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How to turn your child into an ‘expert’

Aug 17, 2008 Success, Sunday Nation

Do you want your child to become an ‘expert’? Who wouldn’t? Being an expert in something usually brings great rewards in life: recognition, money, and a sense of deep accomplishment.

But what is an ‘expert’? Do we ask ourselves that question often enough? Are experts born or made? In other words, are the factors that determine whether expertise can be acquired by your child just genetic, or will a nurturing environment take her there? Are you yourself an expert, or just pretending to be one?

These important questions were addressed most profoundly by professors K. Anders Ericsson, Michael J. Prietula and Edward T. Cokely in the Harvard Business Review last year. They started off with an interesting observation: most people who regard themselves as experts are not!

1976 was the year of the “Judgment of Paris”. In a blind tasting, nine French wine experts rated French and California wines – ten whites and ten reds. The results shocked the wine world: California wines received the highest scores from the panel. Even more surprising, during the tasting the experts often mistook the American wines for French wines and vice versa.

Two assumptions were challenged that day. The first was the hitherto unquestioned superiority of French wines over American ones. But more interestingly, a question-mark was raised about expertise: did the judges genuinely possess elite knowledge of wine? The tasting suggested that the alleged wine experts were no more accurate in distinguishing wines under blind test conditions than regular wine drinkers – a fact later confirmed by laboratory tests. (I note, however, that this has not subsequently prevented many wine ‘experts’ from pontificating pompously about wine…)

This finding has recurred in other fields as well. Psychotherapists with advanced degrees and decades of experience aren’t reliably more successful in their treatment of randomly assigned patients than novice therapists are. Expertise may even decline with experience! The longer physicians have been out of training, for example, the less able they are to identify unusual diseases. Because they encounter these illnesses so rarely, doctors quickly forget their characteristic features and have difficulty diagnosing them. Performance picks up only after the doctors undergo a refresher course.

So how on earth can you be sure you are dealing with an ‘expert’? The authors of the study suggest three tests: expertise must lead to consistently better performance; it must produce concrete results, not just hot air; and it must be replicable and measurable.

What creates this kind of expert? The professors suggest that genuine experts have almost always practiced intensively, have studied with devoted teachers, and have been supported enthusiastically by their families throughout their developing years.

Let’s look at these enabling factors in turn. It is not enough just to put in years of practice. As the authors point out, living in a cave does not make you a geologist! All practice does not make perfect. What you need is “deliberate practice” – don’t just repeat what you already know how to do well, but put concerted effort into doing the things you CAN’T do well. Research reveals that this is what creates experts – it helps you deepen existing skills and acquire new ones. It also suggests that many of us can acquire expertise – we don’t have to be born with it.

“Practice puts brains in your muscles”, said the legendary golfer, Sam Snead. Today’s legend, Tiger Woods, is also known to obsessively practice his shots – particularly the ones he hasn’t mastered.

Second point: it takes time! Becoming an expert isn’t going to just click into place in a few easy steps: you have to die a little to achieve it. Sam Snead, the man with the supposedly most natural swing in golf, puts us right: “People always said I had a natural swing. They thought I wasn’t a hard worker. But when I was young, I’d play and practice all day, then practice more at night by my car’s headlights. My hands bled. Nobody worked harder at golf than I did.”

Lastly: expert coaching helps. We all benefit from having mentors and coaches who can inspire us and help us along. An expert’s journey involves the input of a number of teachers at different stages: from basic teaching to advanced training. So use to the hilt the opportunity to learn from the best. Crucially, your coaches should offer blunt and honest feedback – a fan club is not what you need.

Let’s summarise in the professors’ own words: “The journey to truly superior performance is neither for the faint of heart nor for the impatient. The development of genuine expertise requires struggle, sacrifice, and honest, often painful self-assessment. There are no shortcuts. It will take you at least a decade to achieve expertise, and you will need to invest that time wisely.”

Sound and honest advice. No short-cuts, just determined self-application. Mozart was not born a world-beating expert, but he did manage to become one.

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