Everybody’s an expert these days. Pest Control Expert, Plumbing Expert, Weather Expert, and so on. But what is expertise, really?
Take a minute to think about what expertise means to you.
If ideas like superior intelligence, heightened perceptual skills, and photographic memory come to mind, you may be thinking of superheroes, or perhaps savants.
If you’re on the more reserved end of the expert-worshipping continuum, you may instead be thinking that people with expertise really just know more and perform better than those around them.
There is a sense in which expertise is relative. That’s the key idea that makes the movie Idiocracy so entertaining. In it, an ordinary Joe who is completely average on every measurable dimension is transported to a future where humanity has devolved to the lowest common denominator. Suddenly Joe is the resident expert on everything.
In fact, one measure researchers often use of when they try to decide whether someone is an expert is whether or not other people in their area think they are one. Other common indicators they sometimes use are: ‘has a lot of knowledge and experience,’ ‘has an advanced degree or certification,’ ‘is always (or almost always) right,’ and ‘can solve very difficult problems.’
The question “what is expertise?” is a complicated one. But what most of us really just want to know is: How do you get expertise, and how do you know when you have it?
How Do You Know if You have Expertise?
I’ll start with the last question because what you think it means to have expertise can have implications for what you think are good ways to get it. Just like your ideas about intelligence influence how you approach increasing it—and whether you try in the first place.
It turns out even the experts on expertise don’t agree on what it is.
Ericsson and Hatano are two expertise experts who think about expertise differently. As a result, they also give different advice about how you would go about building expertise.
Ericsson is a well-known cognitive psychologist who has studied learning and expertise for decades. His definition of expertise focuses on consistency. In a discussion of the Superior Performance of Experts in Current Directions in Psychological Science, Ericsson and his colleagues define expertise as the thinking and qualities that lead to consistently superior performance.
Hatano and his colleague Inagaki, in their studies of expertise, noticed that there seemed to be two kinds of expertise. In groups of recognized experts; some appeared to be even more expert than others. They discovered that what set these ‘experts among the experts’ apart were their ability to not just solve problems, but solve them in new ways by inventing new procedures and strategies. Hatano and Inagaki called what these experts had adaptive expertise. They contrasted that with the routine expertise they believed the other experts had. The routine experts could consistently solve the problems, but relied on routine procedures they had used many times before.
According to Hatano you know you have adaptive expertise when you can perform with understanding. You know you have understanding if you can do the following:
- you can explain why certain strategies or procedures work and others don’t
- you can distinguish between appropriate and inappropriate ways to modify strategies
- you can change your strategies in response to changes in the environment
How do You Get Expertise?
The two different ways of thinking about expertise lead to different ideas about how to go about building it.
Practice, Seek Feedback, Analyze
Thinking about expertise as consistently superior performance has led Ericsson to recommend a training regimen that includes lots and lots of repetitions of tasks and activities. According to Ericsson, you can build expertise through:
- Practice: Your goal when practicing should be to concentrate deeply and perform just a little bit better than last time
- Feedback: When you complete a task or problem, seek feedback about the accuracy.
- Analysis: When you’re not practicing, study past moves or solutions—your own or those of accomplished experts
Following this recipe you should gradually (over the course of 10,000 hours) get to the point where you can perform the skill at a superior level consistently.
Practice, Explain, Modify
Hatano and Inagaki recommend a similar approach (lots of practice) but with important modifications.
- Practice: Your objective when practicing skills should be to discover what happens when you apply a variety of strategies.
- Explain: Each time you apply a strategy and observe an outcome you should try to explain why it worked, or didn’t.
- Modify: When practicing the skill again, either change some aspect of the task or problem or your strategy for approaching it.
The key to Hatano’s approach to building expertise is that you continue to seek out new problems that challenge your current state of skills and knowledge.
Pick Your Poison, I Mean, Practice
Ericsson’s ideas about how to build expertise seem appropriate for building what Hatano calls routine expertise. Especially if you’re trying to build expertise in physical skills, like tennis or ballet, or areas with manageable problem spaces, like chess.
In many domains the problem spaces are much more open and dynamically changing. New diseases, new economic crises, new weather patterns are constantly emerging. To tackle these kinds of problems you need adaptive expertise.
Even though Ericsson and Hatano agree that lots and lots of practice is needed they have different ideas about how you should practice. Both approaches seem like they would help you get better at whatever it is you’re practicing. But, before you start solving endless numbers of calculus problems or examining unending arrays of chest x-rays, you may want to think about what kind of expertise you’re hoping to develop. That way you can adopt a practice strategy that will help you get there.
Ericsson, K., & Ward, P. (2007). Capturing the Naturally Occurring Superior Performance of Experts in the Laboratory: Toward a Science of Expert and Exceptional Performance Current Directions in Psychological Science, 16 (6), 346-350 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-8721.2007.00533.x
Hatano, G., & Inagaki, K. (1984). Two courses of expertise Research and Clinical Center for Child Development Annual Report, 6, 27-36