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Expertise Is Not The Result Of Pure Discipline

In my Talent’s Role In Artistry blog entry, I make a case for the idea that talent exists and that it plays a notable role in the development of an artist. Most people probably don’t need to read that blog entry to arrive at such a widely-accepted conclusion. The title of this article, on the other hand, may raise some eyebrows.

Before we dive into a discipline paradox, let’s first define expertise. A couple of years ago, I read an article called “The Expert Mind” by Philip E. Ross from the August 2006 issue of Scientific American. The article states:

“The preponderance of psychological evidence indicates that experts are made, not born.”

To demonstrate the “making” of an expert:

“Laszlo Polgar, an educator in Hungary, homeschooled his three daughters in chess, assigning as much as six hours of work a day, producing one international master and two grandmasters–the strongest chess-playing siblings in history. … The Polgar experiment proved two things: that grandmasters can be reared and that women can be grandmasters. It is no coincidence that the incidence of chess prodigies multiplied after Laszlo Polgar published a book on chess education.”

How does one make themselves an expert?

“Simon coined a psychological law of his own, the 10-year rule, which states that it takes approximately a decade of heavy labor to master any field.”

What is heavy labor?

“…what matters is not experience per se but ‘effortful study,’ which entails continually tackling challenges that lie just beyond one’s competence. That is why it is possible for enthusiasts to spend tens of thousands of hours playing chess or golf or a musical instrument without ever advancing beyond the amateur level and why a properly trained student can overtake them in a relatively short time. It is interesting to note that time spent playing chess, even in tournaments, appears to contribute less than such study to a player’s progress; the main training value of such games is to point up weaknesses for future study.”

So, what is an expert?

“Psychologist George Miller of Princeton University famously estimated the limits of working memory – the scratch pad of the mind – in a 1956 paper entitled ‘The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two.’ Miller showed that people can contemplate only five to nine items at a time.”

From this, I extract the idea that an expert is someone who has enough experience in a field such that the 5 to 9 units of information that they contemplate are as complex as possible within that field. These units of information are called “chunks” according to chunking theory.

For example, while a beginner might see 10 individual notes when reading a piece of music for the first time (which represents 10 separate pieces of information), a master sees that those 10 notes fit an F-sharp half-diminished arpeggio (this is one chunk of information). So, it’s not as much about how smart you are as it is about how large your “chunk units” are when you process musical information.

Malcom Gladwell published a book called Outliers which attempts to define an expert differently, theorizing that the average expert is made after 10,000 hours of effortful study. This would work out to 20 hours per week for a decade. Most people would probably find the most inspiring sentence from the article to be this one:

“Thus, motivation appears to be a more important factor than innate ability in the development of expertise.”

We can take refuge in statements like this after we hear interviews by people like Vladimir Ashkenazy, when he says that he’s only encountered three child pianists in his entire life who he thought could have promising careers as concert artists (from Imagine… Being a Concert Pianist, a BBC documentary by Alan Yentob). However, even though I think this view is terribly extreme, we all know that nurture isn’t all there is to becoming an expert – nature does play a role too. (And notice that the last quote above says that motivation is a more important factor than innate ability. It doesn’t try to pretend that differences in innate ability don’t exist.) It is only realistic to say that no paralyzed person will ever play in a World Cup soccer match. Vladimir Ashkenazy demonstrates the other extreme of the talent spectrum in a true story that Hans Boepple told me.

In 1956, 12 finalists of the Queen Elizabeth Competition were given a place to practice with their own piano on a secluded country estate. They all had a week to learn a piano concerto by René Defossez written especially for the competition. As Graf was doing his initial note-by-note reading of the score, he heard Ashkenazy through the walls playing the work as though he had known it for a long time. Ashkenazy was seen indulging in leisurely activities, including a lot of sunbathing in the back yard there, while all the other finalists were slaving away learning the compulsory work. What took the other competitors a solid week of practice to accomplish took Ashkenazy only a few hours, and Ashkenazy still won the competition.

So, how do we reconcile such extremes of this “talent spectrum” (and all of us, who each lie somewhere unique within the talent spectrum) with the whole point of this article – that experts are made, not born?

Expertise Is Not The Result Of Pure Discipline

Personally, I believe that nature and nurture elements are intertwined. With exception to some who are forced by their parents to slave away at their instrument whether they want to or not, I believe that only those who are passionately interested (to the point of obsession) are going to have the stamina to become an expert in their field. In other words, nurture is only possible through nature. Such passion leads to what we call “discipline”.

And this brings us to my discipline paradox.  For me, the real question is philosophical: is it really “discipline” when someone desires to put tens of thousands of hours of effortful work toward their instrument during their lifetime? What if this passionate obsession were aimed instead at video games? Surely a video game player does not love video games any more than my favorite pianist, Evgeny Kissin, loves music. When Evgeny Kissin was younger, he would be at the piano literally all day long “for pleasure.” Isn’t that what video game fanatics do with video games? Had Kissin’s obsessive energy been aimed at video games, Kissin would have been regarded as “out of balance” in a very unhealthy kind of way. He would be seen as incredibly self-indulgent. How is it possible for a self-indulgent pleasure-seeking individual to be simultaneously regarded as “disciplined”?

So where does this leave us – are we now to call expert video game players “disciplined”? Or are experts not actually disciplined but instead simply “obsessive pleasure seekers”?  Perhaps a little of both.  One thing I thought I knew for sure is that the expert who is more disciplined than all other experts in the world must be a masochist. But even then, we’re talking about someone who derives pleasure from pain, so again, is it really discipline to do something we enjoy?

I would suggest that the most disciplined people in our society are neither musicians nor video gamers. It is those who are “trapped” in a career out of necessity, having to work 40 or more hours a week doing something they can’t stand. Maybe a high school pregnancy made a college education impossible. Maybe social pressure from parents created extreme expectation to take over the family business. When I drive by construction workers who are slaving away in 102-degree heat, I have to assume that they aren’t enjoying themselves the same way a pianist would enjoy practicing a Mozart Trio or teaching a student.

The truth is, every activity on this planet can be approached in disciplined ways and in undisciplined ways. Undisciplined pianists sit down in the practice room and perform their pieces over and over again from beginning to end, not giving any special attention to weaknesses (or even avoiding weaknesses). Disciplined video game players don’t just play games all day long: they engage in practice matches with teammates, always with clear goals of what skills or strategies to improve in each match (see StarCraft 2 and Professional Gaming). Those who rise to the top in their own fields will always be the ones who approach their studies in the most efficient ways (which is less enjoyable than being inefficient). That’s why the title of this article has the word “pure” in it: all expertise does indeed involve some degree of discipline. But I still think construction workers have us all beat.

(c) 2010 Cerebroom

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