Enough with the “expert” guilt

I’m sick of being admonished that success is predicated on spending the next 10,000 hours of our lives becoming “an expert.”

I’m sick of hearing about how I should be molding my life in the image of Michael Phelps or Albert Einstein, because the only thing that separates me from genius is identifying my strengths and working really really hard.

I’m calling bullshit.

We’re so busy trying to make ourselves into outliers that we’re forgetting about what’s important.

Next-Generation Leadership Cartoon from Andertoons.com

Penelope Trunk pushed me over the edge when she wrote that for the last two years she’s been schlepping around a Harvard Business Review article called “The Making of an Expert” because:

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

Penelope goes on to equate being an expert to “success,” and laments that she isn’t an expert in anything, nor is she making headway.

I don’t know whether this is funny or sad, because she wrote this on her blog — a blog with 48,767 subscribers (at the moment). There are literally a million people trying to be “expert” enough at anything to achieve that level of “success,” and almost none of them will ever be that “successful.”

Oh yeah, and this comes on top of a six-figure book deal and years of writing for teeny inconsequential publications like the Wall Street Journal and Time magazine.

But Penelope considers herself neither a success nor an expert.

Yeah, right. She is a success. In fact, don’t you agree her problem isn’t a lack of expertise but rather that she shares my irrational yet commonplace feelings of inadequacy?

If by her definition she’s not even close to being an “expert,” clearly being an expert isn’t required for being successful.

She goes on to explain how much effort it takes before you’re allowed “expert” status (my emphasis):

“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 school swimmers today would beat Olympic records from years ago.”

That’s not “evidence.” There are more high school swimmers than ever, therefore more opportunities to find and train great swimmers. They have access to diet, training, technology, and facilities that didn’t exist years ago. That’s all.

And anyway, supposing it does take that much sheer effort, clearly it also takes talent (though she denies this, as do other, cough cough, experts). I’m a case in point: I practiced the piano for an hour a day for more than ten years. I became good, but there were others who practiced twice as much who were worse, and still others who practiced less and are much better.

We all know this. Why are we allowing people to tell us otherwise?

Not one of the successful entrepreneurs I know started as an expert. Rather, career and expertise are developed simultaneously, eventually resulting in success when coupled with a few key events (due as much to luck as effort).

Pick anyone. Sergey and Larry weren’t advertising experts before they started Google. Joel Spolsky wasn’t a blogging expert before starting FogCreek. I didn’t know anything about peer code review before starting Smart Bear.

In fact, in all these cases it would have been impossible to have been an expert! Why?  Because Google reinvented advertising, there were no “blogs” when Joel started posting essays, and there was no tool for code review until I invented one.

Innovation defies prior expertise.

So let’s stop being distracted with these arbitrary definitions, artificial goals, and unnecessary prerequisites to “success.”

Let’s just get back to work.

What do you think? Am I missing the point or taking it too far?  Leave a comment and join the conversation.

90 responses to “Enough with the “expert” guilt”

  1. Spot on. And an important point as many people (myself included) are tempted to waste time chasing the myth of “the necessity of acquiring expertise before you can succeed”, or worse before you can start a project, business, etc…

    IMHO unless you are a surgeon or in another hyper-specialized profession you personally fulfill (Olympic athlete) – personal expertise is not mandatory for success. If you need expertise buy it (at bargain recession based prices today), borrow it, work around it or even forgo it and you can still attain what you’re after – without spending 10,000 hours.

    Many times the opportunity cost associated with developing expertise yourself is just too high and impractical. Speed (that lacks initial expertise but fails and learns quickly from it’s mistakes) often beats delay caused by acquiring expertise developed through practice/study/time. Especially when the half-life of knowledge and expertise in anything is so short today.

    Interesting post and thx for writing it…

    • Great points about half-life of knowledge and the value of speed.

      In the tech world of course knowledge is extremely fleeting. I wonder how those experts in RUP (IBM waterfall) feel about the rise of Agile, or how Agilists feel about the rise of Lean? I’ve already become an “expert” in C++, then Java, in the Macintosh Toolbox then the Win32 API, and now it’s all different again.

  2. Hey Jason – this topic has been on my mind as well ever since the meme of “10,000 hours as predictor of success” came out. I think the most important point I take away from what you’ve written is that there are other definitions of success than “being in the top 10 performers in the world” at your specific pursuit.

    I wonder though – it would seem that through innovation, you can achieve great success as well, but how precisely do you go about working towards becoming more innovative?

    • That question — how to be innovative — is indeed an interesting one, and not one I feel I have a good answer to! Especially given the fundamental conundrum of innovation: That by definition it’s crazy and new which might mean it’s brilliant or it might mean it’s stupid, and either way execution matters as much as the idea.

      So maybe it just comes down to what D’Alembert told his students about Calculus hundreds of years ago when that was considered illegal rogue mathematics:

      “Go ahead. Faith will follow.”

  3. Gladwell’s meme was about retrofitting correlation and then declaring causation…but it still begs the question, what makes the Bill Joys, Bill Gates, and others in the world successful?

    Clearly the popularity of that meme says something: that we want to replicate that in some fashion. But unless we understand how, then it’s like magic to those without the insight.

    • “What makes the Bill Joys, Bill Gates, and others in the world successful?”

      Doing the right thing, in the right place, at the right time. Any combination of skill, luck and foresight accomplishes this.

      Skill, and to a lesser extent foresight, are things you can develop through practice and knowledge, respectively. “Natural-born talent,” as well as the meat of this particular meme (10k hours of work), fall under skill. “Knowing the right people” falls under foresight.

      Luck has been shown to potentially be a function of observation – more observant people see more things, and therefore are more likely to “stumble” upon fortuitous opportunities that others miss. But there’s always a bit of chaos slipped in, elements that are out of your control – the piano that falls on your head right when you get that Nobel-winning idea as much as the mix of chemicals and sleep that sets off the dream that inspires it. (Think I’m kidding? Look into how Otto Loewi discovered acetylcholine, which led to him winning a Nobel. He fortunately wasn’t killed in some random event. But if he had, would we know who he was?)

      It’s a shockingly simple calculus. The problem is that it’s as much support for our inadequacies and past-dwelling (“if I had only known how to do that, if I had only talked to him/her, if I had only bought stock in…”, etc.) as it is for creative hard work, networking, education, and a willingness to take risks.

  4. Innovation happens when intellectually curious people stumble upon a problem they need to solve. The so-called “experts” in the field will typically rant on and on that whatever this newbie wants to do either 1) breaks the laws of physics 2) will never make money or 3) they are too inexperienced to pull it off.

    When I think of all the great innovators, they were usually looking for something else and stumbled upon their discovery, in a totally unrelated field or as a consequence of failure or both.
    .-= Jarie Bolander’s latest blog post: Zenhabits: 4 Simple Principles of Getting to Completion =-.

  5. Maybe I’m too young to be equipped with the requisite life experience to have a view on this topic, but it’s often struck me that the 10,000 hours spiel is too easy to roll out time and again when one is faced with questions about development.

    Apart from anything else- an expert in WHAT exactly? If I spent my 10,000 hours on one thing I’d be putting all my eggs in one or perhaps two related baskets. That equips me for only a small number of jobs and seems a bit silly given the number of career changes/technological upheavals I’m likely to see during my putative working life.

    The amount of time it would take to reach the ‘expert stage’ is also off-putting in the extreme and doesn’t tally with my own hobbies and interests- I found that enjoyment was the key to learning and becoming competent in something, and when I stopped enjoying things it meant I needed to take a break and then come back to the subject. When I did return, I often found I’d lost bad habits that came through over-use and picked up a new perspective on how to get rid of any problems I’d been having.

    The Early Learning Centre used to encourage parents to let their kids ‘learn through playing’- I’ve never understood why adults won’t allow themselves to do the same, at least in the early stages of acquiring a new skill. 10,000 smiles beats 10,000 hours, easy!

  6. Jason,
    My opinion: the folks you mention in your post define the term “expert” too narrowly.

    Before starting Smart Bear, I’m sure you spent countless hours attacking ill-structured and challenging problems and honing your deductive reasoning and problem solving prowess. This may not have made you a “peer code review” expert per se, but it certainly made you an expert problem solver. The problem you solved just happened to be peer code review.

    In other words, It’s not always a specific application (swimming, coding) that defines expertise: brain or physical processes can just as easily carry that label. A great example of this is in the book Founders At Work: the founders of Hotmail were hardware engineers before tackling the first-ever web-based email service!

    Through that wider lens, there are probably a lot more experts in the world than we thin
    .-= Richard Wilner’s latest blog post: IE6? More like IE666 =-.

    • I agree that the problem is the narrow definition, and that if you define things more loosely it makes more sense.

      But what I’m railing against is exactly the fact that everyone IS defining “expert” this narrowly. Ever since Gladwell’s book came out it’s the statistic and definition everyone uses. It’s that fact I disagree with. I picked on Penelope but her words are common.

      Of course the wider you define the term the less it means. If it just means “working on problems so you get better at working on problems” then it devolves into “experience is useful.” True, but uninsightful.

      I don’t know what the right definition should be, and perhaps it’s not important to form one. I still believe that people in general should be more focussed on just working hard and learning rather than worrying about labels like “expert.”

      • When I read Outliers, I assumed that “expertise” was to be understood in more loose terms and completely agree with Richard’s statement. I do think it’s possible and meaningful to talk about buidling up “expertise”. But I believe that expertise IS a product of 2 components: practice and talent.

        My theory (solely based on personal observation and opinion) is that talent = interest. Your talent is entirely based on the depth of your interest in a given area/aspect of your experience. Without that interest, you simply cannot get the same amount of value from your effort in that particular direction as someone who has it. This is where talent comes into play and is the missing component in talks about expertise. In other words, you don’t become an expert simply by investing your 10k hours. Your 10k have to be invested in the “right” way.

        Jason – this is a really interesting post (just discovered your blog and looking forward to checking out the rest of it) and I love you calling out the bs in these talks about 10k hours.

        That said, I don’t think we should discount the entire concept of expertise. In Outliers, it’s specfically the combination of all of the elements discussed (luck, family background, expertise, talent, cultural background) that results in “success”. So I don’t think you and Gladwell disagree :)

        • One last observation:
          I think Gladwell was on to something with 10k hours, but perhaps got hung up on the number.

          If someone works for 10k hours on something, they have tremendous perseverance, tenacity, and mental toughness. The time spent is merely a by-product of these qualities; they may be the most important aspects of someone who becomes an “expert” or achieves success in whatever they do, whether it’s becoming a master carpenter, world-class swimmer, research scientist, or software entrepreneur.
          .-= Richard Wilner’s latest blog post: IE6? More like IE666 =-.

          • Yes I completely agree that it’s the other way around — that a necessary (but not necessarily sufficient) part of the equation is massive dedication, and 10k hours is a way to summarize.

            Also it’s fair to say that folks other than Gladwell are responsible for taking the 10k number and using it as utter gospel, or at least focusing on that instead of the bigger concept.

            Really it’s this meme or movement that I’m railing against, not trying to “disprove” everything Gladwell said. Just to say it’s not that simple, nor is it necessarily important to achieve this (arbitrary) definition of expert, certainly not prior to living your life.

        • I agree with Deena. I have read Gladwell’s book and thought it inspiring, but I don’t think I read it like you have Jason. The 10k hours to a so-called expert isn’t tallied like a coach timing the lap of a track runner. If you enjoy what you’re doing you will eat, sleep, and breathe your passion and never realize just how much time you’ll spend learning, exploring, and doing.

          My father was self-employed in a one-horse operation in the construction sector. By necessity he could only afford one tractor to do the clearing and grading work that his clients called on him to do. He never set out for the label of “expert” but, after years of doing what his passion was, he was given that label by those around him. I asked him, after reading Outliers, if he thought that he had put in 10k hours in running a tractor. He thought about it and replied yes and then some.

          There is some sage advice found in the Bible that speaks to where you sit when invited to a wedding celebration. Jesus was telling the story, and He points out that you don’t just go sitting in the best seat in the house. You sit in the lowest seat and let another move your position for you. I believe that’s how expertise is bestowed upon someone. Jason, you in some ways, bestowed such an honor on Penelope Trunk by the words you’ve written in this article. It’s not always the person who is the expert who should label themselves but their peers, colleagues, mentors, or Joe Public. It doesn’t take much to look around Twitter to find self-proclaimed but sadly proven “gurus”, “mavens”, and “experts”.

          I want to be an expert but not for the sake of the title but because I’m good at what I do. I push the industry forward. It will afford me the opportunity to do good by my clients and they, in turn, will afford me the better joy of giving my family a better way of life. All the while, I’m living my passion without thought of how long I spend working my passion. If it’s 10k, 20k, or 100k, or whether you I wear a title or not, I don’t care because my passion coupled with my talent and faith will take me wherever I’m destined to go and I’ll bet that’ll be as far as I can imagine. Just my two-cents, less than “expertly” given. LOL.

          Thanks for the article.

          • I agree with you completely, and your examples are excellent.

            Again I’m railing against the current meme of declaring (1) 10k hours to be a magic number, forgetting where that comes from, and (2) the idea that you “must” become an expert to be considered successful, or even that (3) you should first become an expert rather than it being a by-product of your work.

            Articles like Penelope’s are common, and Penelope is smart and wonderful, and yet still she’s making this error.

            This error — which you agree with! — is what I’m ranting against.

  7. Great post! However, I have a question about ‘practice’. When a group of people spend the exact same amount of time practicing and all get different results, isn’t it due to the way, and what, they ‘practice’?

    • The manner of practice is one possible variation, yes.

      But when everyone trains under a single coach with a single style, and still everyone comes out differently, then it’s not the manner of practice, right?

      Surely innate ability is a big deal. I just can’t understand arguments to the contrary.

  8. You don’t have to be the world’s greatest expert to be a success (however you define that) – you just have to be good enough at what you do to convince enough customers to pay for whatever it is you do/sell.

    Many people with highly developed expertise in specific areas are actually fairly rubbish at things like sales and marketing and have to learn to do these to build a business. Equally being great at sales won’t mean you can build a business without learning all kinds of other stuff.

    I think the key is to be an expert in your own strengths and weaknesses and then go out and either acquire skills to complement your own – preferably in the shape of other people because they will have a different perspective on things and help you take your business to places you couldn’t go by yourself.

  9. I avoid specializing in one thing, and instead, learn new skills as I take on new projects, products, clients or companies. I rather know a little bit of everything well enough to be able to manage teams, than to specialize in one skill so that I can’t do others.

  10. Great Article,
    the distinction between trying to be an “expert” an actually focusing on your work/innovation is crucial. Wanting to be an expert is really missing the point!

  11. Jason you are right. I come from a marketing background and I read somewhere (apologies to author, I can’t remember where) that we should beware of anyone who claimed to be a marketing “expert” or worse still “guru” – you can never truly be an “expert” because things change too fast, and the best people to work with are those who consider themselves to “explorers” or “discoverers” – always on the look out for new things and better ways of doing things, but never stressing about having found the ultimate answer!

  12. Kudos. Soberly insightful like a lot of your other articles. I hope with all my might and for the sake of the rest of us, that you are in fact correct. ;)

  13. I have wondered how people implement Gladwell’s ideas into practical application considering there is formidable evidence to the opposite. The Holiday issue of the Economist notes the return of the “Generalist”. A person with a broad base of knowledge who can synthesize a greater world view into strategy and opportunity. Is there no place for this creature? In the era of reduced job security and increased specialization there must be opportunities for those of us who deal in the big picture and are un-beholden to the minutiae.

    As you mentioned, success comes from the intersection of skills, ideas, opportunity, and hard work.

  14. Nice post!

    There are two types of experts:
    1. Self-made Expert = someone who (supposedly) knows more than you do but has the courage to boast about it.

    2. Public-made Expert = someone who is regarded by others to possess more knowledge than the average person.

    And, of course, there’s the “Successful Expert” = same definition as above but with the ability to monetize, i.e. make money because of so-called expertise (self-proclaimed or publicly-proclaimed).

    It has nothing to do with how many hours you practice something, how many years you have under your belt working with something, or even how may books you have published. It’s all based on perception.
    .-= Daniel Kuperman’s latest blog post: The Dirty Side of Marketing =-.

  15. Expertise comes with experience. Working at a profession for 40 hours a week for 50 weeks a year will make you an “expert’ in that profession in 5 years.

    • Really? So everyone you know who has held down the same job for 5 years you would regard as an expert in that field, or in that particular position?

      Or do you know people who work a job 2000 hours/year and yet never seem to be particularly adept or deep?

      I admit we all have different definitions of the word “expert,” but still, as a gut-check, would you label all those folks “experts?”

    • If you turn that around it would become even more wrong. So if someone worked at five different jobs in those five years, there is no way they can be an expert at something?

      Sure, experience is a factor in becoming an expert, but stating that someone is going to be an expert after five years of full time work is just not right.
      .-= Jonathan van de Veen’s latest blog post: Build or Buy: Software is still Business =-.

  16. Good points. One nitpick though…

    It’s not merely “practice”, it’s “deliberate practice”.

    Re-read the article again: the authors of the research are careful to point out the difference.

  17. Yes, achieving success does not require you to be an expert on anything. I do not think that anyone looking for success will find it by just spending huge amounts of time becoming “experts” on something. Instead, learn what you need to learn to be able to get things done, and avoid so called “experts” if they try to influence your decisions and goals.

    Too many times I’ve seen people stop trying on something, or reconsidering an idea just because someone else, an experienced partner, friend or whatever told them theirs was not a good idea, or that it was just something crazy.

    Every time I doubt my ideas regarding a project based on an “expert” feedback, I remember how bees are still flying even when “experts” say they are not supposed to because they break the laws of aerodynamics… I guess bees never studied aerodynamics so they just fly anyways :)
    .-= Ricardo’s latest blog post: SimpleProject is taking shape – thinking about getting a shared office space =-.

  18. Bear with me here, ’cause this is going to start out sounding off topic.

    Every year colleges across the US awards about 80K Bachelors of Fine Arts degrees. This assumes these people are minimally competent in their area of study. About 10% of those people go on to get a Master’s Degree. So, every year, we presumably turn out 8 thousand people who are Master’s of their craft. Experts, if you will.

    By now, we should have a couple of million “expert” artists running around this country. But frankly, I’m not seeing it.

    And for the same reasons there aren’t millions of business experts or stock market experts. Big clue: Not everyone can be an expert. It’s statistically and rationally impossible. There will always be a scale of better and worse. Those at the “high end” of better are considered experts.

    If you add a million more to the pile, it just increases the numbers of those considered acolytes to experts proportionally along the line.

    Breadth of knowledge will always add more possibilities for discovery and invention than depth. Which is why I tell my students to study everything they are interested in, whether it is related to art, astronomy, cooking or bio-genetic research. Be good at what you love, but know a little about everything else.

  19. You’re right – experience and expertise are overrated. The world needs people who are knowledgeable in many fields and skilled in bringing these areas together.

    However, the meme will live on for two good reasons:
    1) Many dilletantes consider themselves knowledgeable without expending enough effort – and the ten year rule explains them pretty well.
    2) We humans need to categorize people – even as we accept labels as fluid. You quickly became “the code review guy” after focusing on it and us strangers knew what to talk to you about. You’re probably a good dad too, but you haven’t been hanging your shingle out there as a parenting expert.

    “Never presume false mastery” could carry many people further in life.
    .-= Mike Schoeffler’s latest blog post: Ok to root for a Canadian? =-.

  20. Hey great article Jason! Keep up the good job.

    I believe that to be an expert is useless unless there is “passion” for what ones is doing. Where there is passion there is a desire to learn more, do more and experience more. Basically excel in a field. Passion for money doesn’t count. One needs to be genuinely interested in what they are doing. With time, the money will find this passionate individual.

    This is where meme of “10,000 hours as predictor of success” breaks down because if one has true passion for what they do in “today’s age” (where technology & information is more readily available to most) one can achieve success (status / expertise) a lot quicker. Looking at history and saying one can do what Bill Gates did and build an empire is misleading just like looking at the stock market historically because different timing / technology maturity also played a large differentiator part for him. Yes one can mirror his leadership & intellect traits but it doesn’t guarantee one the same level of success.

    Finally how can one be certain that the single thing they are training in to become this “expert” won’t lead them down a disappointing path without 1st going into some sort of diverse exploration phase to bring ideas together and join the dots.

    It’s all fun and games in the end. Enjoy the journey :-)
    .-= Ernest Semerda’s latest blog post: Yerba Mate Tea – the drink of the Gods =-.

  21. Interesting thinking. I also enjoyed reading readers’ comments. I need a bit of time to formulate my thoughts on this, and hope to get back to comment shortly.

  22. There is a danger of waiting until you believe you are an expert and have accumulated the requisite 10,000 of “deliberate practice.” This seems to be what you are ranting against.

    But there is also a danger of taking “The Little Engine that Could” too much to heart and continue repeating “I think I can, I think I can…” without learning from your mistakes.

    What’s the best way to learn from your mistakes? What Ericsson calls “deliberate practice.” Here is a simple example that I think most entrepreneurs would find readily applicable, taken from an interview with Anders in Fast Company:

    Q: Can you explain how deliberate practice works?
    A: “Here’s a typical example: Medical diagnosticians see a patient once or twice, make an assessment in an effort to solve a particularly difficult case, and then they move on. They may never see him or her again. I recently interviewed a highly successful diagnostician who works very differently. He spends a lot of his own time checking up on his patients, taking extensive notes on what he’s thinking at the time of diagnosis, and checking back to see how accurate he is. This extra step he created gives him a significant advantage compared with his peers. It lets him better understand how and when he’s improving. In general, elite performers utilize some technique that typically isn’t well known or widely practiced.”

    see http://www.fastcompany.com/magazine/110/final-word.html

    3 other places to start:

    Ericsson’s home page at http://www.psy.fsu.edu/faculty/ericsson.dp.html

    Paper: “The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance” at http://projects.ict.usc.edu/itw/gel/EricssonDeliberatePracticePR93.pdf

    Book: “Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance” edited by Ericsson at http://www.amazon.com/Cambridge-Expertise-Performance-Handbooks-Psychology/dp/0521600812/
    .-= Sean Murphy’s latest blog post: Iron Bars, Plexiglass, and Masking Tape =-.

    • Sean, your point is well taken and I’m glad you posted links to Ericsson’s work. I blogged about the Fast Company piece on him when it came out and I think his research around “deliberate practice” has merit, but I’ve also seen people totally run away with the concept and misapply it.

      Jason’s post is very good and points to the shadow side of mastery–the thinking that got you THERE won’t necessarily get you to a place in your discipline/business/industry that no one has ever been before.
      .-= Liz @ Creative Liberty’s latest blog post: Surf’s Up, Condensed: Top Creativity Links for February 16, 2010 =-.

    • The 10000 hours things wasn’t justn’t 10000 hours of practice, it was 10000 hours of ‘deliberate practice’ driven by a deep love for what you are practicing. If the practice isn’t deliberate or isn’t backed up by the love for it then the 10000 won’t make you an expert. See the Talent Code for stories around this – an interesting one was the music lessons one where a significant predictor of future ability was the kid’s answer when starting out as to how long they thought they’d stick with playing their instrument. Those who saw it as something they’d do for the rest of their life improved at a far greater rate than those who thought they’d only do it until they left school.

  23. Well, you’re right, of course, but I think you miss why Penelope Trunk or Malcolm Galdwell make these kind of incredibly stupid claims and are very popular, defying logic.

    If you take it down to the concepts : They take people they believe are “superior/expert”, they trace their lives, then tell you to do the same to reap the same rewards and be “superior”. Penelope add the twist that she feel she ain’t worthy enough to be called superior, and she should work harder, going for the “martyr” angle.

    Essentially, they’re pulling on the same heartstrings every single religious movement have been pulling for millenniums. It’s a good formula and it works. There’s no need to bother debating or reading research about it, it’s a scam, it’s a get-rich-overtime scam ( the best scam being, get-rich-after-dying ).

    Again, if someone isn’t telling you to live your own life, the way you choose to live it, to find your own way, they’re probably trying to scam you. We should feel pity for everyone who’s going to waste 10 000 of precious time in their life trying to be Bill Gates because they bought a book of Malcolm Gladwell.

  24. I’m so glad you wrote this b/c, well, I agree. I look at people like Tim Ferriss who “hack” different sports and activities to achieve expert level very quickly. Or think of child prodigies who aren’t old enough to have spent 10,000 hours on their skill/talent.

  25. Wow. Here here. Very well said. Also who says anyone ever arrives at expert status and how any amount of time quantifies. There are always new things to learn in any field. I have been focused on my profession for more than 20 years, and I am always amazed by people with new ideas, passion for their work and out of the box thinking – most of which have no where near 10K hours of a career. You’re right. A 2 dimensional statement like this in attempt to quantify ‘expertise’ and exclude so many 3 dimensional thinking individuals is ridiculous. She obviously doesn’t get it and needs to work on her thesis a bit more. LOL.

  26. I’m glad that someone questioned this 10.000 hours path to expert-dom, but the premise is not completely lame. Just look at driving. When you’re still learning how to drive you’re a lousy driver, distracted by the rules of the skill that you’re trying to master. Given enough time and practice you are doing it automatically.
    That does not apply to motor skills only. Acquiring a new cognitive skill is similar in it’s nature (even though it affects different parts of brain). Practice makes it possible to do any task (motor or cognitive) almost automatically, “without thinking”. That gives you the advantage (in time, efficiency) over the next guy. Our brain is “the greatest muscle” for it’s ability to change and adapt. For example a patient without a left brain hemisphere can have it’s speech center “transferred” (through practice) to the right side. I think that that’s what Gladwell meant in “Outliers”. But I do agree that 10.000 hours doesn’t guarantee success.
    .-= Mihaela Mihaljevic Jakic’s latest blog post: Random names generator – Randy =-.

  27. The problem here is the false equation of expert with success. Expert certainly correlates with some forms of success, especially in technical fields. But “expert” just increases your chance of making the right connections and knowing the right things. A better question is: what is the catalog of things you can do to do this? Are there ways you can train your brain, or consume information more effectively?

    The whole “expert” thing also ignores the fertile ground for entrepreneurs: emerging sectors. There’s very few people today with 10,000 hours of expertise in, say, social networking. That doesn’t mean that nobody’s the best at providing social networking services. How do you get “enough of an expert to enter an emerging field” rather than “expert”?

  28. Okay, it’s hugely tempting to discount the 10,000-hours meme and the gurus who tout it as career advice worthy of “The Secret.” It is eminently worth calling bullshit on. But still, we all know that talent and success don’t come out of thin air. There are patterns. There is leverage.

    The real question here is: what’s the underlying mechanism?

    Here’s one way to think about it: in the most basic sense, all human expertise is a fast, fluent neural circuit. Music, sports, math, business, software – you name it, expertise is neural broadband – fast, reliable, accurate high-bandwidth info-processing — and like anything else that’s biological, it requires three ingredients:

    1. Genes
    2. Luck
    3. Development

    Now the genes we can’t change. Maybe some people get more of the sparkly magical ones, maybe not. But no sense in measuring it – because it’s already done.

    The luck part – that’s partly in our control. We can show up more often, put more energy into connecting with people, buy more of life’s lottery tickets. But ultimately, a lot of this element is still out of our control (right, Sergey?)

    So now we come to ingredient #3: Development, a.k.a. the 10,000 hours.Which isn’t a number so much as it is a serious hint that there’s a shared process at work here. Because, as Anders Ericsson’s work vividly shows, nobody gets into this rarefied club with 7,500 hours; certainly nobody is there with 3,000 (even prodigies like Mozart had to clock their 10,000 before producing anything world-class).

    Which kind of makes sense, at least to me. Maybe a neural broadband circuit takes a certain amount of time to grow in a human being. Maybe more have more potential than others – but it still takes time. And the ways you can spend that time vary hugely – how much you love it, how intensely you train, how much of your identity is wrapped up in the effort.

    The emerging picture is sort of like an ecosystem – 1) a landscape with valleys of bad luck and mountaintops of great luck; 2) a bunch of genes producing a lot of variety that we can’t control; 3) individual growth, which depends on lots of different stuff – like culture, motivation, family – and, most particularly, precisely how you spend your time.

    And that’s where entrepreneurs have a distinct strategic advantage on the world: they’re not like surgeons or lawyers, accruing some narrow stash of expertise – on the contrary, entrepreneurs are always building more fast, fluent, flexible circuitry, especially when they screw up or take a risk.

    Great discussion – I really enjoyed reading all the comments.

    Daniel Coyle


    • I like your analysis. Of course it’s hard to say what percentage of the end result is due to 1, 2, and 3, but you’re right about which parts are under your control, so clearly you have to just work on those things.

    • The biggest flaw in your analysis is point 3, the way I see it, it isn’t individual growth, it’s social growth, and it could be debated it’s entirely down to luck. Success, expertise, etc. Is mostly a social construct, like beauty.

      Mozart needed 10 000 hours to produce anything world-class, mainly because back then, composing was really popular and the barrier of entry was so high, world class before Mozart was Bach, Vivaldi, Rameau, etc. The baroque era, giant shoes to fill. Do you need 10 000 hours to produce a world-class composition nowadays? No. If Mozart was born today, he’ll have very little competition, very little listeners, and probably very little success.

      You just can’t abstract the competition and say that expertise depends on your individual growth. Expertise and its utility is a social construct.

      To illustrate : Apolo Anto Ohno doesn’t have to be the best he can be, to succeed all he have to do is skate faster then some Korean kids. That’s it, he beats them it’s the gold medal, that’s his barrier, his choice for success. So how many hours that require? 200? 20 000? It’s entirely probable he might never beat them, no matter how many hours he puts into it, at the opposite, he might not even have to train if all those Korean fall. Likes genes, he have no control over them, he just made the choice of barrier. He seems to have made the right choice for his abilities, doesn’t means everyone should take that choice, afterall, I’m sure there are thousand of speed skater who sucks and will never ever win a gold medal no matter how hard they train, the talent just isn’t there, they need to look elsewhere for success.

      That’s why you have to put all these schemes in the scam category, they are confidence trick, nothing more. They’re there to play with the confidence of individuals, not always to defraud obviously, actually they might help someone gather the confidence to believe in themselves, still they are confidence trick, nothing more. I don’t blame Malcolm Gladwell and the likes for trying them and profiting from them, they are not the first scammers, and won’t be the last, I just find it dangerous to tell people to spend 10 000 hours of their life in something they might not have any talent or chance of succeeding. These people need to be mindful they are doing confidence trick and some people might actually believe them.

      • Thanks for the thoughtful reply. I’m intrigued to pursue your core idea that “Success, expertise, etc. Is mostly a social construct, like beauty.”

        I think you’re right: what qualifies as expert in one era is amateurish in the next. Not everybody makes it. Life on this planet is relative, unfair, short, brutal, etc.

        But let’s look at the bigger picture. This isn’t about social constructs or perception. It’s about utility.

        If I fall ill and need an operation, I go to the most expert surgeon I can find – the one whose brain and muscle control is superior to the others. The surgeon’s expertise – which they worked hard for thousands of hours to attain – might be a social construct, and he or she might suck royally compared to the surgeons of 2075, but I don’t care because his expertise is immensely useful to me right now.

        Places and cultures that understand and value this kind of utility – well, you see where this is going. Because expertise is only partly in the eye of the beholder. It also exists, measurably, in the form of fast, fluent, useful neural circuits that are built, over time, through a process humans seem to share. And knowing the details of how that process works – new details that science is providing through Ericsson and others — can be pretty useful.

        The old romantic view of talent is that it’s fixed, genetic, a divine spark distributed at birth (talk about a powerful construct!). The new, scientific view is that it’s rooted less in genes and more in behavior. So are unwitting people being hoodwinked by the false promises of this science? Maybe they are. Or maybe the brain’s potential is bigger than we instinctively presume.

        On this question, I’ll go with Aristotle – “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, therefore, is not an act, but a habit.”

        • Well I can’t claim that I discovered that idea, it’s by a little known author named Charles Darwin, he actually wrote two whole book on it : “The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex” and “The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals”. I’m kind of glad you agree on the core idea, it would’ve been real awkward explaining it otherwise…

          So, the old romantic view is that it’s fixed, that’s still where Gladwell and its ilk lies, essentially, you need to make it shine, and for that you need to follow a strict procedure, and to follow the steps of “superior” humans. He’s like Paul of Tarsus, except Paul never met Jesus, and Malcolm met Bill Gates…

          Then that new kid on the block Darwin came with the idea that you’re born with some naturally-selected attributes, ability to learn, see, smell, etc. Which you can’t do almost nothing about, but more importantly, you are born in a world built on social construct, which you can change, reject, or even create. Utility play almost no part, baseball player can earn more then doctor, all it take is a society that want that to happen. Most interaction between human are based on these construct, justice, honor, love, beauty, expertise, success, etc. You name it.

          Scientist took this and made incredible stride to help people adapt to these construct, plastic surgeon can try to make you prettier, Ericsson try to make you train better, teacher try to make you more knowledgeable, lawyer try to bend the justice your way, etc. It’s all fine and I don’t oppose it, the problem is that some are forgetting that they are “trying”. Essentially, and I hate to be all F. A Hayek on you, but market will coordinate time with interest, so you’ll either run out of time or money in that pursuit.

          That’s where it gets real dangerous, people can lose everything in the pursuit of these schemes, money, time, and in the end, even if they succeed, you have to look at the sacrifice they made versus someone that was simply more apt to adapt to that particular challenge. Instead of looking at where you would be after 10 000 hours of hard work just to be called an expert, why not look if you can become good at something in 100 hours? Then move from there, your success is going to be dictated by how easily your going to adapt to this world, if you believe in Darwin at least.

  29. Hi Jason,

    This post is right on time for me. Just this morning, I realised that in my journey to be an expert tester, I have gotten worse in things that mean a lot! For the first time, I am feeling guilty for working towards being an expert. I agree with you that career and expertise are developed simultaneously. Your post is spot on!

    Thank you,
    Parimala Shankaraiah
    .-= Parimala Shankaraiah’s latest blog post: Puzzle Personified =-.

  30. First of all, I think the term “expert”, is a relative term. If you are better at something or know more on a specific topic then most others, you are considered an expert.

    Second of all, I do think experience is a prerequisite for being an expert. If you haven’t tried it, how can you tell others about it? The point here is obviously, how much experience do you need? I think this has to do with many variables, including your speed of learning compared to others and luck, in terms of what you run into when. If you run into a lot of problems early on and figure out how to overcome them, you can become an expert in shorter time span.
    .-= Jonathan van de Veen’s latest blog post: Build or Buy: Software is still Business =-.

    • I agree the term is relative, which is why I don’t like this meme of 10k hours. It’s just not that simple.

      I didn’t say experience isn’t prerequisite for being an expert! I said being an expert isn’t a prerequisite for being successful in your field, in your life, in anything.

      Expertise is something you develop along the way, not something you develop and then do something. Especially in tech where expertise in something is semi-obsolete by the end of the 10,000 hours.

  31. When you create a category in which you are the first in, you by default become an expert. We also teach that in marketing. If you cannot be #1 in the category you are in, create one that you can be!!!! I think people are now way too caught up in being an expert at something, when all they have to do is be an expert at being themselves.
    .-= Jeffrey Fry’s latest blog post: Clear the Air [Digg] =-.

  32. I actually get most riled up when people get upset over the term “Social Media Expert.” It’s somehow taboo to call anyone a Social Media Expert, and you wouldn’t want to be called that yourself. Why is that? I’m damn good at it – I’m not good at much, but I’ve built up quite a network on Twitter and Facebook, and I sell t-shirts using those networks. Guilty as charged – I’m an expert!
    .-= Chris @ The Basement Entrepreneur’s latest blog post: Businesses on Twitter – You Have One Extra Rule To Live By =-.

  33. It’s the nature of our culture to “create” a label and then promote it as the next thing everyone should strive towards. Expert is now replacing “passion” as the buzzword to follow. Unfortunately it will become overused and lose it’s meaning due to the “immediacy” of trying to fit into the terminology (seriously is anyone “passionate” about writing code – let’s leave that definition to more relevant things like sex). There is no and has never been any requirement to be successful and be an expert. Your case is different, you are now successful after founding Smart Bear, and are an expert. But it doesn’t always work this way as history proves. By all accounts Van Gogh was an expert at painting. But no one liked his work so he wasn’t considered either successful or an expert during his lifetime. We are way to focused on this kind of terminology and I don’t see the benefit much of the time.

  34. I like this post, otherwise I wouldn’t respond. I have a few points of disagreement, and some of agreement. One point to make is that the idea of expert is not necessary for success, or happiness or anything else. I don’t WANT to be expert at many things that others are, because it’s not worth the effort to me. Doesn’t make me unhappy, just average.
    Another idea is that it doesn’t just take 10 000 hours. It takes 10 000 hours of MEANINGFUL practice, practice that actually improves performance. Most peoples work, my own included at times, is not aimed at improving, just completing. As a teacher I see this all the time.
    Thirdly, luck is incredibly important, especially in business. That is why in Outliers TWO criteria were considered important. Drive, and opportunity. Without the opportunity, (and this is often impossible to identify before the fact) nothing else matters.
    I think that talent might be over-rated, at least the research I’ve heard of suggests this, but I don’t have enough information to comment knowledgeably.

    I do agree that we get to hung up on definitions, and that we should not lay such value on them, but, as you point out, success doesn’t hinge on being an expert. (Look at Paris Hilton.) Many successes are the first to do something, and their level of expertise would not suffice at a later time.

    Yours in mediocrity,


  35. Interesting point that you are making. Lets focus on getting back to work. That really resonates with me.
    I’ve found that its advantageous to be in a center of innovation when selling to visionary clients, This can afford you the opportunity to build and test your prototype early while minimizing your need for extra investment capital. It seems though that you should maintain a healthy level of respect for specialization as a competitive edge in a world full of innovation.

  36. I can see both points, but I tend to side with yours more than Penelopes. There are some things which require expertise status that’s reached from insane amounts of study, schoolwork, lab work, etc. etc. etc.–such as in the medical or science fields. When it comes to business and other things; however, I think you’re spot on.

    Part of the problem is that so many people feel like they have to do it they same way someone else did it. Not true. It’s not wrong to do it like someone else, but when you trust yourself to make the decisions you can excel in whatever your working in. In time (with hard work) you’ll become an expert. The term ‘expert’ is relative anyway in my book. To be an expert at something, just know more than the next guy. If to be considered an expert you’ve got to reach the top, then man, most of us are going to be hosed.

    Anyway, sweet article. Thanks.
    .-= Chris Mower’s latest blog post: A Need for Ethics =-.

    • Just another quick thought on the matter… Unfortunately, it can get rather sticky attempting to prove a point using two arbitrary terms such as “expert” and “success.” I definitely don’t think being an expert is a prerequisite to success in most pursuits. If that were the case, there’d be very few successful people, so to speak.
      .-= Chris Mower’s latest blog post: A Need for Ethics =-.

  37. Obviously Penelope Trunk separates ideas of ‘success’ and true mastery; she’s holding herself to a much higher standard than, for example, you seem to be. Dan Brown is one of the most popular authors in the world. Is he a great writer? Fuck no.

    Deliberate practice — highly focused, challenging practice with goals, growth and regular feedback — is about achieving mastery, achieving greatness, achieving a level of performance that stands on its own and doesn’t depend upon luck or manipulation of public perception. And ten thousand hours is recognized as the *bare minimum* — often it takes fifteen or twenty thousand. People who are compelled along this path are just that — compelled and obsessed, and doing the activity for the sake of the activity itself, the absorption and fascination of it, not their attachment to a particular outcome (although they hope) — and the activity itself is the reward. If deliberate practice applies to you and what you do, you know it. And if it doesn’t — so what? Carry on. It means that you get to have a life. :)

  38. The value of expertise for an innovator is being able to recognize what is new-and-useful. Larry and Sergey weren’t ‘advertising’ experts, but the were for sure experts in the new-and-useful department.

    Expertise is The Script. Innovation is when you get off the script. If you have no idea what is in the script then you never really know if you are on it or off it. If you have the next big thing, or snake oil. Expertise is a co-requirement of innovation.

  39. I think I reached my brain capacity. Every time I try to put something new in, some old stuff has to fall out to make room.

    The number of times I realize (half-way through) that I’ve already read a given blog post is really quite depressing.

    I agree with you 100%. Just get on with it (whatever it may be)

  40. So let’s stop being distracted with these arbitrary definitions, artificial goals, and unnecessary prerequisites to “success.”

    Spot on. Take the example of Wendell Fertig: a civil engineer in the Philippines in 1941. Called to service due to his ROTC classes he promoted himself to general after the fall of Corregidor and assumed command of up to 36,000 troops in the PI by 1945.

    Obviously a success, but not a guy who spent at least 10 years thinking about the art of war.
    .-= Brian Dunbar’s latest blog post: Expectations =-.

  41. Your article is a thing of beauty for every innovator. All that’s really required to be “expert” in some sense, is to analyze weaknesses and fix them. Some people do that without knowing anything at all. Some, as you and others point out, create something entirely new, and because of it, are “expert” in it.

    Just focus on doing things better and working diligently towards that, and you’re likely to end up an “expert”.

  42. Interesting discussion. It seems there are as many definitions of an expert as there are comments. I just wrote a blog entry on this topic at digdoonga.blogspot.com. My opinion is that to be successful you don’t need to be an expert, based on any definition of an expert. For example, people who can replicate the successful processes created by others are successful without ever being experts themselves. Franchises are a great example. Franchiser’s refine their processes and systems until they have repeated success with them. They then franchise their processes and systems. The franchisee’s can be successful without ever being experts in those processes or systems.

  43. Loving this =) And could not agree more.

    This is “practice makes perfect” put into overdrive and it’s not remotely helpful for most people. Sure, you could say that focusing on becoming an expert over 10’000 hours would give you a great base and possibly a great deal of social trust in that area. But would it give you more of an expert status than, say, a doctorate in business or an MA in marketing?

    If you’re slogging away endlessly in private then you have substantially less expert status than someone with a master’s degree (or even a bachelor’s degree). Toiling in secret is for suckers, and believe me, it’s taken years for me to realize that.

    Bringing up Google is a great point. Not only did it not take 10k hours to become experts, it took less than that to dominate the market and change the way people use the internet forever. It also pretty much killed cost-per-impression advertising ;-)
    .-= Griffin Boyce’s latest blog post: PeeWee Herman Gets an Apple iPad =-.

  44. Strictly looking at the bare definitions, I think one can state that expert does not equal success in the slightest. Being an expert may require lots of practice and talent but cannot guarantee success in anything. It makes one good, or better at something than someone else. The success comes when you add in factors like time, place, and luck. Take the swimming analogy. Phelps didn’t win so many golds just by practicing a lot and becoming an expert. Being an expert gave him an advantage. He was also quite lucky that nobody else matched his skill level at the time and event, he didn’t slip, his goggles stayed on, and he thankfully didn’t suffer any injuries. These are external factors that being an expert cannot necessarily change.

    Being an expert in something gives you a set of tools to try to become successful, and more likely increase your chances of becoming successful in something particular. Others may become successful through different tools and sets of circumstances.

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