Blog Excerpts

How to be an Expert

Creating Passionate Users is a remarkable blog written by the authors of the best-selling Head First computer book series. They're passionate about studying how the brain works -- and how to exploit it for better learning and memory. This entry appeared on 3/3/06.

The only thing standing between you-as-amateur and you-as-expert is dedication. All that talk about prodigies? We could all be prodigies (or nearly so) if we just put in the time and focused. At least that's what the brain guys are saying. Best of all--it's almost never too late.

Seriously. How many people think they've missed their opportunity to be a musician, or an expert golfer, or even a chess grand master because they didn't start when they were young? Or because they simply lacked natural talent? Those people are (mostly) wrong. According to some brain scientists, almost anyone can develop world-class (or at least top expertise) abilities in things for which they aren't physically impaired. Apparently God-given talent, natural "gifts", and genetic predispositions just aren't all they're cracked up to be. Or at least not in the way most of us always imagined. It turns out that rather than being naturally gifted at music or math or chess or whatever, a superior performer most likely has a gift for concentration, dedication, and a simple desire to keep getting better. In theory, again, anyone willing to do what's required to keep getting better WILL get better.

Maybe the "naturally talented artist" was simply the one who practiced a hell of a lot more. Or rather, a hell of a lot more deliberately. Dr. K. Anders Ericsson, professor of psychology at Florida State University, has spent most of his 20+ year career on the study of genuises, prodigies, and superior performers. In the book The New Brain (it was on my coffee table) Richard Restak quotes Ericsson as concluding:

"For the superior performer the goal isn't just repeating the same thing again and again but achieving higher levels of control over every aspect of their performance. That's why they don't find practice boring. Each practice session they are working on doing something better than they did the last time."

So it's not just how long they practice, it's how they practice. Basically, it comes down to something like this:

Most of us want to practice the things we're already good at, and avoid the things we suck at. We stay average or intermediate amateurs forever.

Yet the research says that if we were willing to put in more hours, and to use those hours to practice the things that aren't so fun, we could become good. Great. Potentially brilliant. We need, as Restak refers to it, "a rage to master." That dedication to mastery drives the potential expert to focus on the most subtle aspects of performance, and to never be satisfied. There is always more to improve on, and they're willing to work on the less fun stuff. Restak quotes Sam Snead, considered one of the top five golfers of the twentieth century, as saying:

"I know it's a lot more fun to stand on the practice tee and rip your driver than it is to chip and pitch, or practice sand shots with sand flying back in your face, but it all comes back to the question of how much you're willing to pay for success."

There's much more to the brain science around this topic, of course--I'm just doing the highlights. And a lot of the research is new, made possible today by how easy it is for researchers to get time with an fMRI or PET scan. And I stretched just a little... there is some thought that to be, literally, THE best in the world at chess, or the violin, or math, or programming, or golf, etc. you might indeed need that genetic special something. But... that's to be THE best. The research does suggest that whatever that special sauce is, it accounts for only that last little 1% that pushes someone into the world champion status. The rest of us--even without the special sauce--could still become world (or at least national) class experts, if we do the time, and do it the right way.

Where this ties into passionate users is with the suck threshold and kick-ass (aka "passion") threshold. Your users will typically fall into one of the three categories in the graphic: expert, amateur, or drop-out. The drop-outs decide that during that "I suck at this" phase, it isn't worth continuing. They give up. Is that something you can work on? Do you know what your attrition rate is?

But the most troubling--and where we have the most leverage--is with the amateur who is satisfied with where they are. These are the folks who you overhear saying, "Yes, I know there's a better way to do this thing, but I already know how to do it this [less efficient, less powerful] way and it's easy for me to just keep doing it like that." In other words, they made it past the suck threshold, but now they don't want to push for new skills and capabilities. They don't want to suck again. But that means they'll never get past the kick-ass threshold where there's a much greater chance they'll become passionate about it. The further up that capability curve they are, the higher-res the user experience is!

Can we help make it easier for them to continue on the path to becoming expert? Remember, being better is better. Whatever you're better at becomes more fun, more satisfying, a richer experience, and it leads to more flow. This is what we're trying to do for our users.

Oh yes, about that never too late thing... most of us can kiss that Olympic ice skating medal good-bye. And at 5' 4", my basketball career is probably hopeless. But think about this... actress Geena Davis nearly qualified for the US Olympic archery team in a sport she took up at the age of 40, less than three years before the Olympic tryouts.

And if the neuroscientists are right, you can create new brain cells--by learning (and not being stuck in a dull cubicle)--at virtually any age. Think about it... if you're 30 today, if you take up the guitar tomorrow, you'll have been playing for TWENTY years by the time you're 50. You'll be kicking some serious guitar butt. And if you're 50 today, there's no reason you can't be kicking guitar butt at 70. What are you waiting for?

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Comments from our users:

Wednesday May 24th 2006, 6:12 PM
Comment by: Michael T.
This one article is has for me repaid the price of joining the Visual Thesaurus. In plain language, it explains what I have for a long time felt. I am fifty-nine this year yet feel as mental alert as ever. I work full time; I am also doing a university degree with the Open University. I am also in the process of rebuilding an old wooden sailing boat and I am learning to play the guitar. While I don't have any desire for fame or fortune or to become an "expert" I am finding that by doing these things as well as I'm able that others are coming tome for advice, much to my surprise. Just one word of warning though, this desire to know and do things better can become addictive.

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