How Hard Is It to Become an Expert?

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Expertise is what separates the amateur from the true master in almost any field, from medicine to science to sports to artistic performance. The question of whether experts are born or made is related to the age-old nature versus nurture debate in psychology: Do genetics or experience play more of a role in shaping who we are?

There has been a considerable amount of attention paid to the "made" aspect of the debate. According to many researchers, expertise is acquired through dedicated practice.

But how exactly does someone go about becoming an expert? Can anyone be an expert with the proper study and training?

This article explores what expertise is and how people become experts. It also discusses how long it takes to become an expert.

What Is Expertise?

While it might be easy to point out who is and is not an expert, agreeing on a formal definition of expertise is not always so easy. Is it about how much you know? Is it about being able to perform an action well? And at what point does a person move from being merely good at something to being a bona fide expert?

What Is an Expert?

Expertise can be defined as exceptional, elite, or peak performance on specific tasks in specific domains.

Labels for Experts

People who attain this level of expertise may be referred to as experts or by other terms such as:

  • Authority
  • Genius
  • Maven
  • Master
  • Prodigy
  • Virtuoso

Such labels are intended to indicate that the individual is at the top of their field. That field could be academics, writing, art, sports, music, science, mathematics, or another discipline. But each word tends to have its own subtle nuance that conveys what type of expert a person might be.

If expertise is perceived as being the result of hard work and practice, the expert is often described as a "master" or "virtuoso." If people see someone's abilities as arising from pure inborn talent, they might be referred to as a "genius" or "prodigy."

Components of Expertise

Knowledge, skill, and achievement are all critical components of expertise. People who become experts tend to acquire a body of knowledge that makes them one of the most informed individuals in their field.

They also possess the skills that they need to determine when and how to use their knowledge. Such skills are often learned, but they can also be influenced by natural talent and ability.

Finally, people who possess expertise also tend to achieve far above and beyond what the average person does. They not only possess knowledge and skill; they also put their talents and know-how to work.

Recap

Experts aren't just very good at what they do. They possess skills and knowledge that others do not and they use those abilities to achieve success in their field.

How Long Does It Take to Become an Expert?

Researchers have tried to investigate how long it really takes to become an expert in any given field. They have sought to determine how much time someone would have to devote to the study and practice of a subject to be considered an expert.

The 10,000-Hour Rule

One popular belief is that the key to becoming an expert is to devote at least 10,000 hours to the study and practice of a subject. This idea is based on a 1993 study in which researchers found that the most accomplished violinists at a music academy had spent an average of 10,000 hours practicing their instrument by the age of 20.

This idea gained prominence when pop psychology author Malcolm Gladwell coined the phrase "the ten-thousand-hour rule" in his 2008 book Outliers. Gladwell pointed to the results of the music study as well as observations of other experts in their fields.

According to Gladwell, a person could become an expert in nearly any field as long as they were willing to devote the requisite 10,000 hours to studying and practicing the subject or skill.

Problems With the 10,000 Hour Rule

Anders Ericsson is an expert on peak performance and the author of Peak: The New Science of Expertise. He has studied experts from all walks of life including areas such as chess, sports, music, and medicine. He is also the researcher behind the study from which Gladwell drew his conclusions about what it takes to become an expert.

Ericsson points out a few key problems with the ten-thousand-hour rule:

Skilled Isn't the Same As Expert

First, while the students in the music study were very good violinists by age 20, they were not masters. In other words, they were excellent players, but that did not necessarily mean they were masters of their craft. Ericsson suggests that it is sometimes around the 20,000- to 25,000-hour mark that people truly become experts or masters of a skill or subject.

Some Skills Take Longer to Acquire

Secondly, not all skills are the same. Some skills require far fewer than 10,000 hours to reach the expert level, while others require much more.

10,000 Hours Was an Average

Ericsson also points out that Gladwell's interpretation of his research is flawed. While Gladwell assumed that all of the violinists in the music study had put in the 10,000 hours of practice, that number was really only an average. Half of the violists studied by Ericsson and his colleagues spent less than 10,000 hours practicing their instruments by the age of 20, while half spent more.

The Role of Deliberate Practice

If 10,000 hours isn't the answer, then what separates the amateur from the expert? Researchers believe that deliberate practice is the key.

What Is Deliberate Practice?

Deliberate practice is highly concentrated and involves working on things that are outside of your current skill level, setting goals, and receiving training and instruction from a qualified teacher.

Just putting in 10,000 hours rehearsing the same things over and over again is not enough to become a true expert. Ordinary practice can help people become skilled at a task, but gaining true expertise involves practicing in a way that pushes the boundaries of current skill levels and knowledge.

Pursue concentrated, goal-directed, deliberate practice that stretches your abilities beyond your comfort zone if you want to gain expertise in any area.

Other Factors That Contribute to Expertise

While deliberate practice is important, not all researchers agree that it is enough to take someone from proficient to expert. Some other factors that might also play a role include:

Can Anyone Become an Expert?

Psychologists continue to ponder whether anyone can become an expert in anything as long as they are willing to devote time and effort to it. But there is little doubt that practicing regularly leads to an improvement in both skills and knowledge.

You may not know whether you can become a true master in a specific domain until you try. Before you decide to pursue expertise, consider whether you have the interest, dedication, and time to commit to the process.

How to Gain Expertise

If you have set an expertise goal. you will need to follow several steps to achieve it.

Make a Commitment

While the 10,000-hour rule is more pop-psych myth than reality, it is true that becoming an expert takes a great deal of effort. People who become experts in any field devote a tremendous amount of time, energy, and hard work toward learning and practicing their skills.

If you want to master something, you need to be willing to put in the time. It might take 10,000 hours or less—but it might also require much more.

Practice Deliberately

One study found that out of three different types of study preparation, deliberate practice was the most effective. Researchers looked at participants in the National Spelling Bee and found that deliberate practice—defined as studying and memorizing words alone—was more effective than reading for pleasure and being quizzed by others as a study method.

Mental Strength Matters

While deliberate practice was the most effective, it was also rated as the least enjoyable and most difficult study technique. Participants who persisted with the technique also possessed higher levels of the personality trait called grit, also known as mental toughness.

This mental toughness may sometimes be an important part of being able to stick with deliberate practice. Those with grit were able to persevere and keep their eyes on their long-term goals, making them more likely to keep up with challenging deliberate practice and to perform better during competition.

Other research has suggested that factors such as cognitive skills, self-control, and personality may also play a role in how people practice and whether they attain expertise.

Match Practice With Subject Area

One study found that deliberate practice may actually be less important than previously believed. The study showed that the amount of accumulated practice did not play a major role in explaining individual differences when it came to performance or skill.

In a meta-analysis of previous studies, researchers found that practice accounted for just 14% of the individual differences in performance.

Despite these findings, it is clear that practice still matters. In almost all of the studies included in the analysis, there was a positive relationship between practice and performance. The more people practiced, the better they performed in their area of interest.

What the researchers found was that the domain also mattered. Practice accounts for varying amounts of individual differences in performance.

  • Education: 4% difference attributed to practice
  • Sports: 18% difference
  • Music: 21% difference
  • Games: 26% difference

A 2019 reanalysis of these studies used a different definition of deliberate practice, which the researchers refer to as structured practice. By this definition, the reanalysis suggested that deliberate practice accounted for between 29% and 61% of individual performance. 

The study also found that genetic factors had a very small impact on performance variations. Such findings suggest that deliberate or structured practice plays a much more important part in developing expertise than inborn talent.

Recap

Practice may play a greater role in improving performance for activities such as music, athletics, and games, and less of a role for professional or educational performance.

Challenge Yourself

Practice is essential for developing a skill, but becoming an expert requires constantly challenging yourself to do better, learn more, and acquire new knowledge and skills. Rehearsing the same skills over and over again will make you better in those areas, but it won't lead to true expertise.

This relates to a learning concept introduced by Lev Vygotsky known as the zone of proximal development.

What Is the Zone of Proximal Development?

Skills that are just outside of your current ability level are in the zone of proximal development. While you might not yet be able to do these things on your own, you can achieve them with the assistance of a more skilled mentor. By reaching for these new skills, mastering them, and then progressively expanding this zone of proximal development, you can develop and strengthen your abilities.

Becoming an expert requires constantly working within this zone of proximal development. Even once you have become very good at a skill, this does not mean that even greater expertise is out of reach. More learning, more knowledge, and better performance are still possible with further challenge and practice.

Learn From Mistakes

Experts are not always perfect. Experts do make mistakes, but they're also ready to catch their own errors and eager to learn from them.

Mistakes are a form of feedback. They tell us not only what not to do, but also what we might try instead. Experts are able to spot these mistakes, correct course, and apply this knowledge in the future.

A Word From Verywell

While we often think that intelligence separates experts from the rest of us, research suggests that true expertise has more to do with acquired knowledge than inborn mental abilities.

Some people might be born with natural resources, including physical abilities and access to tools, that allow them to achieve this expertise more readily. But no matter what your natural ability levels are, becoming an expert takes time, effort and practice.

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Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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