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How to become an expert | Psyche

Dressmakers fitting at the Alexander McQueen studio, London. Photo by Olivia Arthur/Magnum

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Guide

How to become an expert

The path to mastery is long, winding and hugely fulfilling. Use this map to navigate and overcome any bumps along the way

Dressmakers fitting at the Alexander McQueen studio, London. Photo by Olivia Arthur/Magnum

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Need to know

Derek Frampton has been a taxidermist for more than 40 years. When I asked him how he created the stunning specimen I saw in his workshop – a clouded leopard and her cub – he said: ‘Well, first you take off the skin and prepare it. Then you just sculpt a clouded leopard that size and shape in clay, and put the skin back on.’ Only an expert could use that word ‘just’ to describe a skill that to most of us is unimaginable, yet for Frampton it has become second nature.

The drive to become expert – to become as good as we can be, at whatever we’ve chosen to do – is something we all share. It is not about external markers of success, such as moving up the career ladder or becoming more marketable (though that may happen too). It’s an internal, ontological process; a shift in the nature of who you are, not just what you can do. It’s a commitment to developing your own potential as a person, to pushing your limits. It transcends short-term goals and waypoints. Running counter to contemporary pressures to show quick results, it requires decades of commitment and effort – perhaps a lifetime – and there are no shortcuts. It’s a slow-burning fuse, especially when you don’t seem to be getting anywhere and you feel like giving up. Being expert means you can achieve excellent results almost every time and in any situation – not just pull off the occasional success.

Prepare yourself for the long haul and more

A lot of people talk glibly about ‘the 10,000 hour rule’. This comes from the work of K Anders Ericsson, a psychologist who devoted his life to researching how people become expert. Several decades ago, he started observing ‘elite performers’ as he called them, especially in the world of music. He discovered that all those who had become successful in this highly competitive world had spent at least 10,000 hours in ‘sustained deliberate practice’. By this he meant working in a focused, concentrated way, with the intention to make progress – very different from mindless repetition of a task when your attention is somewhere else. Ericsson’s ‘10,000 hours’ has become something of a mantra, popularised by writers such as Malcolm Gladwell.

The idea that you need to spend a very long time working at anything before you become expert makes obvious sense. But people sometimes assume a corollary – that anyone can become expert simply by spending that amount of time. Ten thousand hours may be a necessary condition for becoming expert, but hours alone are not sufficient. Lots of people spend all that time but don’t become expert. You have to commit to continually improve.

The framework I’ve proposed for becoming an expert, and that I’ll walk you through in the next section, is based on the medieval guild system in Europe – Apprentice, Journeyman, Master. Though we no longer use these terms in any gendered sense, the idea of a progression is a familiar one. But this describes the process from the outside. It overlooks the inside story, the experiences we all go through as we move along the path towards mastery, the things we get wrong and the resilience we develop along the way – and I’ll take you through this side of the journey too. My advice is for anyone who is interested in developing their full potential – moving beyond short-term gratification towards deeper fulfilment.

Think it through

Identify where you are on the journey

The first step is to recognise where you are now. This might be in your work, whether you’ve just started or been progressing for decades. It might be in a sport or hobby, whether you’ve just begun or where you already excel. Becoming expert can’t be measured in terms of time alone. It’s more about the kind of responsibility you’re taking. What follows will provide you with a map, sketching the landscape to help you pinpoint your position on the journey toward expertise in whatever you’ve chosen to do.

The Apprentice stage

Ask yourself these questions:

  • Am I doing what other people tell me to do, rather than working on my own?
  • Am I struggling with tedium and boredom, when someone else could do these tasks better and faster?
  • Am I frustrated that I’m not making progress as quickly as I think I should?
  • Am I asking myself if I’ve made the right choice in deciding to do this at all?

If your answer to some or all of these is ‘yes’, then you’re probably at what I call the Apprentice stage. At first you’re working under supervision, learning to do things as they are already done, and directed by people more experienced than you. It’s hard to put a number on it, but usually this involves five to seven years of repetitive work. Often it seems boring and tedious. You probably don’t understand why you need to do this work at all. Surely, you might think, a machine could do it more efficiently. And, in some cases, that’s probably true.

But this overlooks the value for you of spending time with the materials, tools and other people your activity entails. It’s only through this prolonged immersion that you become familiar with the ‘stuff’ your work depends on, whether that’s inanimate objects or living human beings. You need to experience this variety. For that, there’s no shortcut. I describe this phase as ‘doing time’, partly because it involves physical doing and partly because it’s easy to feel imprisoned.

What you might not see at this stage are the dividends this tedious preparation will provide later. You’re laying the foundations for becoming what you want to be. I’ve been there: in my own medical career, I spent years doing what I thought of as mindless repetitive tasks – taking blood from patients, re-siting intravenous infusions, unblocking urinary catheters – often in the middle of the night when I was desperate for sleep. But, looking back now, I realise that’s how I learned to establish a rapport with a sick, frightened person I had never met, so they would allow me to do something that caused them discomfort or even pain. It’s how I learned to function even when I felt exhausted, demoralised and grumpy. It’s how I made sense of all those medical facts I’d spent years trying to memorise. It’s how I became a doctor.

All the experts I’ve spoken to say something similar – stone carvers, wood engravers, hair stylists, laboratory scientists, chefs and many others. Those years of boring, repetitive work are crucial to what comes next. As an Apprentice, though, what you notice most is the boredom. The dividends come later. And they start when you move to the next stage.

If you’re at the Apprentice stage, you’re bound to wonder how much longer until you progress. That’s difficult to answer precisely – but ‘longer than you think or want’ is a good starting point. Remember, this period of doing time has to be combined with the intention to improve. And that’s the challenge.

The Journeyman stage

Ask yourself these questions:

  • Have I completed a long and arduous training for the work I’ve decided I want to do?
  • Am I now taking full responsibility for my work and the people who experience it?
  • Am I keen to show off my knowledge and skill?
  • Am I worried that I’ll get things wrong and make mistakes, now that I’m on my own?

If the answer to some or all of these is ‘yes’, then you’re probably at the Journeyman stage. It’s likely to last at least 10 years, and often much longer.

By now, you’ve become independent. This may seem like a straightforward transition from the Apprentice stage, but it isn’t as simple as it sounds. It’s easy to focus on yourself and how pleased you are to be going out into the world on your own. You’ve probably passed tests or exams. You may be acquiring qualifications. However, all those months and years of practice and training only make sense when your work is ‘for’ someone or something beyond yourself. That might be your patients, customers, audience, clients, fellow performers – whatever makes sense in your line of work.

Richard McDougall, a leading close-up magician, explained it to me like this: ‘You have to realise that your work is not about you but about them.’ For McDougall, them referred to his audience. Unless they believed that something impossible had just happened, all he was showing was dexterity. There was no magic. Whether you’re a nurse with a patient, a comedian with an audience, a potter making a vase, or a car mechanic fixing an engine, to transition to the Journeyman stage successfully, you have to shift your focus. Think: where are you placing most of your attention – is it on yourself or whoever your work is for?

Another important change at this stage involves taking ownership of your identity. In that sense, it is about you, because you’re developing your uniqueness, what makes you you – what jazz musicians describe as ‘voice’. You’re moving from being a cog in someone else’s machine to having agency and individuality of your own. That can conflict with the ‘not about you’ transition, and you often have to hold the two in tension.

A final development during the Journeyman stage is the all-important ability to improvise. Experts read and respond to each new situation as it evolves, bringing into play at a moment’s notice the skills and strategies they’ve developed over years or decades. Successful improvisation is a hallmark of expert practice, yet it’s often overlooked and undervalued. Once you can improvise well, responding effectively without the need for conscious thought and deliberation, you know you’re getting close to mastery.

The Master stage

Ask yourself these questions:

  • Am I responsible for the work and career development of other people who are working under my supervision or guidance?
  • Do I feel a sense of commitment to the area or field I’ve spent so long working in, and do I want to put something back in?
  • Do I also feel I’m a fraud who doesn’t really deserve the position I’ve reached – and constantly wonder when I’ll be found out?

If the answer to some or all of these is ‘yes’, then you’re probably at the Master stage. It takes a long time to get there, it’s difficult to know when you’ve arrived, and it’s a stage you never reach the end of. Maybe you’re a long way down your path already. By this time, you’ll have developed something even more important than knowledge and skill – wisdom. This is the stage of becoming a Master, though most of the experts I’ve talked to don’t describe themselves that way. The more experience they have, the further they realise they still have to go.

Reaching this point doesn’t mean putting your feet up and coasting along in neutral. You continue to deepen your understanding. Now you’re not only adept in the components of your work, but you can see other people’s trajectories and support them in the choices they make. It’s a time when you can make a big difference to others. You’re building relationships of care with the people who are following the path you’re already on. You widen your awareness from the things they are doing to the person they are striving to become, and you help where you can. Your guidance here can have a huge impact on others.

Use this map to guide you when you feel stuck

The transitions I’ve described from Apprentice to Journeyman, or Journeyman to Master, sound clear cut. But in real life they’re not. It can be difficult to tell where you are on this pathway. For example, when you start as an Apprentice, you’re beginning at a low baseline. At first, you may make rapid progress and you can think you’re better than you actually are. It takes a while for reality to kick in, to realise how far you still have to go.

Then there’s the potential for mismatch between where you are in the system (as shown by external markers, such as job titles and career milestones) and where you’ve got to in your own development (the inside story that’s much more difficult to define). Moving between stages isn’t straightforward, and you can often feel like an imposter, especially the further you progress. That’s completely normal. I’d have worries about someone who never felt like that. For most of us, it’s something that never goes away. You just have to learn to live with it.

And sometimes you can feel stuck. This may be because you’re being impatient, because becoming expert takes so much time. It’s easy to fret when you can’t see immediate results. The excitement of those early days settles into drudgery and repetition, and you think that nothing is happening. That’s not really true, because without you noticing you’re building up an internal library of knowledge and skill that shows itself only later, when you realise that you’ve moved much further along than you thought.

But sometimes you feel stuck because you are stuck. Maybe you’ve outstripped the challenge which that phase of work is giving you, and you need to move up to a new level of difficulty or change the environment you’re working in. It may be that you’re not in the right field or section of that field. You need to make a change. Use the expert pathway or map that I’ve laid out to help you make those decisions. Having a coach or mentor can help you even more. Another pair of eyes – sympathetic yet detached – can be invaluable in helping you get things in perspective.

The path I’ve described can seem obvious when you’ve been through it and look back. But it’s far less clear at the time. That’s when you need a map, and that’s what I hope this Guide will give you – a sense of the terrain you’ll be travelling through and the likely duration of the journey, though it can’t tell you exactly what you’ll experience. When you hit the inevitable bumpy patches, it may seem as if you’re standing still or even going backwards. But by zooming out and looking at the whole pathway, you might see that, actually, you’re in a notch on a sawtooth path that is gently rising. To reach the Master stage, you’ll have to stick with it.

Consider widening your focus

If you decide to change tack rather than stick with it – that is nothing to be ashamed about. Some experts have switched paths early in their journey; others much further along and then started again. I’ve met many such inspiring people. Although many people are expert in only one area, others develop several strands, often to a very high level.

Peter trained as a scientist, completing his PhD in immunology at one of the UK’s major universities. But then he changed tack, and now he has a successful international career as an opera singer. Susan was an academic historian until her 40s, when she was made redundant. She retrained from scratch as a glass engraver, and now her work is in museums and collections across the world.

Other people have reached the Master stage in more than one field at the same time. James, one of my colleagues, is an experienced family doctor who is also a GP Educator. In his medical work, he spends a lot of time supporting less experienced doctors as they move from a hospital specialty into the very different world of general practice. At first, they feel disoriented, dazzled by the diversity and challenge of working in a community, and he supports them as they move along their own path. But he is also a professional wind player in a baroque ensemble that makes recordings and gives public performances, and he teaches in a music conservatoire.

Use errors as a learning opportunity

Whatever stage you are at in your journey, error is inevitable but unpredictable, often striking when you least expect it. The further you go along the path to expertise, the more serious these errors can be. The consequences have the potential to be devastating, both for you and for the people or things you work with. You can make errors at any time, but they are often most challenging to cope with during the Journeyman stage. At this point, the fact that the buck now stops with you is exciting, but it can also be terrifying.

As a medical student, my patients and I were protected from my inexperience. But as a surgeon and then a GP, my errors became much more serious. When that happened, the effect on me was huge. But learning to cope was part of my journey to expert. Similarly for you – how you respond to error will depend on your own mindset and on the support networks you’ve been able to establish. Your errors could either strengthen your resilience or demolish your self-confidence.

An experience I’ll never forget happened when I was training to be a surgeon, but actually relates to my efforts to become a pilot. It was in the 1980s and I was working in South Africa. I’d learned to fly a single-engine aircraft at a tiny flying club, and recently gained my private pilot licence. One quiet Sunday, I flew a short hop to a medium-sized airport near my flying club. Without realising it, I lost my way and landed unannounced at Johannesburg international airport. It’s one of the continent’s largest airports and I could have caused a catastrophic crash. Fortunately, no airliners were taking off or landing at the time, but it was a serious error. When I got back to my flying club, I told my instructor what I’d done and waited for his fury. To my astonishment, instead of tearing a strip off me, he welcomed me to the community of pilots who had made a serious blunder – and shared some spectacular ones of his own. That sense of not being alone was crucial in helping me recover my fragile confidence.

Similar things happened in my medical career, and each time I realised the importance of finding an experienced person who had been there themselves, who understood that error is inevitable – who didn’t minimise its significance, but helped me recover and grow.

Whenever you make a serious mistake on your journey (as you inevitably will), you may think the world has come to an end. I suggest you:

  • Talk to someone you trust – preferably the most experienced person you can find (they will have been there before) – and tell them what’s happened.
  • Wait until your anguish has subsided, then think how to make this into a positive experience. Easier said than done, but a crucial part of the process.

Be patient, seek out the nutrients and avoid the toxins

Whatever your own journey toward becoming expert looks like, I believe the drive you have to improve and progress is central to what makes us human. But the path is easily disrupted. As a final note of advice, I suggest you identify, seek out and protect the conditions that you and others require to become expert. I think of this in terms of nutrients and toxins. Nutrients include challenging yet supportive environments where you can lay the foundations for what you will become, with access to inspiring teachers and mentors – people who will allow you to thrive and flourish as you develop your full potential. Toxins include societal, political and personal pressures to do things more quickly, more cheaply and more sketchily, in order to cut costs and maximise income. These poison the slow processes that lead to knowledge, skill and wisdom, and that underpin the sustainability of expert practice. As I say in my book Expert (2020), you can’t bake a cake in half the time by putting it in the oven at twice the temperature. All you get is a burnt mess. We all share a responsibility to protect the nutrients and combat the toxins, or experts won’t be there when we need them.

Key points – How to become an expert

  1. Understand the nature of expertise. It’s our shared drive to become as good as we can, at whatever we’ve chosen to do. It’s not about external markers of success, but a shift in the nature of who you are.
  2. Prepare yourself for the long haul and more. You’ve probably heard of the 10,000 hour rule. It’s true that becoming an expert takes a very long time – but time is not enough, you must also commit to improve.
  3. Identify where you are on the journey. Becoming expert can’t be measured in terms of time alone. It’s more about the kind of responsibility you’re taking as you progress from Apprentice to Journeyman to Master.
  4. Use this map to guide you when you feel stuck. By zooming out and understanding where you are on the journey, you’ll see the big picture and know whether you really are stuck or on a sawtooth path that is gently rising.
  5. Consider widening your focus. To reach the Master stage, you have to stick with it, but there’s no shame in changing tack if you realise the path you chose is not for you. Some experts switched paths early in their journey; others, much further along and then started again.
  6. Use errors as a learning opportunity. When you make a mistake, which you will, you might feel devastated – but, with the right support, you can turn it into a positive experience.
  7. Be patient, seek out the nutrients and avoid the toxins. Nutrients include supportive environments, and toxins include personal and societal pressures to do things too quickly.

Why it matters

The importance of experts (and how to spot them)

The role of experts in our society is often controversial. People (including at least one high-profile British politician) sometimes question the value of experts – for example, claiming that they are out of touch. I radically disagree, for several reasons. One seems obvious – we need people who can treat us when we’re sick, fly us in planes when we travel, fix our cars when they go wrong, plaster our walls when we’re renovating our home, style our hair when we need it, and delight us with plays, concerts and television series. We also need people who can develop vaccines when there’s a pandemic and help us address existential threats such as climate change. We dismiss such experts at our peril. Earlier, I mentioned toxins and nutrients. If we don’t provide the nutrients and combat the toxins, such experts won’t be there when we need them. Already we’re seeing that in every part of society. There are threats to experts all around, and devaluing their importance is highly dangerous.

But that’s not the whole story. We also need experts to inspire us in our own journey to becoming expert – to fulfil the human need in each of us to work towards something greater than ourselves. That’s the real point about becoming expert. It requires commitment to persevere on a lifelong journey that will be challenging, frustrating – and deeply satisfying. Doing something whose aim is your own fulfilment is different from doing something that makes you money, gains you promotion, or moves your career ahead. Of course those things may happen too. But becoming expert is a process whose rewards are directly related to how difficult it is and how long it takes. It’s not about immediate results or short-term rewards. It can be dispiriting at times, but ultimately it’s one of the most fulfilling things we can do.

I’ll finish with some thoughts about what it means to become a true expert, and how you can tell if someone really is expert or is just pretending. One yardstick is how long they’ve been on their path. Unless you’ve spent years learning your craft, you’ll almost certainly not be expert, though just because you’ve been doing something for decades doesn’t mean you will be. So anyone who professes to be expert in something after a couple of months is unlikely to be the real thing.

Another is how people describe themselves. Hardly any of the experts I’ve worked with would describe themselves in that way. Although they are justly proud of the quality of their work, they are much more aware of how far they have to go than how far they’ve come. So it’s worth reserving judgment about self-professed experts and making up your own mind.

Becoming expert is an inexhaustible process. It’s a journey, not a destination. Andrew Davidson, one of the UK’s leading wood engravers, has more than four decades of experience. ‘I know there’s no such thing as a perfect print,’ he told me, ‘but I’ll never stop trying to make one.’ To me, that sums up what it means to be expert.

Links & books

My book Expert: Understanding the Path to Mastery (2020) describes in more detail the ideas I’ve summarised in this Guide.

My podcast series Countercurrent features more than 175 one-hour conversations (rather than interviews) with a wide range of people from science, medicine, business, sport and the visual and performing arts whose experiences are out of the ordinary.

The book The Craftsman (2008) by the celebrated sociologist Richard Sennett explores the nature of craftsmanship.

In this YouTube video of my Gresham Lecture in 2020, I summarise my insights on expertise.

I’ve appeared on many podcasts to discuss expertise, including on James Taylor’s SuperCreativity podcast in 2021, where, among other things, I explained why having expertise and being an expert aren’t necessarily the same thing.

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28 September 2022

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