How To Become An Expert In Your Field

How do you get to Carnegie Hall?

Practice, practice, practice, right?

While that old joke still contains a kernel or eternal truth, new research suggests that only the right kind of practice will make you a virtuoso in your field of endeavor.

The key to achieving mastery is “deliberative practice,” a term coined by psychologist Anders Ericsson, who studies top performers. Deliberative practice requires you to step outside your comfort zone to work on aspects of your game (or profession) that you have not yet mastered. While it may be enjoyable to invest hours honing your already near-perfect tee shot, you won’t lower your handicap until you instead spend a similar amount of time and effort improving your less-than-impressive sand trap shots. Proof: Ericsson found that the best figure skaters spent a great deal of time practicing jumps and spins that were new to them. Average skaters practiced familiar routines over and over.

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Makes sense? So, why don’t more of us practice that way? Because we wrongly think that desire and hard work are enough to get us to our goals. According to Ericsson, it is also critical to set very specific goals and have a teacher/coach/mentor who can provide a “deliberate practice” blueprint to achieve those objectives.

Ericsson’s research was the source for the oft-quoted “10,000 hours rule” cited in Malcolm Gladwell’s bestseller Outliers. Specifically, Gladwell was referring to a study of violinists that Ericson did in the 1990’s. But Ericsson says Gladwell’s “rule” fails to emphasize the importance of spending those hours doing work dictated by a teacher/coach as part of a structured plan.

And here’s some great news for the average high school athlete who dreams of playing third base for the Yankees or the middling chorus member who hopes to become a Country music star. Ericsson believes that with deliberate practice, any obstacle can be overcome – except height and weight. So, if you’re a beanpole by nature and want to be a Sumo wrestler, you might be out of luck. Otherwise, as he told Business Insider, “I’ve been spending now 30 years trying to look for [the] kind of limits that would actually constrain some individuals from being successful in some domain. And I’m surprised that I’ve yet really to find such limits.”

But not everyone agrees with that inspiring message. Other psychologists question whether practice alone can create superstars. “I don’t think there is any downside to believing in the power of practice,” Zachary Hambrick of Michigan State told Business Insider. “I do think there is a possible downside to sort of thinking that anybody can accomplish anything with no limits.”

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Before you hire a coach to help you achieve your goal of becoming a world-class whatever-you-want-to-be, remember that true mastery of any skill comes at a high price. It requires you to sacrifice many short-term joys and objectives to create the necessary time and focus. Do you think Olympic gymnasts attended many sleepovers or got straight A’s when they were growing up? Probably not.

In my experience, people tend to succeed when they pursue things that play to both their natural passions and talents – someone who loves to cook opening a restaurant, for example. If you have tremendous enthusiasm and even a bit of talent, I think Ericsson is right – with the right kind of practice, you can conquer the world.

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