The path to success in any field is to develop expertise. The first, and most important, step on that path is deciding that it’s possible. The second step is to make it a practice.
This article originally published in my newsletter, The Solution
How Do You Gain Expertise?
To gain expertise, we need to first assume a growth mindset. In Mindset, Carol Dweck outlines two different learner mindsets:
Individuals with a fixed mindset view intelligence as static, an innate, unchanging quality, whereas individuals with a growth mindset view intelligence as a quality that can be developed and changed over time.
In Make It Stick, Brown et al map fixed and growth mindsets to two types of goals:
According to the authors:
People with performance goals unconsciously limit their potential. If your focus is on validating or showing off your ability, you pick challenges you are confident you can meet. You want to look smart, so you do the same stunt over and over again. But if your goal is to increase your ability, you pick ever-increasing challenges, and you interpret setbacks as useful information that helps you to sharpen your focus, get more creative, and work harder.
Lucky for us, our brains are plastic. Even if our mindset is fixed, we can recode it for growth.
In A Mind for Numbers, Barbara Oakley writes:
It seems people can enhance the development of their neuronal circuits by practicing thoughts that use those neurons. We’re still in the infancy of understanding neural development, but one thing is becoming clear—we can make significant changes in our brain by changing how we think.
How do we gain expertise?
Practice Makes Practice
We gain expertise through deliberate practice.
The authors of Make It Stick explain that deliberate practice is “goal directed, often solitary, and consists of repeated striving to reach beyond your current level of performance.” They continue:
Whatever the field, expert performance is thought to be garnered through the slow acquisition of a larger number of increasingly complex patterns, patterns that are used to store knowledge about which actions to take in a vast vocabulary of different situations.
These patterns are mental models. Building mental models requires effortful learning, but that effort builds new connections and capabilities. It changes the brain and makes us expert.
In Atomic Habits, James Clear makes a compelling argument for deliberate practice:
“…if you can get 1 percent better each day for one year, you’ll end up thirty-seven times better by the time you’re done. Conversely, if you get 1 percent worse each day for one year, you’ll decline nearly down to zero.”
Clear did the math for us:
|1% + / -||Result|
|1% worse every day for one year||0.99365 = 00.03|
|1% better every day for one year||1.01365 = 37.78|
It’s clear (sorry) that we need to continually practice to not only improve, but maintain a baseline of expertise.
Play To Your Strengths
What if we aren’t born with “a mind for numbers”?
The authors of Make It Stick write:
Expert performance is a product of the quantity and the quality of practice, not of genetic predisposition, and that becoming expert is not beyond the reach of normally gifted people who have the motivation, time, and discipline to pursue it.
In addition to building mental models, we can also play to our strengths. We can specialize.
In Atomic Habits, James Clear encourages us to find a ‘game’ where the odds are in our favor. We can do so by asking ourselves the following questions:
What feels like fun to me, but work to others?
What makes me lose track of time?
Where do I get greater returns than the average person?
What comes naturally to me?
The answers to these questions will lead you to your area of specialization.
According to Clear:
Once we realize our strengths, we know where to spend our time and energy. We know which types of opportunities to look for and which types of challenges to avoid. The better we understand our nature, the better our strategy can be.
Deliberate practice and specialization make sense if you’re an athlete or a musician. But what about programmers? Technology changes too rapidly!
That’s a good thing. Especially if you have a growth mindset. It means there’s always an opportunity to “reinvent” yourself. If you are pragmatic, you’re already on it. David Thomas and Andy Hunt outline several guidelines for acquiring “intellectual capital” in The Pragmatic Programmer:
Learn at least one new language every year
Read a technical book each month
Read nontechnical books, too
Participate in local user groups and meetings
Experiment with different environments
Hunt and Thomas additionally counsel us to “think critically about what [we] read and hear”. There’s a lot of hype and vested interests in technology and it’s important to focus our efforts on the right things.
We can do that by building mental models. Hunt and Thomas provide a few questions we can ask ourselves to improve our critical thinking ability:
Ask the “Five Whys”
Who does this benefit?
What’s the context?
When or Where would this work?
Why is this a problem?
Let’s Get Meta
Do you want to be an expert?
The authors of Make It Stick offer advice on achieving that goal:
It comes down to the simple fact that the path to complex mastery or expert performance does not necessarily start from exceptional genes, but it most certainly entails self-discipline, grit, and persistence; with these qualities in healthy measure, if you want to become an expert, you probably can.
To self-discipline, grit, and persistence, let’s add metacogntion.
Programming, problem solving, and learning are metacognitive activities. We want to improve our thinking about thinking.
In Conceptual Blockbusting, James L. Adams writes:
For all our education and training as thinkers, we acquire knowledge, perhaps skill, and maybe appreciation, but we could go much further if we just spent more time thinking about the process of thinking.
How Do You Gain Expertise? Practice Makes Practice
Expertise is a journey, not a destination. In order to stay on the path, we need to first decide that it’s possible with a growth mindset and then commit to deliberate practice.