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Expert performance

In his book The Dip, marketing expert Seth Godin observes that people are usually excited to start a new project, hobby, or job. But after the initial honeymoon period, things get harder and less fun. Eventually, there comes a low point when people ask themselves whether the goal is worth the effort. A “dip” is a low point that’s only a temporary setback. Things get better if you keep working at them. But if the low point is actually a dead end, things will never get better, no matter how hard you try.
How can you tell if you’re in a dip or a dead end? First, you must be brutally honest with yourself. What are the odds that you can become the best in your field? If you’re 5’0 in height, chances are you’ll never play in the NBA. Second, ask yourself if you have the passion and determination to do whatever it takes to become the best. You’re in a dip if you can honestly answer “yes” to both questions. Keep working hard, and success will come with time.

Losers make one of two mistakes: (1) they quit in the dip, or (2) they never find the right dip to conquer. Winners escape dead ends quickly. But they commit themselves for the long-term once they find their dip. The bigger the dip, the bigger the rewards for pushing through. Why do you think it’s so hard to get into medical school? It weeds out the dreamers from those willing to work 100-hour weeks.

The brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something. They are there to stop the people who don’t want it badly enough.
-Randy Pausch, The Last Lecture

How important is natural-born talent? Anders Ericsson is a researcher at Florida State University, and he specializes in the study of expert performance. Based on decades of research, he believes that the influence of innate talent is small, and possibly even negligible1. Ericsson points to the fact that basic reaction time and perceptual abilities are similar in elite athletes and regular people. Studies also show that IQ is either unrelated or weakly related to expert performance in chess and music. In contrast, personal motivation, parental support, and years of practice are much better predictors of achieving expert status.

Pros vs. Joes
Ericsson has studied experts in fields as diverse as chess, medicine, auditing, computer programming, competitive bridge, physics, juggling, dance, and music. There are five factors that consistently separate amateurs from professionals:
  1. Pros usually start training at a very young age.
  2. They learn the best techniques from top coaches, skilled competitors, and instructional books and videos.
  3. Pros benefit from personalized training programs that are usually designed by a coach.
  4. Pros avoid burnout by limiting their practice to about 4 hours a day of intense effort.
  5. The “10-Year Rule of Necessary Preparation” means that most pros invest 10 years or more of daily practice to become the best in the world.
Ten years is a long time. That’s why it’s important to escape from dead ends quickly. The sooner you find a dip you’re willing to work through, the sooner you can begin your 10 years of practice. Have you found your dip yet?

An expert is one who knows more and more about less and less.
-Nicholas Butler

The Extra Mile
Edward Coyle is Director of the Human Performance Laboratory at the University of Texas. For 7 years, he studied the physiology of cyclist Lance Armstrong2. When Lance was 21, Coyle’s experiments showed that he had an exceptionally large heart and excellent lactic acid metabolism. But Lance’s muscle efficiency was only average for an endurance athlete. After training 3–6 hours per day for 7 years, Lance increased his muscle efficiency by 8 percent. To put this number in perspective, a difference in muscle efficiency of 1–3 percent is usually what separates the winner from the middle of the pack in most Olympic finals. In 1999, Lance won his first Tour de France at the age of 28. He went on to win seven titles in a row.

One day in Paris, a young woman was walking down the street. Suddenly, she spotted Pablo Picasso. She rushed over to the master, and implored him to draw her portrait. Picasso gave in, and sketched the woman. He tore the sheet out of his notebook, and handed it to her.
“That’ll be 10,000 francs, please,” said Picasso.
“Sacre bleu!” exclaimed the woman, “How can that be? It only took you 5 minutes.”
“Yes, that’s true,” agreed Picasso. “But it’s taken me a lifetime to learn how to draw like that.”

It takes twenty years to make an overnight success.
-Eddie Cantor

  1. Ericsson KA and Lehmann AC. (1996). Expert and exceptional performance: evidence of maximal adaptation to task constraints. Annu Rev Psychol. 47:273–305.
  2. Coyle EF. (2005). Improved muscular efficiency displayed as Tour de France champion matures. J Appl Physiol. 98:2191–2196.

Copyright © 2009 by Paul Lem, M.D.
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