As children, we always dream of becoming the best. How many times have you heard a kid say they want to be the best firefighter or the greatest ballerina? This dream of being the best transcends into adolescence and early adulthood, as we work tirelessly to get a quality education and a respectable job. While many of us share the urge to be the best at what we do, how is it that only some of us become experts?
“An expert is a person who has made all the mistakes
that can be made in a very narrow field.”
– Niels Bohr
From here, let’s take a look at performance psychology, otherwise known as the study of exploring what separates the experts from everyone else. I’ll start with the basics. Everyone, regardless of expert status, is capable of reaching peak performance. Peak performance is the pinnacle of how one functions within their role. This state is highly dependent on the individual and will vary based on a number of factors including leadership experience and education. As peak performance varies so greatly, how can we identify true experts from those merely good at their job? Good question! Experts become experts due to their intense dedication in one area of expertise. This is known as deliberate practice. Cal Newport breaks down deliberate practice in his book into two components. The first is immense focus on the subject you are mastering, the second is receiving feedback and acting upon it. While this does not appear to be any different than learning a subject for school, deliberate practice requires long, uninterrupted sessions (a.k.a. mental suffering) in order for it to work.
In his book The Talent Code, journalist Daniel Coyle provides insight as to why deliberate practice successfully creates experts. According to the research referenced in his book, myelin is directly correlated with the brain’s ability to learn. Myelin is described as a fatty substance that forms around neurons that allows them to function more efficiently. By intensely focusing your learning in one deliberate area, you force that specific site of your brain to generate more myelin around it; therefore making it easier to learn whatever subject you are trying to master.
Interestingly enough, if you try mastering too many skills at once, this positive development could backfire. In her paper “Why Is It So Hard to Do My Work” Sophie Leroy identifies an effect she calls “attention residue.” This residue occurs when a person switches between projects or subjects too quickly without enough time to refocus their attention. In a previous post, I mentioned that shallow work was the mental environment in which most people had to perform their tasks. Emails, multiple meetings and last minute requests are the perfect way to accumulate attention residue. As such, most people in these types of working situations depleted of deep work will most likely never become true experts. While the fact of this may crush some childhood dreams, it doesn’t mean that individuals working in distracted, residue-rich environments cannot become successful.
Although this blog has been emphasizing the importance of deep work, there are certain situations, and positions, in which this type of intensely focused activity does not make sense. At an executive level, many leaders are required to process large amounts of information and make immediate decisions. Because their job relies upon hardened instincts and experience in residue-rich situations, their picture of peak performance looks very different than that of an expert in a specific field. This is why there is always a healthy mixture of leaders, experts, and doers within a flourishing company.
I challenge you, as you sit in the office waiting for a meeting to start, to take a minute to think about where you fall within the three position categories listed above and see how you can work to optimize your day. By assessing which responsibilities require deep or immediate thinking, you can begin to identify the path you should take to reach pinnacle performance if you haven’t already achieved it. Climb up that trail so you can become the expert trail guide for your personal mountain!