Quality, Continuous Improvement, and the Expert Mind

Are you an expert? According to tradition and research, it takes 10,000 hours of focused effort and a dedication to continuous improvement to become one. On October 2, 2007, Bill Harrison described the phenomenon well:

I’ve been immersed in a fascinating book called This Is Your Brain On Music. The author, Daniel J. Levitin, is a musician/recording engineer/producer turned neuroscientist. Despite the unfortunate title, the book is a serious exploration of the connections between music (from both a listening and playing perspective) and the brain… The emerging conclusion is that experts in many fields (sports, literature, composition, performance of every kind) need about 10,000 hours of practice time to achieve world-class levels of proficiency. 10,000 hours is the equivalent of 3 hours a day, seven days a week, for a period of 10 years. These studies do not address the differences in the efficacy of practicing for different people (which is known to vary widely).

blue-hillsIt might seem like this is a revelation from modern neuroscience, but the idea is not new. New research only serves to support a concept that is ages old. Time magazine notes that the concept appeared as early as 1899, citing the academic journal Psychological Review. Herbert Simon, a pioneer in the field of artificial intelligence and socio-technical systems who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Economics in 1978, “said that to become an expert required about 10 years of experience and he and colleagues estimated that expertise was the result of learning roughly 50,000 chunks of information.” More recently, this idea has been popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers: The Story of Success – it’s also described on the gladwell.com blog.

The concept of the 10,000 hours has been described at many levels of detail. For example, in July 2006, Philip E. Ross wrote about “The Expert Mind” for Scientific American. In this article, he described work by K. Anders Ericsson of Florida State, a collaborator of Herbert Simon’s, in a very accessible way:

Ericsson argues that what matters is not experience per se but “effortful study,” which entails continually tackling challenges that lie just beyond one’s competence. That is why it is possible for enthusiasts to spend tens of thousands of hours playing chess or golf or a musical instrument without ever advancing beyond the amateur level and why a properly trained student can overtake them in a relatively short time.”

“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.”

These can all be summarized by the following statement:

Focused Attention + Reflection + Knowledge of What Constitutes High Quality

+ Commitment to Improvement Expertise

There is no reason why this principle cannot be applied beyond individuals – this statement provides practical lessons for the development of group expertise, organizational expertise, and the expertise of a society or civilization. (Granted, the way to measure 10,000 hours would vary between individuals, groups, organizations and societies – this is an open question.)

So, are you an expert? Is your organization an expert in its domain?