expertise. I said:

      “Innate expertise is your persistent itch. That lingering curiosity, idea, question, ability, outrage, daydream, puzzle… that refrain you always return to no matter what your days have brought to you (or have taken away from you). That itch… that refrain… has attached itself to you. And it has resided within your heart, within your consciousness, for so long now that it is surely a part of you. This kind of expertise cannot be taught or learned. It is lived. It is breathed. It is pulsed. And you have done the living, the breathing, and the pulsing of It.

      That deep knowledge is so uniquely yours, no one else can claim it, let alone do anything useful with it. Not like you can.”

      I value visceral fruit because it’s often got more fresh juice than pasteurized peer-reviewed groupthink. That said, I am very glad Penelope led me to her favorite HBR article, because I’d never heard of “The Judgment of Paris” before, but I’ve always had an instinctive resistance to Godin-esque tribes that sometimes fuel and empower group assumptions that are just flat-out wrong. Errant herds and misdirected packs add longevity to socially accepted farts like planned obsolescence, and other wasteful, irresponsible corporate trends.

      Penelope, I am deeply grateful for the way you challenge banal bandwagons. That’s the kind of expertise that heals and transforms lazy minds and bad business trends.

      I don’t know if that special ability is coachable, or core. But does it really matter when The Work is getting done as effectively as it is here?

    • John Mattucci says:

      I don’t agree that we have no control over our passions. Opening one’s self to different experiences could garner the love of something different. Our interests being decided for us based on genetics and experiences is a little simplistic. I don’t think there is a gene that makes people “love baseball”, or the fact that a son will love being a lawyer because father was.

      This brings to mind an article in a Men’s Health I read regarding Intrinsic Motivation. Intrinsic motivation is when you do something because you love it, or have a passion for it, and because of that motivation, you do it better.

      The article outlines three things that signal someone as intrinsically motivated:

      1. The person chose the activity.

      2. You get better at the activity, or feel that you are getting better.

      3. It connects you with people.

      This is interesting because it kind of shows the dilemma Penelope is having, wanting to become an expert, but having no one to connect with that is above you, giving you a goal, or place you need to be. With physical performance, it is easier to gauge if you are getting better, than say, if you are being a better writer. Physical performance can be determined by hard facts like time and distance run.

      But how to gauge writing ability?

  5. Rahul Deodhar says:

    Fabulous post!

    Agree with you that expertise requires time. Look at how many social media experts have been created in less than 1000 hours – Gladwell be damned!

    I read that article, but I like Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours rule. If you get too entrenched, you transform, get brainwashed. (It can still happen in an hour as well!) I think expertise is when you develop enough knowledge to understand and foresee the experts views but retain enough sanity to challenge it. BTW Harvard is good at brainwashing (as some people call it – intellectual capture).

    If you ask me, I think you are doing great! I am sure you are getting good feedback. Keep your critics close and you will be fine. I think you have healthy self-doubt and super sharp brain to be expert at anything.

    • econopete says:

      Any time I see “Harvard” and “business” in the same sentence, I cringe. Their MBA program is good only because of the connections. Their expertise…well, I just don’t find it particularly accurate. Some of the more famous people that either went to school there or are from there have led us into fiscal disaster.

  6. Elizabeth says:

    Fantastic post, P!

    The last paragraph of this post is the most convincing argument that I have ever read regarding starting a blog.

    Finding a good mentor/coach/teacher is tough, but starting a blog exposes you to a huge measure of immediate coaching. If that isn’t a powerful reason to get on with blogging, then I don’t know what is.

    Now to tackle the procrastination thing!

  7. Sam says:

    Not only being an expert but as well making a tough decision especially when it comes to going for a new job, moving to an other city or quitting a relationship. Many things in live just take time to think them over well.

  8. le @whoop whoop says:

    Life is full of feedback – if you are open to receiving it … best le

  9. Sketch Country says:

    You have to consider the significant effects of chance in becoming an expert. You need a certain set of parameters even before you’re born:

    – A mentor in your formative years (Mozart’s father)
    – Opportunity to practice rather than work (a rich father)
    – A coincidence of your ability with society valuing that skill (born at the right time).

    One of the great tragedies of life is the people born out of their time and place:

    – The ice-skating champion bought up in the tropics.
    – The html coding genius born to Amish parents.
    – The blogging sensation born in 1260AD.
    – The farming trailblazer living in New York.
    – the World Sprink Champion born in 2008, 40 years before Sprink was invented.

    That isn’t to say you shouldn’t try to become an expert at something, just that some people have a much better opportunity to become experts than others.

  10. Brad says:

    Premise is okay, but Mozart is not the best example. At age 12, he heard a choral work one time, and later wrote out the entire thing from memory. That’s not something he learned from Daddy.

    Coincidentally, Mozart is thought by some to have had Aspergers.

  11. Jorge Lazaro Diaz says:

    I’ve read all the opinions and agree. It takes practice, practice, practice to become an expert. I was a successful swimmer in high school. I had the body type and dedication, but never had access to the coach that could have taken me to the next level. I got frustrated and quit.

    The book “Trust Agents” discusses how contacts and networks in combination with skill and expertise lead to success. By getting “good enough” experts combined with the right marketing, for lack of a better word, you can achieve that Tipping Point effect. If you want a bit more on this, the article The Key to Job Seeker Happiness – Think It’s Money?? explores aspects of this idea further.

  12. Angela Lussier says:

    I think your talent, or “thing” is being you and telling the world about it. I don’t read your blog for career advice, I can get that anywhere. I read your blog because I want to hear from someone who is REAL. Not trying to act like you know everything. You’ve made me more honest with myself and have made me a better writer because I’m talking more about my transformation from a tired, stifled employee to a new business owner in my blog. It’s cool to tell stories about what I’m going through so I can inspire others (I do career consulting). So, I can totally identify with and appreciate what you have to say. If you want to see how much you’ve helped me, check out my blog and feel free to leave a comment! Thanks, Penelope. You’re a true pioneer in personal branding, the authentic way.
    http://www.my365degrees.com/365-blog

    • Melissa Breau says:

      @Angela – I agree!

      @P – you talked about exactly this in your webinar with Ryan last night. The idea that you can’t be afraid to fail. Well, she just gave you your feedback/coaching on that idea …. right on.It’s almost like you just did a triple axle (or w/e they’re called…)

  13. Maureen Sharib says:

    That’s what I thought reading your piece – that your audience members were your “coaches.” I know I learn more from mine than anything I can impart to them.

    Anyhoo, moving on, here’s a piece of trivia your kids might get a kick out of: Did you know Mozart wrote twelve variations for piano on the melody to “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star”?

  14. Dan Owen says:

    What would worry me is the fact that your most recent start-up was tied so closely to your blog: you used your blog and your public-speaking to bootstrap the company. That’s a very particular skill: the ability to use an already-successful blog to start a company. That’s not the same thing as the ability to start a successful company. If your advice (as a an expert, coaching others) is to first launch a blog with 200,000 readers, then you may not be the best person for a young entrepreneur to talk to.

    Do you really think you’ve been writing for less than 10,000 hours? Some false modesty there, I think.

    You clearly made a choice here to not mention Gladwell. Why not? Are you one of the haters? Gladwell points out that it’s not just time, and not just 10,000 hours, but 10,000 hours of “deliberate practice”, which involves instruction by others among other things. The book “Talent is Overrated” talks about this in depth.

    • Penelope Trunk says:

      I love Malcom Gladwell. It was an oversight. The way I like to use him, though, is to get the ideas from him, but go to his original sources. (The authors of my pet Harvard Business Review article pop up in Gladwell all the time.)

      Penelope

    • Daniel says:

      I agree with (the other) Dan, ‘Talent is Overrated’ by Geoff Colvin is a good in-depth look at Gladwell’s theory.

  15. Alex @ Happiness in this World says:

    Penelope,
    I fully understand the impulse to want to become great at what you do (and definitely share it), but in a field in which greatness is partially subjective (writing, or the arts in general) it’s difficult not to have moments when you look at your stuff, your perspective shifts, and what you thought was great, or even good, suddenly seems like crap. It’s the years of practice that can bolster you against the attack of your own insecurities. Believe in the standards you apply to the writing of others and to your own. You are your own unique voice and obviously at least tens of thousands of people (one of them being me) think your writing is excellent. It may not be the “best” but in the field of writing, the “best” doesn’t exist. As long as you’re continually challenging your own weaknesses, you’ll grow, and in growing, even if you don’t try, your writing will get better and better.

    http://www.happinessinthisworld.com/2009/08/30/in-search-of-the-mythical-best/

  16. Inge says:

    Lately, I’ve been having similar thoughts about not having a mentor/teacher/coach person in my life right now and what that means for my – mostly professional – skills. It made me think of a quote, but I don’t remember the exact wording or who it came from. It might have been a Dutch quote. So, paraphrasing:

    Never find yourself working in a place where there is nobody you can learn something from.

    I think this is very important and I should keep it in mind during my upcoming job search (that’s what triggered the thinking about this subject). The ‘something’ to learn does not always have to be factual expert knowledge, but can also be skills of some kind.

  17. Jen says:

    A big YES to this post! As there’s a readable number of comments at this early stage, I have a chance of reading them all, but couldn’t wait to comment.
    Very timely for me. Thanks for sharing this. I’ve always known my goal was not power, money, or even control – it’s expertise. I want to be an expert. So I guess there’s some desire for status or recognition, but it’s more a question of mastery, knowledge, depth of knowledge, and the idea of continually learning and growing. AND
    I’ve been longing for a mentor for so long in my professional life. But they are hard to find. I haven’t worked for someone I could look up to and learn from for so long, and I work at a place that seems to think feedback costs money and we can’t afford it, so it emanates rarely if ever from anyone.
    I was typing my despairing and hopeful thoughts into a word doc today to keep myself sane. Feedback was the word I ended with.
    Thanks again – going to look up the links and ponder this some more.

  18. Matt says:

    “But I’ve recently started reading research beyond the article, and it turns out that the teacher isn’t the important per se, but rather, what you need is immediate, helpful feedback.”
    Just breaking this down a little bit more, I’ve read (from Merlin Mann or the HBR maybe?) that it’s not just helpful feedback, but purposeful practice. The difference between good and great chess players is if they study past games for insights. The difference between great and elite chess players is if they know what and why they’re studying what they are.

  19. Dan Murray says:

    Thanks for posting this. The links alone were worth the read. It’s important to note that developing expertise can happen with people in there 30’s, 40’s, 50’s, and even if your 60+ years old.

    The intention to learn, with a plan and the willingness to develop the effort in a structured way are the most important ingredients.

    There is some much wasted human potential. When I visit my daughter’s public grade school I see such low levels of enthusiasm from her teachers. Having just one inspiring teacher in any subject can make a big difference.

    I was lucky enough to have (3) wonderful teachers in high school and a few in college. They instilled a desire to learn and ignited my curiosity about many subjects I thought I had no interest in.

    Great post!

  20. Chuck says:

    “It used to be, more than 100 years ago, that you could be a prodigy and come out of nowhere and be great. There are stories like that, ones we hang onto when we do things like watch the Olympics and allow ourselves to think, "Maybe I'll be on the luge team in 2014."”

    They only seemed to come out of nowhere. Even then, you didn’t become excellent without repetition combined with a cocktail of fortunate talents and circumstances. It’s a function psychological and physical realities.

  21. David says:

    I’ve used this article a lot with new teachers. Inspiring to learn and validates clearly a lot that you have written. Can’t say it enough… http://wimse.fsu.edu/media/expert-mind.pdf

    thanks for the thoughts that come on dove’s wings. Those are the ones that matter.

    David

    • Penelope Trunk says:

      Thanks for the link. Good one. I think I’m getting tired of my obsessive reading of the positive psychology research. I think the process of becoming an expert is going to be my new obsession. So I’m happy that people are suggesting new sources. Thanks.

      Penelope

  22. Arthur says:

    Having assisted a doctoral student on the subject of expertise (and its association with other factors: cognitive complexity & personality variables), it was obvious some key elements of expertise certainly include practice and time but what stood out to me, above all, was motivation. You can spend a lot of energy on things you’ll never be an expert on but being motivated about a thing is quite a different phenomenon and produces different results. So my conclusion is becoming an expert (which is conceptualized as a process not an end point) takes motivation.

  23. jen says:

    pull out the pictures from you ice skating. that would be a treat. great post, PT!

  24. Richard Sher says:

    Penelope;

    Your are in my opinion great at giving carrier advice. I believe this because I read your blog religiously. I take your advice to heart and even though right now I am still incredibly stuck, I believe that your words help me.

    Sincerely;

    Richard Sher
    .

  25. Sam says:

    If you are a fan of that article you will probably like “The Talent Code: Greatness Isn’t Born. It’s Grown. Here’s How.” by Daniel Coyle. It’s a quick read well worth you time, and there’s plenty of references to follow up on if you want to dig deeper. He visited talent hotbeds all around the world and wrote about them and what they do. Unsurprisingly the coach interferes less with the soccer players practice in Brazil than the coach interferes with the practice for the classical violin players.

  26. Jennifer says:

    This article reminded me of two things:
    1) I think being an expert is a relative term. Many of my coworkers come to me for advice on certain topics because they consider me the local expert. I would not consider myself to be the best in my field by any means, I just know more than the others in my particular company. This lead me to remember an article I read that brought me to my second point.
    2) I read an article someplace (and I cannot find it now) about how hard it is for CEO’s to find good mentors and to get good feedback. It’s lonely at the top. The higher up you go the fewer relative experts there are above you.
    Personally I think you are starting to reach the top of your game and you are feeling the loneliness. The people who are truly at the top of their games are the Outliers of success.

  27. Hope says:

    My writing teacher began the semester by making us write a poem about something at which we were the experts. One young man, who had grown up in a rural area, struggled. In desperation, wrote a poem about stacking wood. It was an awesome poem. I like the idea that we are ALL experts at something.

    Also, chiming in with the others about the confounding absence of Gladwell and his book Outliers in this post. I read the rationale, but I still don’t understand why he’s not in there.

    • Penelope Trunk says:

      This is a great example of someone being my teacher.

      First, the awesome example of the poem about stacking wood. I thought a lot about that today. Why we love the idea of that poem. I guess because it’s so honest. Because someone asked a huge question — poem/expertise — and someone responded with simple honesty. It’s hard to do simple honesty in the face of big thinking.

      Okay. And Outliers. I am going to have to admit that I haven’t read the book. I’ve read pieces, but I mostly read a little, and find an article, and then read a little more. So I will buy the book this weekend. I like that you are telling me that I can’t obsess on this topic if I don’t start referencing the book. You’re right.

      This comment gives me hope that the comment section is my coaching.

      Penelope

  28. the Wiz says:

    What about people that do not want to be an expert? People that think they have a career but just have a job and have a distorted view of what that means? The reason I ask is I have always sought out mentors and coaches, I have always looked to learn from others,and I don’t want to just do my job but want to be a student and a contributor to my craft. But my staff seems content just doing what they do everyday, they speak of wanting to be professionals and having a career but they do not back that up.

    Is this eagerness for being an expert something that a select few strive for? Is it something that all should be striving for? How do you teach someone to view their professional life that way?

    The timing of this piece is amazing as I just had a conversation with one of my employees on this subject yesterday.

  29. Julie says:

    Not trying to be snarky or nitpicky but I’d like to offer a correction. Mozart’s father’s violin book (1756) was not the first. It was written in response to an earlier published work by Francesco Geminiani (1751). There were other published violin “instruction” books prior to that (ex., Muffat 1698, for example, covering known French violin technique). Most “instruction” was in fact written in the form of actual music which was played in order to learn the techniques being taught. (I spent a year writing a paper on this very topic as an undergrad.)

    I enjoy reading your blog, and thinking about the many interesting, common sense ideas you put forth. Your title is spot on! I don’t remember how I got here in the first place, but it’s a helpful place to sit and think.

    JGS

  30. Chris Yeh says:

    Penelope,

    I promised that I would actually comment on your blog, rather than emailing, so here goes:

    The key to succeeding with the expert strategy is twofold:

    First, you do have to find something that you enjoy doing, because there’s no way you’d manage to get through 10 years of practice without that love.

    Second, you have to select an activity that is A) valuable, and B) rare.

    I could be the world’s greatest expert on a trivial topic, and never find success. Similarly, I could spend 10 years working on a popular topic like baseball statistics, and never rise above the other 5,000 practitioners.

    For example, I think that I am probably one of the world’s leading experts on giving advice to first time entrepreneurs in high tech.

    I love doing it, and it’s valuable. The peculiar thing is that it is rare, at least the way I do it.

    Most of the people who have the experience to provide valuable advice can no longer relate to the struggling entrepreneur; thanks to my elephantine memory (I can still remember the exact feeling of playing on the playground in the 2nd grade, so remembering being a first-time entrepreneur is a snap). And most of the people who provide such advice have a conflict of interest (entrepreneurs can’t be as open with their investors as they can with an outside advisor).

    As a result, entrepreneurs seek me out–I do almost nothing to attract them–and I always have plenty of advising opportunities to choose from, which lets me pick the ones I like (like you!), which makes it even more enjoyable.

  31. Jeff Yablon says:

    Ahh, the Malcolm Gladwell perspective . . . put in your 10,000 hours and you’ll be a star almost regardless of anything else.

    It makes lots of sense, and it’s the closest thing to a “formula” for success anyone’s come up with (thanks, Malcolm!). But talent still matters.

    The issue becomes what you’re talented (or trying to be talented) AT.

    It was a great post, Penelope. But . . . I believe we need to be reaching people about the course of their development, not just the manner.

    Jeff Yablon
    President & CEO
    Answer Guy and Virtual VIP Business Change Coaching

    • Dan Owen says:

      Gladwell’s point — supported by an enormous amount of research — is that talent does not matter. Practice matters. But not by itself. One’s practice must have certain components to be effective. You can spend 10,000 hours and not achieve mastery, having wasted your time on non-deliberate practice. Likewise, talent without 10,000 hours of deliberate practice will not yield mastery. And the research is quite clear on another point: there are no shortcuts.

      Talent is irrelevant.

  32. Kerry Lyman says:

    Maybe one reason we don’t often find experts in the workplace is that few of us ever get any immediate, helpful feedback, let alone find mentors and teachers. Many large corporate environments have feedback systems — annual or semi-annual reviews of objectives that are typically set to be met so everyone can claim success up the chain of command — that are not structured to create experts. Many supervisors are not equipped to give effective feedback, are not experts themselves, and do not have the time or inclination.

    Meaningful, instructional, expertise-building feedback is rare, in my experience. But if someone is motivated to grow and develop expertise in a particular area, they can find what they need if they are willing to seek it out.

    • the Wiz says:

      I have to disagree. Most company do annual or semi-annual formal feedback systems. I think people fail to recognize all the opportunities for feedback there is on a daily basis, go out of their way to find a mentor, or put themselves in situations to elicit that feedback. In order to get that feedback you have to put yourself out there. You have to put yourself in situations in which you have minor failures. An example for me that I am currently doing is that I am not the strongest presentation person, I have solid message and solid structure, but I am weak at making it pretty and attractive and professional looking. I seeked out an opportunity to prepare a presentation for senior management and I have worked closely with someone that is good at it. I do updates, get feedback, try to understand the reasons for the feedback, learn from it.

      Recommendation – spend less time proving what you do know and more time listening for what you don’t know. The feedback is out there.

      • KateNonymous says:

        Most companies have such systems. That doesn’t mean they actually put them into action, much less use them effectively. For example, I worked at a company where our annual reviews were routinely 12-18 months behind schedule, and were mocked by the people who wrote them.

  33. Dentonista says:

    How funny! I was just thinking about this same topic, prompted by a discussion on LinkedIn. I became a writer because, in college, I was a good writer. Looking back now, of course I wasn’t a good writer. I might have been better than some, but I wasn’t good. Now, the occasional well-turned sentence thrills me no end (mine or anyone else's), and I can still see that I can get better – €“ by writing more. That's the only difference between the writer I was and the writer I am.

  34. Dentonista says:

    Hi Penelope,

    I subscribed to the follow up comments and some really horrific things came through. Thank you for having a spam blocker, and I certainly hope you don’t often receive garbage like that. Is there a way I can keep it out of my e-mail?

    • Penelope Trunk says:

      It’s a particularly bad week for particularly bad spam. The person is doing it all by hand, from a wide range of IP addresses. So I’m really sorry that so many of you are receiving this stuff in the comments feed. We strengthened the spam filter today. I hope that helps.

      Penelope

  35. davidburkus says:

    Great post. My mind immeadiately went to Gladwell, but this article precedes him. Thankfully, I’m a grad student so I’ll use my library to pull a copy of his article. Thanks for the recommendation.

  36. Sarah Dooley says:

    Love the blog, but wish that your links opened in a new window.

    • Sam says:

      Sarah, you can open links in a new window if you right click on the link and choose “Open link in new tab/window. There’s also some key that you can hold down and click to get the same behavior. If you happen to be using a Mac you can hold the apple-key and left-click on the link to open it in a new tab/window.

      • Margaret says:

        Oh my God, thank you, Sam! That just made reading this blog 1,000 times better, because my one complaint was always that I ended up clicking through links and forgetting where I’d started. I was about to ask how to do it on a Mac and you even included that. You’re on expert on opening links.

  37. Leslie says:

    I agree that being an expert takes time, but I think the real question is whether it is that important to become an expert.

    I look at things a bit differently. As a business owner, entrepreneur, and mother of 3 young kids, I don't want to become an expert at anything. I NEED to be well-rounded, able to juggle multiple projects, and lead entire teams of people all with differing goals.

    Nobel Prize winners typically have spent their entire life in a narrow industry, pursuing a very focused objective. They have definitely honed "expertise" to have earned such a grand prize. Similarly, so have lauded athletes, Olympic medalists, and world-wide chess champions.

    But for myself (and my children) I would much rather introduce a wide variety of interests – including four or five sports, cooking, art, history, and literature. I would rather learn, and let my children learn, while enjoying a fuller life, than have my son practice 5 hours of tennis every single day for 6 consecutive days, 52 weeks of the year.

    • Penelope Trunk says:

      I actually think this is a temperment issue. I think some people are drawn to being an expert and some people aren’t. I also think people self-identify when they stay home with kids.

      I have to tell you that the jack-of-all-trades aspect of parenting drives me absolutely nuts. Someone who is drawn to being an expert, I’m pretty sure, thrives doing a single thing, with a defined process, and lots of repetition and singular focus. The exact opposite of parenting.

      Penelope

      • Tzipporah says:

        “doing a single thing, with a defined process, and lots of repetition and singular focus. The exact opposite of parenting.”

        Wow, actually, that sounds a LOT like parenting to me. I mean, how varied can it get to play Thomas the Tank Engine games or help someone get to sleep Every. F-ing. Night. Lather, rinse, repeat. It’s the sameness of parenting day-in-day-out that kills me, not the novelty.

      • Erica says:

        Exactly, Tzipporah. Parents become experts on their particular kids. I’ve certainly put in more than 10,000 hours by now. I’d probably be no good at parenting anyone else’s kids, but I’ve got at least a grasp on what to do with mine.

      • Jen says:

        Not sure about the repetition thing. I want mastery, but also variety.

  38. Rachel says:

    I will never be an expert on anything! I didn’t have those things in my formative years! I lost out, but I can be happy anyway!

    Living up to your potential is BS. Just get a job, any job, and get on with your life. I’m probably not any better than most people. What makes most people happy will make me happy. (Friends, family, church, stability, supporting the local team…)

    Your blog is MY coaching. It has helped me infinitely. I hope that you can re-read your own work and learn from it in a way that brings you the happiness and peace I have found since I have given up obsessing over achievement.

    Thank you for that.

    (Also, I didn’t comment on this when you did it, but I’m so glad you finally linked to your thesis, I think it is the coolest thing I have read in about ten years. You are a great writer. You’re there. Enjoy it.)

  39. KateNonymous says:

    When my brother played soccer, my dad always said, “The team with the most hustle can beat the team with more talent every time.”

    I’ve never really wanted to be an expert. That is, people do see me as someone who knows about a lot of things, and I’m a resource for them on a wide range of subjects. But I also know that I’m not an expert in them, and I’m okay with that. However, it means that I can collect and draw on a huge range of information, and direct people to more detailed resources. Maybe that’s what I’m an expert in.

  40. Michelle says:

    Love it. I had actually come across this study about being an expert previously, but I love it so I felt I should comment. When I originally heard about this idea or concept I decided on a few things that I wanted to excel at (not necessarily be Olympic level, just be a cut above) and I try to work on these things everyday. Thanks for dragging it out to my attention once again!!

  41. Nicole says:

    This post really spoke to me because I was also a figure skater when I was young and decent at it until I went through puberty. I’m never going to be able to do a double axel or a triple anything, but I still skate for the joy of the sport.

    I’m still pretty fresh in the workplace so I’m not aspiring to be an expert at anything – yet. I think it’s more important to keep doing the things that make you happy, even if you aren’t as good as them, while searching for that thing that you can be an expert at and be happy while doing it.

  42. geekcoach says:

    I enjoyed this post. It does a nice job dealing with an issue that many of us deal with. Will we ever be good enough at something – anything – to be considered an expert and have an impact on the world?

    In my work, I frequently deal with the other side of the same problem. I coach people (geeks) who are already technical experts in their fields. However, they often hit a career plateau. They need additional, neglected skills in management and leadership and business in order to advance in their careers.

    Expertise is important, but so is balance.

    Geek Coach at geeksgonepro.com

  43. econopete says:

    Here’s a question for whoever: is it ok to be “average”?

    • Wayne Allen says:

      I think I read at one point that there have been in total about 6.5 billion people, prior to the 6.5 billion alive today. For convenience, let’s say that there have been 10 billion people on the planet since we swung down from the trees.
      Over 100,000 generations, and billions of people, the list of “memorable” artists, composers, etc. might number a few or several hundred.
      This might tell us something about average.
      As in, that’s what the vast, vast majority are. And that’s OK.
      Especially in the last couple of generations, parents have shoveled the “Susie, you’re so special” line. And Susie is special, to her parents and family, and is unique to herself. But not likely special to “the world.”
      I’m thinking that rather than trying so hard to be special, one might seek to be an expert about one’s self – through self knowledge, self awareness, and self responsibility.
      Perhaps less “special-ists,” and more experts at being real.
      That might give a whole new meaning to average.
      And helping others to be fully and completely, without excuse and equivocation, who they are, well, that’s a vocation worth living.

      • Margaret says:

        I really like this comment, Wayne. I think I spent way too much time trying to be good at things and really thriving on the feeling of congratulatory feedback, because it was always encouraged in my house growing up, but recently, I’ve started to see where I was sacrificing being real and recognizing my human faults in the interest of trying to be great. But great was defined by success. And success was defined as winning. But the goal was not always well-defined, and winning for the sake of winning is actually an asshole move, so I was really losing. Now I am trying to focus on things like genuinely listening to people and being in the moment, or being emotionally proactive instead of emotionally reactive, and it’s great. I’d love to be an expert at myself. I think that’d be pretty Zen. It would mean I could devote more time to helping other people, because I’d have me figured out.

      • econopete says:

        I asked that because I was going through a bit of an identity crisis. It’s hard to know that even though your IQ is higher than…we’ll say 3/4 of the people…it doesn’t mean jack when applied to the “real world.” I want to say it’s about working hard, but since I also have a learning disability, I can promise you I worked very, very hard at getting things into my head and working on social skills (this weblog has helped a lot with that).

        Especially in the last couple of generations, parents have shoveled the “Susie, you’re so special” line. And Susie is special, to her parents and family, and is unique to herself. But not likely special to “the world.”

        I come from a large family where several of my siblings have been very successful. I didn’t even get a job that paid more than $10 an hour until 4 years after I graduated. I keep thinking of where I went wrong. Did I? Does it matter?

    • Anna says:

      Some things need to be done well.
      Some things just need to be done.

      Wisdom is knowing how to tell the difference.

      What matters to you might not matter to me.

      I don’t care if the Christmas presents are perfectly wrapped with tight corners and pretty bows. Mine are wrapped. Others like to have their gift wrap perfectly aligned, no bent corners, no visible tape. No right answer.

  44. karen says:

    RE: “One thing emerges very clearly is that successful performers “had practiced intensively, had studied with devoted teachers, and had been supported enthusiastically by their families throughout their developing years."

    That’s actually 3 things–2 of which are out of one’s control.

    In response to Geekcoach’S question: Is it okay to be average? Hell ya! And it’s a lot less stressful.

    • econopete says:

      karen: You mean my post, which was under GeekCoach’s? :)

      Since leaving college, the stress I have has decreased a LOT relative to non-family/girlfriend relationships. “High-pressure” isn’t really my style, but my siblings have done well (and profited) in those environments. Are they happy? I’m not sure, but I think so. Still, they’re top dog in all their organizations for the most part, and I took 4 years to get a job that paid more than $10 an hour despite having a degree in economics from a reputable school.

      Somehow, I feel it’s unnatural to have an identity crisis after getting employed.

  45. adelaide dancing says:

    very true, most people over estimate what they can achieve in one year but under-estimate what they can achieve in ten, the best way to learn is to take action!

  46. Heather says:

    “Talent is Overrated” +1. Fantastic book.

  47. kentropic says:

    Greatness is overrated: goodness is huge. Inspiring post.

  48. Grace says:

    I liked the ideas in Gladwell’s ‘Outliers’ but I didn’t like the book. You can get all the main ideas from the book in Gladwell’s interview with Canada’s George Strombolopolus on the show “The Hour”. You’ll find that interview at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5B8q-GNUjVI

    On the same program (different day), I saw author Jeffery Archer say this:
    “If you have talent and energy, you are king. If you have only energy and no talent, you are still a prince. But if you have talent and no energy, you are a pauper."

  49. Grace says:

    Marty Nemko recently wrote an article about how dabbling in different areas kills your career and he also refers to “Outliers” (http://martynemko.blogspot.com/2010/01/scanning-dabbling-is-career-killer.html)

  50. Alfred says:

    Once upon a time, I was working for an IT company. Due to various reasons, I ended up delivering several projects, which well took a toll on me.

    Fast forward a few years, I became the go to guy when stuff with the similar technology broke. Did I become an industry expert? Definitely not. In house expert, maybe. A guru for those whose week in Google-fu

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