How Long Does it Take to Become an Expert?

The answer is simple — 10,000 hours, or about 10 years. In his book, “This is Your Brain on Music,” Daniel Levitin summarized the  results of a study by Anders Ericsson (Florida State). Ericsson researched a number of types of experts, from chess players to musicians. His team defined “expert” as someone who has achieved a high degree of accomplishment relative to other people. That means the designation is somewhat subjective and has a social element. (Maybe it also means that you have to outlast some of your competitors!)

We did the math and figure that it is roughly equivalent to 3 hours a day for 10 years. What does that mean? For one thing, companies that move people from one position to another every two years may be developing experts in the organization and the industry but not at performing a specific role or task. It is interesting to note that jobs requiring a high level of individual performance (such as doctors, attorneys, airline pilots) have practitioners that remain in their roles longer than the average corporate manager. And, in these roles, more complex tasks are carefully limited to people with more time on the job.

Another question that immediately came to mind was “what if you work on it six hours a day for five years…can you get to expert more quickly?”

Of course, as a performance improvement expert (I can say that, by the way…I have been doing this work since 1984) my real first thought was “I bet we could beat that.” And we probably could. Much of what we do is observe and capture mastery performance and then distill that expertise into process, tools, and information. We sometimes even find shortcuts.

Still, if we needed heart surgery, we would pick the ten year veteran over the one-year novice with even if they have a really good job aid. Why?

Maybe because the longer timeframe allows more reflection. Why did something work better? What could we have done differently? We build our training programs to include exercises and even simulations so that learners apply what they learn in as realistic a situation as possible in a training setting. Sometimes, we even prescribe on-the-job practice and assessment. All of this compresses some of the experience learners would otherwise pick up slowly over the years. But it isn’t entirely equivalent.

There is neurological research that shows expertise depends on well-developed neural paths. Meaning that if you do something frequently and reflect on it, you will develop more expertise…you will sort of wear paths into your brain. But it takes time.

Organizationally, the ten year cycle can create a problem if you need to retain these experts. They get expensive after ten years of raises and accumulated vacation. Their market value increases. The smart thing to do is identify where you really need them and then make sure you leverage that know-how. Capture as much of their expertise as possible in reference materials and tools. Engage them in developing the next generation of experts. Respect their contributions. Plan for succession.

Often people who have been in a role a long time aren’t really valued for their expertise…they can be taken for granted as an old-timer whose advancement peaked. But maybe they decided to focus. Maybe they enjoy what they are doing. In this period of cost-cutting and outsourcing, it can be too easy to lose track of why people work…it may not be only about the money.

One Response to “How Long Does it Take to Become an Expert?”

  1. What People Think of you is None of your Beeswax | Prana Mimi writes:

    […] I suppose that I may have hit the “10,00 hours” it takes to become expert at something (http://prhconsulting.com/blog/2010/02/18/how-long-does-it-take-to-become-an-expert/) and it just […]

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