Being really good at something takes considerable time and effort. If you’re familiar with the mainstream concept of the 10,000-hour rule, you’ll be glad to know that the exact number is being widely disputed – but in a broad sense, the idea of investing significant amounts of time and effort to develop competence still applies. Yet if you’re able to master a useful skill, the payoff of expertise can be well worth the effort – not only in terms of direct results, but an overall improvement in your way of thinking. Here’s how becoming an expert can enhance your mental functionality.
On an intuitive level, people trust expertise, especially when developed through experience. Business startups may struggle to compete against established players, but it’s not all about economies of scale. A company that’s been in operation for decades, especially in an industry with particular ties to the area, will have extensive practical know-how; if a client needs oil tools, an Oklahoma manufacturer can come up with the bespoke specifications for a given application. Anyone who is competent can follow a flowchart or execute steps as outlined to solve problems; but individuals who have developed expertise aren’t confined to strict procedures – they have familiarity with the context, and make the corresponding analysis and adjustments, knowing why rules were formulated and when to bend or break them. Unlocking this powerful, intuitive mode of thinking can liberate you from mechanical, rigid thought processes and make work more creative and fulfilling.
When you develop expertise, simply putting in the hours isn’t enough. Improvement requires both deliberate practice and plenty of repetition; our short-term memory can’t store everything, so getting better at something in the long run depends on attention to detail during all the time spent practicing. Studies of expert chess players have indicated that due to pattern recognition, they retain an advantage over novices when it comes to unfamiliar situations within the same domain. Conjunctive response times – which indicate how novices approach problem-solving by putting blocks of information together – are predictably slower than disjunctive responses based on pattern recognition.
In practice, this means that regardless of your chosen field of expertise, you’ll be mentally sharp, quick to recognize familiar features even in unfamiliar scenarios, and make the corresponding adjustments. Thus, expert teachers instantly take over a new class and facilitate learning, and expert managers hit the ground running with new employees, getting them up to speed and achieving required performance targets.
In the ladder model of training psychology developed by Noel Burch for Gordon Training International, everyone learns by progressing through different stages of the model. We start with unconscious incompetence – lacking both the skill and the realization of its importance – then consciously grasp the need for the skill, eventually becoming both skilled and aware that we are competent. Expertise represents the final step in the ladder, when you are so good at what you do that you’re unconscious of it. For many people, driving is a common example of this type of skill mastery – at some point, you don’t even think about starting the car, backing out of the garage, and heading onto the road. It becomes second nature, eliminating the mental effort involved in carrying out tasks and freeing you to work on other thought processes.
Expertise has obvious benefits along with far-reaching ones; keep these mental enhancements in mind as you work toward becoming a master of any skill.