Experts are just like everyone else in most things. They don’t have high IQs, faster general reaction times, or a better general sense of balance. They only are different in their specialized area. They are experts in one; normal in all the rest.
Here are ten things experts do that novices don’t:
1. Experts learn more. Most people know how to move chess pieces around the board. Novice players know a few openings and how pieces look in combination (configurations). Researchers Chase and Simon estimate that expert chess players can recognize 50,000 configurations. Experts know more.
2. Experts learn specialized knowledge. Expertise is limited knowledge. 10-year-old chess experts know more configurations than adult novices, and more than adults who used to play chess when they were young. But their recall for digits is not as good as adults. Chess experts aren’t better than novices at remembering random positions. They are better at remembering meaningful configurations. Experts know specialized knowledge.
3. Experts chunk information differently. We automatically cluster (chunk) items when we see them. We group them by similarity and proximity. Similarly, we remember phone numbers by groups them into chunks of three or four: 202 456 1414. Similarly, experts automatically use chunking to master their vast knowledge base but they form larger and fewer chunks. Through experience, experts might make chunks that contain 4-6 items each. With chess, positions can be categorized by opening lines, gambits or defenses. Experts also use fewer chunks, which is a side-benefit of having larger chunks.
3. Experts use schema. Novice waiters try to remember the people and the orders. Expert waiters start in one place and take orders in a circle, usually clockwise. Researchers Ericsson and Polson studied a waiter they called JC, who could memorize up to 20 dinner orders at a time. He used the first letter of salad dressings to form nonsense words. Oil-vinegar, blue-chees, thousand island and oil-vinegar would be reduced to OBTO or Ob To. If you remember the first meat temperature all the others could be coded by relative direction: medium, higher, lower, lower, higher.
4. Experts are sensitive to context. We have a tendency to ignore context, which is why we are surprised we can’t remember in the living room what we were thinking about in the kitchen. When we retrace our steps, the location cues trigger us to remember our thoughts. Experts use contexts to remember better. Musicians have practice, rehearsal and concert contexts. Each provides specific information they can use in their performance. Context helps use encode better.
5. Experts are less sensitive to post-encoding distortion. In addition to being more sensitive to context, experts are less sensitive to distortion. Because they have encoded the information thoroughly, it is less subject to change.
When Loftus and Palmer gave subjects false information, people’s memories changed. Subjects watches a video of a traffic incident. A week later, they came back and were asked questions about the film. Half were told there was a Yield sign, half were not given misinformation. Those who were told there had been a Yield sign in video, didn’t remember the truth that there had been a Stop sign in it. Those without misinformation remember the Stop sign.
6. Experts have better source monitoring. They remember where they got the information. They remember the context. They remember the first time they heard a tune or the first time they saw a particular chess ending. Better encoding from paying attention to the context and source, results in more reliable memories.
7. Experts use strategies. Although they don’t have more strategies than novices, experts use them more. It is not a matter of availability. It is a matter of utility. Novices have the same strategies but don’t use them.
In general there are three strategies you can use: algorithms, heuristics and analogies. Algorithms are formula-like approaches that always work but tend to be slow. Depth-first algorithms follow each branch of a tree to the end. Breadth-first algorithms search all of the branches at a particular level become going into one in depth. Both will eventually produce an answer. Algorithms are like trying all possible pieces to fit in one spot of a jigsaw puzzle. Eventually you’ll find it but it is slow.
Heuristics are fast, easy to remember, rules of thumb. They tend to work, get better with experience and are easy to use. But heuristics can miss the right answer. In our jigsaw puzzle example, “start with the border” is a heuristic; it usually works but not always (some puzzles have lots of straight-edged pieces).
Experts often use a forward-solution heuristic: given a problem, solve it as you go. Forward-solving allows you to classify the problem by type. They only use this approach on problems which they think are simple, relying on their experience to determine what is simple. For difficult problems, experts solve them backwards (the way novices tend to do with all problems).
Experts start with heuristics, then analogies and then algorithms. Analogical reasoning allow you to use your experience to find similarities. Problems are not separate and different but similar to what you’ve seen before.
8. Experts combine strategy and knowledge. Experts use heuristics and analogies to generate complex hierarchical inferences from their knowledge base. They can infer an unfamiliar object or situation is similar to one they know. Given a picture of a dinosaur (real or imagined), you might make simple linear inferences: long legs run faster. But you might also use your categorical knowledge to make inferences from inferences. For example, you might notice its teeth are sharp and infer that it is a meat eater. The meat eater inference might lead to conclude that it is dangerous. Having knowledge and strategies isn’t enough. It is the interaction between them that makes you an expert.
9. Experts practice more. They practice more each day and for more years. The heuristic that it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert should be restated as: It takes an hour a day for 10 years to become an expert. The biggest bang for the buck is 1 hour per day. There is some additional benefit for 2 hours per day but the gain doesn’t double. Everything beyond an hour a day has diminishing returns. There appears to be no benefit for most people beyond 4 hours per day. Your mileage may vary but it is difficult to keep focused for long periods of time.
Most of the things we used to think were innate talents now appear to be learned. Most people can learn absolute pitch (sometimes called perfect pitch) through practice. The younger they are, they better they are; but it is still learned. When Howard Gardner proposed multiple types of intelligence, he thought of them as built-in inclinations or processing skills. But prodigies and savants acquire their skill; they are not there at birth. It appears that talents can be taught.
10. Experts practice for the long term. Instead of massed practice, experts use both distributed and deliberate practice. Massed practice is good for immediate returns. Examples include cramming for tests, hitting golf balls at the range, swimming 50 laps, and spending hours in the batting cage. Massed practice is effective at improving a skill quickly for a limited time.
Distributed practice spaces out repetitions over time. This is where 1-hour a day comes in. Distributed practice produces slower results that last much longer. It is best for long term performance.
Deliberate practice is thoughtful practice. It is aimed at countering a weakness or solving a problem. It requires effort and your full attention. A concert pianist, for example, might deliberately practice techniques needed for an upcoming recording session. The focus might be on fingering, pedals, or phrasing. An expert skater might practice spins and jumps, instead of skating their favorite routines.
When you hear “Practice 10,000 hours,” replace that with: Spend an hour a day on deliberate practice for 10 years. If you start young, you can be an expert by age 20. Or not.
The research on experts details what experts do. There is no good research on how to become an expert. We know that those who became experts used deliberate practice, they practiced on a daily basis and distributed that practice over years. Your results may vary.
- Farman Street: What is deliberate practice?
- Wikipedia: Practice (learning method)
- Business Insider: A top psychologist says there’s only one way to become the best in your field — but not everyone agrees