The attainment of expertise

In the last post we explored the defining qualities of expertise and delineated its characteristic features. In this post we will review how expertise is acquired. In their paper titled The making of an expert, K. Anders Ericsson and colleagues explained that expertise develops only after years of intensive practice, and this process often takes at least a decade or the equivalent of 10,000 hours. To emphasise the rigours that go into the ‘development of genuine expertise‘, they stressed that it entails ‘struggle, sacrifice, and honest, often painful self-assessment‘. Ericsson and colleagues however pointed out that sustained effort on its own is not sufficient to lead to expertise, the skills of which are only attained when one practices under the tutelage of well-informed and devoted teachers or coaches who guide and teach the practitioner how to self-coach. They reiterated the important role of expert coaches who they said ‘can help you accelerate your learning process’ typically through the giving of ‘constructive, even painful, feedback‘. .

Doctor and Doll. Gandalf’s Gallery on Flickr.

Different authors have outlined the stages that take place in the process of attaining expertise. Jack Dowie, in the book Professional Judgment: A Reader in Clinical Decision Making, identified five stages: novice, advanced beginner, competent, proficient, and expert. James Shenteau on the other hand, in his paper titled Competence in experts: The role of task characteristics in the book Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, listed three stages in the development of expertise, and these are:

    • The cognitive stage: when there is the memorisation of task facts
    • The associative stage: when there is strengthening of ‘connections between successful elements’
    • The autonomous stage: when ‘skills become practiced and rapid
Abulcasis en el Hospital de Córdoba. Fondo Antiguo de la Biblioteca de la Universidade on Flickr.

Whilst several approaches are involved in the acquisition of expertise, the most crucial according to Ericsson and colleagues, is deliberate practice – an activity that requires performers to exert ‘considerable, specific, and sustained efforts‘ to do something they ‘can’t do well—or even at all’. This, they added, involves improving and extending the reach and range of the skills that they have already acquired, and regularly striving to identify and correct their weaknesses. In their paper titled Expert performance: Its structure and acquisition, K Anders Ericsson and Neil Chamess further emphasise the advantages of starting this form of practice at a very young age, and doing so ‘at high daily levels for more than a decade’. This, they explain, is because expert performance is not the result of ‘innate abilities and capacities‘ but the acquisition of ‘complex skills and physiological adaptations‘.


Another important dimension to the acquisition of expertise is recognising the limits of ones skills when faced with new problems. Eta Berner and Mark Graber, in their paper titled Overconfidence as a cause of diagnostic error in medicine, referred to this as the calibration of expertise, and in medicine, this skill includes the ability to distinguish easily diagnosed conditions from those that need more deliberation.

Woman doctor at work. Moonjazz on Flickr.

In the next post we will take an uncomfortable look at the downsides of expertise

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