Are you experienced? Does it matter?

Time magazine has an article on the counter-intuitive psychology of expertise and experience. It turns out simple experience might not add anything to our competency, it’s how we use our time in attempting to master a skill that counts.

The article notes that research has typically failed to show that experience, on its own, predicts task performance. In other words, old hands often do no better than novices.

Unfortunately for us, it seems the secret to expertise lies within the well-known saying that ‘genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration’.

Research suggests that it is experience of practising the most difficult and laborious aspects of a skill that are key.

Ericsson’s primary finding is that rather than mere experience or even raw talent, it is dedicated, slogging, generally solitary exertion – repeatedly practicing the most difficult physical tasks for an athlete, repeatedly performing new and highly intricate computations for a mathematician – that leads to first-rate performance. And it should never get easier; if it does, you are coasting, not improving. Ericsson calls this exertion “deliberate practice,” by which he means the kind of practice we hate, the kind that leads to failure and hair-pulling and fist-pounding. You like the Tuesday New York Times crossword? You have to tackle the Saturday one to be really good.

Take figure-skating. For the 2003 book Expert Performance in Sports, researchers Janice Deakin and Stephen Cobley observed 24 figure skaters as they practiced. Deakin and Cobley asked the skaters to complete diaries about their practice habits. The researchers found that Elite skaters spent 68% of their sessions practicing jumps – one of the riskiest and most demanding parts of figure-skating routines. Skaters in a second tier, who were just as experienced in terms of years, spent only 48% of their time on jumps, and they rested more often. As Deakin and her colleagues write in the Cambridge Handbook, “All skaters spent considerably more time practicing jumps that already existed in their repertoire and less time on jumps they were attempting to learn.” In other words, we like to practice what we know, stretching out in the warm bath of familiarity rather than stretching our skills. Those who overcome that tendency are the real high performers.

Link to Time article ‘The Science of Experience’.

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