Understanding Mastery

By May 3, 2019 No Comments
I think each one of us hears at least once a month a colleague or friend having an Eureka moment, realizing what they really want to do next. It happens to all of us but very few manage to develop expertise and become the best in the field.
…and we love to get better and better at what we do. In fact, the opportunity to build mastery is one of the three most motivating things for people, professionally, according to Daniel Pink’s Drive.
Unfortunately, we lack a culture of developing expertise and most of us think that hard work and talent are the two essential ingredients to succeed, while research show that both assumptions are wrong.
While there is a lot of research in this field, very few findings made it into the pop culture. Apart from the 10.000 hour rule made popular by Malcom Gladwell’s Outliers book, people tend to know little about the science of developing mastery.
As a learning designer, I recently realized that I somehow ignored the growing body of research in this area, with books like Peak and The Expert Learner providing a lot of great insights in this area. This post is about some key concepts in developing mastery.
The myth of innate talent
One of the most common things we hear about people that are the best in their field is that “he was born to do that”. However, there is no research to support that.
This is just the iceberg illusion – we pay attention to the visible and not the bigger base that underpins it. Mozart famously felt a lack of recognition for his efforts, saying that “people make a great mistake who thinks that my art has come easily to me, nobody has devoted so much time and though to composition as I…”
The best example of innate talent is the absolute pitch which was thought to be very rare, just one in every 10.000 people were born with it.
However, in 2014, the absolute pitch was put to test by psychologist Ayako Sakakibara from the Icionkay Music School in Tokio. He recruited 24 students, aged 2 to 6 years old, and trained them for up to 18 months. By the end of the training, 24 out of 24 students developed “the perfect pitch”.
The clear implication is that the perfect pitch is not a gift, but an ability that can be developed by anyone with the right exposure and training.
The myth of fixed IQ
There is a general understanding that your IQ is fixed, and you cannot change that. The best proof for this is what we now call “The Flynn Effect”, which is basically the fact that IQ test score have increased far too quickly since 1930 to be explained in terms of genetic changes.
Alfred Binet, the French creator of the first intelligence test, said “[…] recent thinkers who have given their moral support to these deplorable verdicts by affirming that an individual’s intelligence is fixed quantity, a quantity that cannot be increased. We must protest and react against this brutal pessimism; we must try and demonstrate it is founded upon nothing”.
What is really interesting is the impact of the fixed ability impact on student development. 88% of the children placed in ability groups at age 4, remain in the same ability group until they leave school.
The multipliers
​One of the main reasons for the ability myth is that we often tend to see people that manage to perform at another level as opposed to others and everyone starts saying that that’s an innate gift.
The key factor here is how a small advantage (he played football with his dad in the backyard since he was 3 years old) can lead to a series of multipliers (at age 7, he is hitting the ball better than others and gets selected in the school football team, with access to better training facilities and coaching) that widen the skills gap. Just to follow this example, by the time the student is 11 years old, with the professional coaching and number of hours put into training as opposed to his colleagues, he will be in another league with any of his colleagues and everyone will say was born to be a football player. He will then be selected by a professional football team. In fact, this is the story of the little David Beckamp.
Academically, is the same. Considering that language plays a key role in academic success, one study in this area is particularly striking. Betty Hart and Todd Risley followed 42 families from 3 socioeconomic levels and were amazed on the contrasts. Children from professional homes were, on average, exposed to 3.5 times more spoken words per hour (2,153 to 616) than children in welfare homes; a total of 8 million a year. Coming to schools, students from welfare home will struggle to understand every word that the teacher is saying and they will start lagging behind, with this difference only getting bigger from one lesson to another.

What does mastery even mean?
It is already known that people tend to be very optimistic about their expertise, but how do we define mastery, or expertise?
The best definition I came across is from Gordon Stobart, which defined a set of characteristic of experts:

  • Choose an appropriate strategy;
  • Generate the best solution (faster and better than others);
  • See patterns of a problem;
  • Apply extensive qualitative analysis to a problem;
  • Monitor (with accuracy) own performance;
  • Recall relevant information more effectively;

The recipe
When we are talking about skills that have a history of hundreds of years old, like playing the piano or swimming, the training path is quite straightforward and there are lots of coaches to provide guidance in this regard.
However, when it comes to professional skills, like project management or instructional designers, there is no such thing as a clear learning path.
Luckily, there is a solid body of knowledge on how mastery is being developed. In his book “The Expert Learner”, Gordon Stobart has done a summary of all research in this area and identified a pattern for how humans are developing mastery:

  • Opportunity to develop a particular skill. You need to live in an environment that supports the development of that skill, just like best skyers live in areas with great sky tracks and many sky trainers;
  • Strong motivation to be a top performer. Only when the motivation is strong and intrinsic, the necessary learning can take place. Pushy parents/teachers or financial benefits can only support the initial part of this long journey;
  • Good coaching and teaching. These are critical as role-models, providing feedback, a clear sense of progression and what to do next.
  • Extensive deliberate practice. Hard work doesn’t work, purposeful practice does. This means that you need to practice a lot the things you are not really good at rather than those you manage to do well enough;

​Deliberate Practice vs Naive Practice
While the first three characteristics of the recipe defined above are quite clear, the last one – deliberate practice – is really tricky to get right. Most people tend to think that working really hard will get you where you want to, but research shows that it doesn’t. It’s just naïve practice.
Just think about driving a car. At first it was very challenging mastering the clutch, the gearbox, the steering, the road-signs and all the traffic around you. It was so challenging that often you would simply forget to do one of them. As you kept on driving, you became better and better. Everything becomes automated and you are doing everything right. You sometimes do mistakes (on ice, on slippery roads), but these are too rare to be important for you. As soon as you reach that level, learning stops. In the past 5.000 or 10.000 hours of driving, you have not learned much about driving your car. And it is the same with any other skill.
As soon as you become comfortable with what you do, learning stops.
Experts in every field have a different way of doing things. They always clear objectives on what they need to improve to get better, and they work on that. This is what Andreas Ericsson calls deliberate practice, which has the following characteristics:

  • Well-defined goals. In order to improve, you need to define very clear and measurable objectives that will get you where you want to be; In order to reach a larger goal, you need to put in place a bunch of baby steps;
  • Focused. You won’t improve without giving the task your full attention; and your focus need to grow over time;
  • Involves feedback. In order to improve over time, you always need to know if you’re doing something right and if you don’t , how you’re doing it wrong; Feedback can come either from yourself or from others;
  • Happens outside of one’s comfort zone. The reality is that you only improve when you get outside of your comfort zone;
Many people quit their dreams because they hit certain barriers that makes them believe “they’re not born to do it” or “it’s too difficult”. The reality is that there is no limit to what anyone can learn.

Author Gabriel

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