Don’t get excited. This is not a geek version of the “Birds and the Bees” talk.
I just finished reading another excellent scientific paper called The Expert Mind, which I discovered through one of Jean-Paul Boodhoo’s posts. The article examines the question of whether experts are born or made and offers some interesting insights into what it means to be an expert and the best ways to become one.
As you probably guessed from my recent “Is that Juice On Your Face?” post, I am fascinated by the question of competence and what leads some people to attain it while others, like the Juice Bank Robber, …well…er…don’t attain it. I often marvel at how some developers who are relatively inexperienced and have only average intelligence are able to attain a high level of knowledge and expertise that surpasses battle-worn industry veterans and off-the-chart mensa types. This article not only attempts to explain this mystery, but it does so through one of my favorite hobbies, Chess.
If you’ve ever seen exhibitions by Grand-Masters who play against scores of opponents simultaneously while blind-folded, it is easy to dismiss such people as talented freaks of nature with computer-like powers of analysis and photographic memories rather than view them as merely experts in their field who have trained themselves through long and intense study.
However, recent studies show that chess masters have only average abilities when it comes to memory and visual-spatial analysis. For example, despite having almost perfect recall for board positions related to actual games, the recall of grand masters turned out to be no better than average players when the pieces were arranged randomly on the board in unrealistic scenarios.
Based on evidence like this, the authors conclude that experts rely not so much on an intrinsically stronger power of analysis as on a store of structured knowledge, which takes an enormous amount of time and effort to attain. What appears to make much more difference than experience or talent is what the authors call “effortful study”, which entails continually tackling challenges that lie just beyond one’s competence.
It turns out that what differentiates an expert from a novice isn’t that experts alone know how to engage in effortful study, but it is that experts continue to utilize this technique long after a novice stops.
Even the novice engages in effortful study at first, which is why beginners so often improve rapidly in playing golf, say, or in driving a car. But having reached an acceptable performance–for instance, keeping up with one’s golf buddies or passing a driver’s exam–most people relax. Their performance then becomes automatic and therefore impervious to further improvement. In contrast, experts-in-training keep the lid of their mind’s box open all the time, so that they can inspect, criticize and augment its contents and thereby approach the standard set by leaders in their fields.
Thus it appears that motivation is a more important factor than innate ability in the development of expertise. If you truly want to become an expert, then you have to resist the pull of complacency and constantly approach your field with the same passion, curiosity, and effortful study that you did when you first started.
So if being an expert appeals to you (which it probably does if you’re bothering to read professional blogs), then you have to start by asking yourself one question. Can you honestly say that you are still improving rapidly because you approach software development with “effortful study” or is your progress occurring at a snail’s pace because you are stuck in that complacent stage?
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