The Myth of ‘Just do it’: Thought and Effort in Expert Action preface

My view: Deliberate Practice and the Desire to Improve

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My view: Deliberate Practice and the Desire to Improve

I have now questioned definitions of expertise in terms of automaticity, accumulation of knowledge, peer nominations, domain-related experience, reproducible superior performance, ability to perform with limited preparation, and performance speed. What, then, do I mean by “expert,” when I say that “experts think in action”? Despairing of finding anything close to necessary and sufficient conditions for expertise, let me simply stipulate that by “experts,” I mean individuals who have engaged in around ten or more years of deliberate practice, which means close to daily, extended practice with the specific aim of improving, and are still intent on improving. These are the sorts of individuals I have in mind when I say that their performance is in line, not with “just do it,” but with think-to-win. Individuals who have engaged in (around) ten or more years of deliberate practice and who are still intent on improving, I refer to as “professional-level experts” or more often simply “experts,” and I use the term “expertise” to refer to the skill that such individuals have developed.

The “ten-year rule”—that is, the idea that in order to become an expert at any endeavor, one must engage in at least around ten years of practice—has been known for a long time. It was perhaps first formulated by Bryan and Hartner (1899), and although there may be some exceptions, it does seem that in many domains, ten does turn out to be the minimum necessary number of years it takes to reach professional status.45 But, as the psychologist K. Anders Ericsson (1993) has documented, those who excel in a wide variety of fields have not only engaged in ten years of practice, but have engaged in ten years of deliberate practice—that is, practice that involves not only doing the actions over and over again, as might be true of our daily activities like buttoning a shirt or driving to the office, but also involves working on aspects that are difficult and, after practice, analyzing one’s own successes and failures.46 Beyond this, I would add that in order for someone to count as an expert under my stipulative definition, such individuals engage in ongoing practice. Apart from the modicum of studying drivers do in order to renew their licenses, most drivers don’t do much to try to improve their skills, if the studying for the driver’s test is to count as skill-building at all. Most everyday drivers, for better or worse, just do it. Experts, as I define them, necessarily engage in skill-building.

The idea of practice, however, as the term is normally used, is contrasted with performance, yet not all “experts” (as I want to use the term) perform. For example, in philosophy, although we give talks, it is not as if all our work is leading up to the talk; indeed, the talk is often given in order to help improve a work in progress. Or a painter does not work on a painting with the end of a performance in sight, whatever that could be. Nevertheless, I would like to extend the idea of practice to cover any type of activity that is done with an aim, at least in part, to improve, or to learn or figure something out. This covers not only what we would call a period of training (for example, either in grad school or in art school, respectively), but also the actions that such non-performing experts engage in when they are trying to get better at their craft. In fact, I was rather tickled to notice that at the university where I work, it is part of official policy that all faculty must engage in such activities: quoting from an official CUNY document, “a full-time faculty member is expected to …constantly [make] all efforts to improve his/her professional standing through study and thought, and also through activities such as research, publication, attendance at professional conferences, and the giving of papers and lectures.”47 And even philosophers such as Dreyfus and Kelly, who hold that the best ideas come to one like a bolt of lightning, believe that some activities of the expert philosopher, painter and other such experts do involve trying to improve.

But what is it that needs to be practiced? As the conditions of performance differ from situation to situation—for a tennis player, an unusually windy day might count as a condition under which one has never practiced, while for a philosopher, each new paper presents novel challenges—not everything will have been practiced. Accordingly, my requirement for having practiced deliberately and extensively applies to the general category of the activity. An expert pianist will have to have deliberately practiced playing the piano for around ten years or more, though she need not have practiced playing some particular piece for that amount of time, or on a particular piano or in a particular concert hall or even with her specific interpretation for this amount of time. (I shall discuss the notion of practice in expertise further in chapter 6.)

In his quest to understand what goes into making an expert, Ericsson, of course, needs an independent criterion for what counts as an expert. That is, he cannot define an expert as someone who is engaged in deliberate practice and then go on to find that, lo and behold, experts engage in deliberate practice. And those who came up with the Ten Year Rule would seem to need this as well. However, as my concern is not what goes into making an expert but with what goes on in the mind of the expert in action, I can, without circularity, simply co-opt their findings and build them into my definition of expertise.

To sum up the view we’ve arrived at so far, then, experts are those who have engaged in around ten or more years of deliberate practice and are still passionate about improving; expert actions are the domain-related actions of such individuals; and expertise is the ability they have to perform such actions. My view, then, is that the just-do-it principle is false when applied to those who have engaged in around at least ten years of deliberate practice and are still engaging in deliberate practice.

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