Achieving Business Excellence with John Spence

How to Become an Expert

image_time-new-style-leadershipAlthough I focus mostly on business topics, I do read a good bit on the psychology of success and expert performance. Several years ago I read one particularly interesting book called, “The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance,” a 918-page book written by the world’s leading experts on how to become an expert! Since that time have read dozens more books on the topic from authors such as Malcolm Gladwell, Daniel Pink, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Matthew Syed and many other experts on expert performance, and after reading all of this material on becoming and expert, working with some of the top business leaders in the world and interacting with several elite athletes it has become clear to me that there does seem to be a “system” for achieving towering expertise in a given area. So, if you want to be in the top 10% in the world at what you do, here are some things you are going to have to focus on.

The 4 Ps

Passion: You will never become world-class at anything unless you truly love doing it. I’ve studied the lives of people who achieved at exceedingly high levels and to a person they were all deeply passionate about their area of expertise. It did not matter if they were in sports, music, chess, business…they all loved their craft, they enjoyed their work, they were passionate about pursuing excellence in their chosen field. It was FUN for them! (By the way, many of them did not have any special talents or unique abilities, they were NOT born to be great, but they were passionate about becoming great).

Persistence: There’s been so much research done on this, by so many very talented and serious researchers that it’s hard to dispute that it requires a minimum of 10 years or 10,000 hours to achieve expertise in a given area. Even when you talk about child prodigies such as Mozart, Tiger Woods or Bobby Fischer, a close examination of their life will show you that they indeed invested massive amounts of time from a very early age, allowing them to accumulate the necessary 10,000 hours much faster than those around them. But it isn’t just putting in the time; you have to do something very special during those 10,000 hours, which is…

Practice: People who achieve at a very high-level are extremely disciplined about putting in hours and hours and hours of practice. But the thing that separates them from other people is that they employ what I call purposeful practice, or what many researchers call deliberate practice, which is making sure that every single practice session focuses on improvement. They use coaches, mentors, trainers, peers and unflinching self-evaluation to push themselves to improve every single time they practice. They seek out critical feedback, they challenge themselves constantly, and they spend endless hours practicing for continuous improvement.

Pattern Recognition: After 10+ years of dedicated purposeful practice these experts achieve a level of knowledge and understanding about their chosen field that surpasses 99% of their counterparts. This is how a great athlete “sees” the entire field, how a virtuoso musician can look at a piece of sheet music and hear the composition in their head, or how a chess grandmaster can think hundreds or thousands of moves down board; they see a pattern that is unrecognizable to the non-expert. Let me use chess as an example, when an ordinary player looks at the board they see a jumble of pieces and open spaces, but when a chess grandmaster looks at the board they see a very clear and recognizable pattern that they comprehend as a single picture. Let me explain further, if I asked you to memorize 12 letters in three seconds you would probably have a hard time if they looked like this: LWCTRKMPDXUB. However, if they look like this: INTERMEDIATE – it is very easy. This is how experts see things differently than you and I, their deep knowledge and years of practice and experience allow them to quickly identify patterns that are invisible to us. The Wimbledon-level tennis player can tell by the angle of their opponent’s hips where they are likely to hit the ball and can then anticipate the shot and be ready for a superb return, before the shot is even taken. A world-class musician can hear a single off key note from an entire orchestra of players. A chess grandmaster can play 10 games simultaneously and determine within two seconds what move to make on each board. It is not that they are super human or have an IQ that is in the stratosphere, it’s because they have dedicated a decade or more of their life to passionate purposeful practice in order to achieve a level of understanding and mastery that transcends all others in their field.

So what does this mean to you and me? To me it says that if you put enough time, energy, focus, effort and deliberate practice into something that you love, you have the opportunity to achieve a high level of mastery.

I recently read a statistic that said if you read one hour a day on a specific topic, seven days a week, for seven years…at the end of those seven years you would be considered a national authority on the topic! That sounds crazy, but I’m a living example of it, I have read a minimum of 100 business books year since 1989, listened to thousands of hours of audio books, attended dozens of seminars, read thousands of articles and blogs on leadership, business strategy, business excellence…and have recently been named one of the top 100 business thought leaders in America and one of the top 500 leadership development experts in the world. This does not mean I am a genius, it simply means that I practiced the four Ps on the topic of business for 20+ years. Awesomely Simple, no?

One last note, I turned 50 this year and as I read through all of this material on becoming an expert, I realized I still have a chance to pursue expertise in several more areas before I’m too old. I figure I could probably pick two things and spend 10 years on each and at least become pretty good. So I decided to give something I’ve always wanted to do, but am terrible at, a decade of effort: painting. My wife and I have collected a lot of original art and a good number of them are landscapes, I love landscapes, I’ve always wanted to be able to paint one that was nice enough that I could give it away to a friend and they would actually want to receive it! So, starting this year I’m going to give it a decade of effort, lessons, practice and focus. I have absolutely no intention of trying to become an expert at painting, but if I practice the four Ps on landscape painting I should be able to produce something of decent quality by the time I’m 60. That sounds like fun! I’m not sure what the other topic will be, but I’m positive it will be fun too.

QUESTION: What do you want to spend the next decade of your life practicing the four Ps on? What would you love to be an expert at? What would add value to your life and the world if you chose to invest 10 years or 10,000 hours to become truly world-class at it?

I look forward to your reply – John

* 7 hours of reading a week x 7 years = 2,555 You can do that!!!!

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