Go, Go, Grow!

Don't give up, for the growth spurt may be just around the corner

Posted Apr 05, 2011

Interested in these topics? Go to Sapient Nature.

Just as children grow in discontinuous spurts, so does expertise

"Genius is 99 percent perspiration and 1 percent inspiration," Edison famously claimed. He knew a thing or two about what it takes to push oneself up the incline of expertise to the pinnacle of mastery. Unfortunately, most of us don't seem to recognize that gaining mastery over a domain takes serious hard work over an extended period of time. We continue to act as if genius were in-born: We think that some of us have "it" and most of us don't. As a consequence, too few among us gain mastery over any domain. We lead a life of mediocrity and by the time we realize this--by middle age--we feel it's too late. This is perhaps why we are least happy and most depressed at the age of 46.

What stops us from dedicating the critical mass of time--10,000 or so hours--that experts say is required to gain mastery over a domain?

Perhaps the most important reason: similar to how we often don't know what we truly want, most of us don't know what we feel passionate about. A related reason is that we take up pursuits for the wrong reasons. We take up an investment banking job because there is money in it, or we join a social media firm because social media is "in," or we join the entertainment industry to become famous. As research by Deci, Ryan, and others has shown, extrinsic rewards like money and fame can motivate us only to a certain extent; if we don't enjoy what we do, we get burned out pretty fast. In other words, only if we pursue what truly interests us can we stay dedicated to it over the long haul.

In addition, there is a third, more insidious reason why we don't dedicate the requisite amount of time required to gain mastery over a domain. We give up too fast. This happens even to those who are lucky enough to have found their passion. There are many reasons why we give up too fast. Kathryn Schulz, in her excellent new book, Being Wrong, highlights one: we get disheartened by failure, and the emotional negativity de-motivates us. Another reason for giving up too fast is that we have faulty intuitions about the process by which we gain mastery over a domain.


Relationship between effort and learning is non-linear

We think that the process of gaining mastery over a domain is a linear process: expertise in a domain is directly proportional to the amount of effort we put into it. In reality, the relationship between effort and expertise is non-linear. As shown in this graph, the growth in expertise, much like the growth in the sales of a product, or the growth of the human body, occurs in spurts. This is, of course, not news for those who regularly play a sport. Those involved in sport recognize that there are long periods of stagnation--when no matter what one does, one's game doesn't improve. Then suddenly you reach a new high, as if by magic.


There is a good explanation for why the relationship between effort and expertise is non-linear. To reach a new level of performance, several dimensions of your persona are called into play, and it is not until all these dimensions "click" that one is able to perform at a superior level. For instance, driving a car well calls for coordinating several dimensions: assessing distance between the car and other objects, recognizing when to turn the steering wheel and by how much, assessing the relationship between pressing the pedal and the resulting acceleration, etc. When you learn to drive, you can pay attention to only one of these dimensions. So, learning is a slow process of gaining expertise in one dimension and then the other. Over time, however, through a process known as "chunking," we gain a sufficiently high level of expertise in each of these dimensions to perform each act without thinking about the act. When this happens, we suddenly experience a surge to a new level of expertise in driving the car.

What does this mean? The implications are straightforward. The first thing is to recognize that there is no substitute for doing what truly interests you, even if there doesn't seem to be a "market" for what you like to do. In the long run, it is much better to be a big fish in a small pond than to be insignificant Plankton in a vast ocean. Second, even if you are pursuing your true interests--in your job or your hobby--just keep at it, even if you are disheartened by your apparent lack of progress. Sooner or later, you will break through the ceiling to a new level of expertise. And at that point, write me a thank you note.

Interested in these topics? Go to Sapient Nature.

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