Purposeful Practice and Expertise

The Expert Mind,” by Philip Ross, Scientific American, 24 July 2006, http://scientificamerican.com/print_version.cfm?articleID=00010347-101C-14C1-8F9E83414B7F4945 (from Slashdot).

The Schizophrenic Symptom of Flat Affect,” by Michael Crawford, kuro5hin, 17 August 2006, http://www.kuro5hin.org/story/2006/8/15/35149/9787.

With Hugh MacLeod, Mark Safranski, and Francis Younghusband blogging on how to be creativity, two articles (one in a prestigious magazine, the other a quirky blog) that give a big hint: practice!

From a researcher at Scientific American, writing on chess:

The one thing that all expertise theorists agree on is that it takes enormous effort to build these structures in the mind. Simon coined a psychological law of his own, the 10-year rule, which states that it takes approximately a decade of heavy labor to master any field. Even child prodigies, such as Gauss in mathematics, Mozart in music and Bobby Fischer in chess, must have made an equivalent effort, perhaps by starting earlier and working harder than others.

And a suffer of schizo-affective disorder, writing on getting a date and learning how to smile:

What made the difference? Practice: one can learn to express emotion through conscious effort. With enough conscious practice, affective expression can become unconscious and natural. However, even after all these years I usually seem stoic and unemotional. That is, except when I play music or write, or am incredibly overcome.

My therapist warned that it was likely to take some time to reach my goal, but she asked me to regard every attempt to attract a woman as practice towards gaining the skills I needed to succeed someday. And friends, that’s what I did: during some sessions she assigned me the task of chatting up a strange girl, and at the next we would discuss my experience, as well as how I could do better next time.

Of course, readers of tdaxp know this already:


(The adaptive trait of learned helplessness lets humans practice more in some areas than others, allowing highly productive experts to network each other and out-compete groups of generalists. Such intricate self-organization is a feature of complex adaptive systems, such as the market economy. This increasingly social, networked style of man may be way the human brain begin shrinking about 15 thousand years ago.)

6 thoughts on “Purposeful Practice and Expertise”

  1. Dan,

    Great post. I especially like the note that networked groups of experts can outperform a similar-sized group of generalists. There is an implicit assumption in your comment that the problem at hand lends itself to the superior chunking ability of one or more of the experts. Chunking creates experts of narrow width and great depth, but it's not intuitively obvious to me that expertise in one field leads to expertise in another. In fact, one of Charlie Munger's criticisms of Economics professors (and many other academics) is the “man with a hammer” syndrome, in which one views every problem through a context constructed to lend itself to their hammer solution. The generalists' proficiency in a number of fields might allow them to cooperatively come up with a better solution than the experts who had mastery of a number of fields but proficiency in many less.

    That said, your statement about networked experts does explain a lot of the progress of civilization.



  2. Mike,

    I agree that this description of expertise assumes chunking ability. Most “human” activities are amenable to chunking, because humans think analogically. Straight-forward logical thinking is best done by logical tools, that is, computers.

    I also agree with “expertise in one field leads to expertise in another.” Outside of a high “general intelligence,” which might make it easier to learn things in general, one shouldn't assume that an expert (or for that matter, someone who is rational) in one domain is expert/creative/talented/rational in another. Indeed, the gift of learned helplessness can imply that an expert in one domain is a blithering idiot in others.

    Excellent comment!

  3. Dan, Good stufff. Yo Mike! Dan, we've been talking about that article recently also and found it useful in framing a portion of our book premise. Fischer's hella at chess but has the social skills of a goat. He's all vector, no sweep–at least, none which he cares to acknowledge.

    Do you think chunking could also be viewed as an object-oriented mindset allowing one to quickly cross-reference models, testing viable linkages for things like innovation or infiltration? In other words, expert-thinking isn't expertise, it's bricolage? Seems that's Charlie Munger's implicit approach and Boyd's core insistence for oreientation.



  4. Mark Fouro,

    Props for the kind words.

    The professor for the seminar I took in Creativity, Talent, and Expertise [1] has done a lot of research in this area, because his son is a chess prodigy, and I have contacted him to see if I can put his work online.

    I like “bricolage” a lot. One text described creativity as carrying a sure toolbox of analogies across projects. “Viable linkages” are discovered and exploited, often again and again and again. If one is labeled “creative” that means one is a bricoler who also looks for gaps. If one is labeled “expert,” that is the same thing but without second-guessing the field's choice of specializations. Creativity is the appropriate, efficient application of horizontal thinking in a vertical domain.

    Tying Boyd in means somehow translating his OODA loop [3], which is mostly subjective, to the Creativity/Talent domain, which is intersubjective. [4] It'd be an interesting project… (I admire the effect, but I think Curtis' 'social OODA loop' [5] goes in the wrong direction, focusing too much on abstract concepts and not measurable works…)

    [1] http://www.tdaxp.com/unl_creativity_and_expertise/
    [2] http://www.tdaxp.com/archive/2006/06/14/coming-anarchy-10-the-gap.html
    [3] http://www.tdaxp.com/archive/2006/05/30/variations-of-the-ooda-loop-1-introduction.html
    [4] http://www.tdaxp.com/archive/2005/05/23/zen_and_the_art_of_semantic_eurovision_networks.html
    [5] http://www.phaticcommunion.com/archives/2006/08/some_words_on_d.php

  5. Interesting, and thanks for the linkage. I have my day's reading set.

    “Creativity is the appropriate, efficient application of horizontal thinking in a vertical domain.” Stern, but I like it! In the course of working with arts and business groups, and in particular one group that included both, I've found that conventional wisdom can really be a dog.

    Example: A workgroup with an arts foundation board consisting of financial services poobahs, artists, art teachers and philanthropic gadflies found the Bankers most willing (almost giddily so), to stretch their perceptions of what was possible. When asked to rub two seemingly disparate facts or theories together, the artists crossed their arms and refused to play.

    Youth is wasted on the young, they say. Add opportunity is often wasted on the “creative.”

  6. Fouro,

    The class's focus on intersubjective creativity, focusing on what is done in a domain, as opposed to subjective theory, what happens in the mind, was an adjustment. Not all students made it. It smashes icons and forces a rational consideration of creativity in other people. Too often, a bad temperament and a basic understanding of the tools of a craft are mistaken for creativity, talent, and expertise (whether art, or scholarship, or any other domain)

  7. (Dan, your #1 link above is clipped, can you repost?)

    Well, speaking as a once-full time creative director charged with with wrangling some pretty terrible enfants in, say, the commercial direction side of the biz I can say without fear that there's a crapload of unresolved issues bigfooting around in black jeans.

    There is a paradox tho–people tasked with tapping the emotions and affinities of others are very clumsy or reticent when it comes to discussing or understading human nature. For a business built on “breakthrough,” it's really disappointing how narrowband and surface many are, and at a surprisingly young age. Of course, many of the leaders I know and work with have the same problem.

  8. Fouro,

    (The clipping is done by a blogspirit bug — the link should include that last “/”. I will contact them about it. The link should direct to the same place as the “UNL / Creativity and Expertise” link on the left, under “categories”)

    The class criticized the nature of “breakthrough” as such, emphasizing that for any artist, the number of great successes is minuscule compared to the number of misses or so-so work. In other words, “breakthroughs” are the remainder of failures. Creative people show up, try try try again, and occasionally succeed. As Tom Barnett said

    “Dealing with failure effectively is mostly about diagnosing it quickly, accepting your portion of the blame, and then chilling on it and putting it behind you quickly. So you seek “getting back up on the horse” moments ASAP.” [1]

    Also note that because the mind is “massively modular,” skill in one ability doesn't translate to that in another. Language especially is kept away from other components, so being able to /do/ doesn't mean one is able to /say/ (and vice versa).

    Excellent comment again.

    [1] http://www.tdaxp.com/archive/2006/02/19/the-tdaxp-interview-of-thomas-pm-barnett.html
    [2] http://www.tdaxp.com/archive/2006/06/16/the-evolution-away-from-modularity.html

  9. Ah, more links to run down – thanks!

    There's definitely a universal thread in barnett's point. I beleive Edison had a “cul de sac” threshold for the boys in his lab where, at some point, he would pull them off a project that wasn't turning over and have them redirect to a higher percentage effort on something, probably what Larry Keeley calls “sustaining innovations” (Post-it's in pink, or grease resistant for kitchen uses) rather than low-%”breakthrough.”

    Do agree on the skill point–if we're talking about particular facility with certain *complicated* nuances. But in my experience, especially with complex/people problems, I've been quite pleasantly surprised in the realm of systems problem solving by plucking someone from outside res. Similar I suppose to the way that some CEOs are good at turn-around regardless of widget or SIC code. Probly that bricolage thing again.

  10. Fouro,

    I like the point about Edison. Great inventors and problem solvers find a way to transform domain-general problems into domain-specific ones. Typically, they view a new problem as a variation of a general one they have been solving for quite a while, and then apply analogs to the solutions they have been using.

    Robert Weisberg describes it as follows: [1]

    “In the examples just discussed, solutions were brought to mind as the result of what is called “analogical transfer” in problem solving. Attaching a candle to a vertical surface and attaching one to a horizontal surface are analogous situations, since they have the same structure (attaching a candle to a surface), which means that information from the already familiar situation can be retrieved when the problem is represented, and can then be transferred to the problem, to serve as a basis for behavior…”

    Thus what Edison is doing is maintaining a high level of self-efficacy [2], but letting his inventors' analogical thinking work. If a problem was too big to be solved by their established methods, their self-efficacy would gradually reduce to zero as would their results.

    CEOs are a good example, too. Al Dunlap [3] is a genius at turning around struggling companies, regardless of industry. His results were sub-optimal, though, when given the task of managing an already successful company. Even CEO knowledge is domain-specific — but the trick is in properly identifying the domain.

    [1] http://www.tdaxp.com/archive/2006/02/02/creativity-beyond-the-myth-of-coherence.html
    [2] http://www.tdaxp.com/archive/2006/09/05/on-teaching-and-learning.html
    [3] http://www.amazon.com/Chainsaw-Notorious-Career-Dunlap-Profit-At-Any-Price/dp/0066619815

  11. Hi! Thanks for the Weisberg bit, I can use that.

    Domain-specific, what Spooky call's Man-with-hammer syndrome danger.

    I do think that recent books by guys like Pink/Gladwell/Pinker have opened up some of Blakes (?) Doors of perception. I was on the phone with some real estate partners today trying to get them to be “unlawerly” in a pitch piece for a trade conference. I was using some of my brain chatter and one of the guys said – “Pink? I get it, he's right, let's move on.” Funny thing is, their biz model is all bricolage and wide OO vectors, even though they scrunch up their noses or tilt their heads when it's described like that 😉

    There's a whole bunch of talking to one's self that happens to convince each other that “this is not a dead end we're in–keep hammerin!”

    Hadn't seen your chainsaw Al link. I'm off!



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