The guru

What makes an expert?

Call To Learning — Sep 2022 by Esmeralda Monteiro

Expertise is what separates novices from true masters in almost any field, from sports or music to science or mathematics. 

Decades ago, researchers wanted to know what distinguishes experts from others. Do they have incredibly high IQs, much better spatial reasoning than average, bigger short term memory spans, more empathy, compassion, and authenticity as human skills?

Cambridge dictionary defines an expert as ‘a person with a high level of knowledge or skill relating to a particular subject or activity’. Expertise is consensually described as elite, peak, or exceptionally high levels of performance on a particular task or within a given domain. Many researchers argue that expertise is acquired through dedicated practice.

But how hard is it to become an expert? Can anyone be an expert with the proper study and training?

Learning beats mastery every day. Learning is about capacity building to do something we were not able to do before. We are predisposed by doing and making mistakes, a human natural ability driven by aspiration. That is how we learn how to walk, talk, ride a bicycle, relate with other people.

However, context can block or fuel this learning predisposition since it requires courage, openness, and a safe environment, one in which we are not afraid of making mistakes and getting honest feedback.

Becoming an Expert

Anders Ericsson1 claimed that experts are always made, not born, after rigorous research on expertise and top performance in a wide variety of domains such as surgery, chess, writing, computer programming and many other. According to Malcom Gladwell2, a person could become an expert in nearly any field if they were willing to devote 10,000 hours to studying and practicing the subject or skill.

Anders Ericsson3 mentioned that not every type of practice leads to improved ability, with no benefits from mechanical repetition, but by adjusting the execution over and over to get closer to a defined goal. Moreover, Ericsson underlined that the quality of the practice was also important and highlighted the importance of deliberate practice.

I totally agree with Ericsson’s perspective, given that focusing on the quality of the practice over the quantity of time practicing is key if you want to excel in a specific domain. Even so, the 10,000-hour rule is still a fair ‘check in’ on how much time you have dedicated to developing your skills, whether in Cloud Security engineering, Project Management, or Leadership.

Brad Stulberg4 suggested that expertise is really developed based on the way you practice, rather than the time you devote. However, does the 10,000 hours of deliberate practice sufficient to become an expert? No, it still doesn’t.

To become an expert, additional criteria must be met, as explained below.

  • Repeated Attempts with Feedback

Philip Tetlock5 argued that people who make their living commenting or offering advice on political and economic trends, which includes journalists, foreign policy specialists, economists, and intelligence analysts can predict pretty terribly. These experts, most of whom had post graduate degrees, can perform worse than if they just assign equal probabilities to all the outcomes. In other words, people who spend their time and earn their living studying a particular topic, can produce poorer predictions than random chance.

The problem is most of the events they must predict are one-offs. They haven’t had the experience of going through these events or very similar ones many times before. Even in the areas they know best, experts may not be significantly better than non-specialists.

Data engineers work thousand hours with massive data issues before they are grand masters and project managers address issues in multiple projects. Both get feedback on issues solved. To be effective, experts must have many repeated attempts with feedback.

  • Valid Environment

A valid environment contains regularities that make it at least somewhat predictable. Whenever environments are low validity, i.e., random environments, there are no regularities to be learned.

Looking at investment market, why did so many investment professionals with years of industry experience, research at their fingertips, and big financial incentives to perform, fail to beat the market? In fact, stocks are a low validity environment. Over the short term, stock price movements are almost entirely random.

In low-validity environments, experts should follow algorithms or formulas rather than relaying solely on their judgment for decision-making (ideally use both approaches). In order to replicate the success of algorithms, experts should try to breakdown the issue, in order to simplify the analysis.

In a valid environment, when a professional gets repeated experience with the same events, with clear, timely feedback from each attempt, will they absolutely become an expert in 10,000 hours or so? Unfortunately, the answer is no because most of us want to be comfortable.

  • Deliberate Practice

For many tasks, professionals can become competent in a fairly short period of time. Take driving a car for example, is initially challenging. However, after 50 hours or so it becomes automatic. After that, more time spent driving doesn’t improve performance. If professionals want to keep improving, they should try driving in challenging situations like new terrain, higher speeds, or in difficult weather. To excel, professionals should practice at the edge of their ability, pushing beyond their comfort zone.

In many areas, professionals do not engage in deliberate practice, and their performance sometimes declines instead of improving. Studies pointed that there was a positive relationship between practice and performance. The more people practiced, the better they performed in their area of interest. Such findings suggest that deliberate or structured practice plays a much more important part in developing expertise than natural born talent.

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 repeatedly will make you better in those areas, but it will not lead to true expertise. To become and expert, you must practice for thousands of hours in the challenging zone/environment, attempting the things you do not quite master yet.

At its core, expertise is recognition. And recognition comes from the incredible amount of highly structured information stored in long-term memory, that allows one identify connections/relations that might not be obvious for someone with less experience. To build that memory requires four things: valid environment, many repetitions, timely feedback, and thousands of hours of deliberate practice.

1 Anders Ericsson et al (2007)
2 Malcom Gladwell (2008)
3 Anders Ericsson (2016)
4 Brad Stulberg (2017)
5 Philip Tetlock (2006)


Brilliant Org – Veritasium (2022). The 4 things it takes to be an expert.
Brad Stulberg (2017). Peak Performance: Elevate Your Game, Avoid Burnout, and Thrive with the New science of success
Anders Ericsson (2016). Peak: Secrets from the new science of expertise
Malcom Gladwell (2008). Outliers
Anders Ericsson, Michael Prietula, and Edward Cokely (2007). The Making of an Expert