I’ve been walking around with the July/August 2007 issue of the Harvard Business Review constantly, for close to three years. Sometimes, if I’m getting on a plane, I’ll put it with the other heavy stuff in my luggage, and then get it out later. When my last car broke down in the middle of an intersection, I got the magazine out of the trunk before I abandoned the car.
The article that I’m attached to is ‘The Making of an Expert’ by Anders Ericsson, Michael Prietula and Edward Cokely. I would not normally bother to tell you all three authors, but I love the article so much that I want you to know all of them.
Their article changed how I think about what I am doing here. In my life. I think I am trying to be an expert.
Being an expert is not what you think, probably. For one thing, the article explains that "there is no correlation between IQ and expert performance in fields such as chess, music, sports, and medicine. The only innate differences that turn out to be significant – and they matter primarily in sports – are height and body size. "
So what factor does correlate with success? One thing emerges very clearly is that successful performers "had practiced intensively, had studied with devoted teachers, and had been supported enthusiastically by their families throughout their developing years."
There are a few things about the article that really make me nervous. The first is that you need to work every single day at being great at that one thing if you want to be great. This is true of pitching, painting, parenting, everything. And if you think management in corporate life is an exception, you’re wrong. I mean, the article is in the Harvard Business Review for a reason.
It used to be, more than 100 years ago, that you could be a prodigy and come out of nowhere and be great. There are stories like that, ones we hang onto when we do things like watch the Olympics and allow ourselves to think, "Maybe I’ll be on the luge team in 2014."
A Highly Raised Bar
Today the standard for being an international success at anything is so high that the authors say you need to spend at least ten years working in a very focused, everyday way on the thing you want to be great at. Evidence: high schools swimmers today would beat Olympic records from years ago. And in fact, the importance of hard work over raw talent is the subject of the most popular Freakonomics column ever in The New York Times.
This part of the research worries me because there is not a lot I have invested this much time in. Maybe the only thing is writing. I’m not sure.
Well, there are other things, but I’m not sure I could be great. Figure skating is a good example. I figure-skated for ten years. I was good, until I went through puberty and then was clearly the wrong body type to be doing double flips. I should have been a basketball player. Maybe.
The Right Coach
A lot of being great at something is having the right coaching, and part of the right coaching is someone telling you where you’re not gonna make it and where you are. I’m not sure I have this right now.
But the coaching that successful experts get is special. According to the article, usually someone starts with a local coach, for anything, and then the person moves on to a coach who has achieved huge success. And people who practice very hard every day start to have a sense of who can be a coach who is capable of helping them succeed, and who is a coach they have outgrown.
An example the authors use is Mozart. Yes, he had innate ability, but also, his father was a professional violinist and skilled composer who wrote the first book ever on violin instruction.
I am panicking that maybe I am just figure skating again. Maybe I am doing something I’ll never be great at. I worry about this because I don’t actually know what I’m doing. Am I getting good at bringing a startup from fruition to exit? Am I getting good at writing career advice?
I am thinking, maybe, the thing I’m getting good at is living my life out in the open. But I’m starting to worry that it’s like figure skating. Because I have a natural limit: I don’t want my kids to be psycho from overexposure. [My boyfriend] doesn’t like being on my blog, and I am not getting good coaching right now. I mean, I’m not getting any coaching, I don’t think.
This reminds me of the day I realized that my figure-skating coach was an alcoholic. My dad picked me up at the rink. He asked why my skate guards were on. I said I never went skating. I said, "I think Ivar is sick."
My dad said, "Yeah, I’ve been thinking that for a while."
I said, "I don’t think he really can teach me any more."
My dad said, "I’ve been thinking that for a while."
I remember the heartbreak I felt knowing that I didn’t have a teacher. I remember also realizing that it’s important to know who can teach and who can’t. If you are a person who wants to be an expert, the thing you want most is a teacher. I think that’s why I carry the magazine with me everywhere I go. To remind me to look. Like my life depends on it.
But I’ve recently started reading research beyond the article, and it turns out that the teacher isn’t that important per se, but rather, what you need is immediate, helpful feedback. And this is what you get when you have a blog. So maybe I am still on my path to being an expert, and I’m just crowdsourcing my coaching.