Secrets of the Expert Mind

Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men. —Colossians 3:23 (ESV)

I don’t ordinarily read books or articles on psychology—a “soft” science—but for some reason the cover article in the August issue of Scientific American caught my eye. The article, by Philip E. Ross, is entitled “The Expert Mind,” and the summary in the table of contents reads: “The mental processes of chess grandmasters are unlike those of novices, a fact that illuminates the development of expertise in other fields.”

The article focuses on chess masters, but with the intention of drawing out applications for expertise in diverse activities. The questions the author asks near the beginning of the article are:

  • But how do experts in these various subjects acquire their extraordinary skills?
  • How much can be credited to innate talent and how much to intensive training?

Like all full-length articles in the magazine, there is an overview box that lists the main points of the article:

  • Because skill at chess can be easily measured and subjected to laboratory experiments, the game has become an important test bed for theories in cognitive science.
  • Researchers have found evidence that chess grandmasters rely on a vast store of knowledge of game positions. Some scientists have theorized that grandmasters organize the information in chunks, which can be quickly retrieved from long-term memory and manipulated in working memory.
  • To accumulate this body of structured knowledge, grandmasters typically engage in years of effortful study, continually tackling challenges that lie just beyond their competence. The top performers in music, mathematics and sports appear to gain their expertise in the same way, motivated by competition and the joy of victory.
    • In light of the ten-year rule, where do you want to be a decade from now? Pick a vocation in your life that is worth attaining “expert” status in: evangelism, church planting, parenting, advocacy for the poor, teaching, chess, speaking, accounting, Cambrian marine biostratigraphy, computer programming. If this is what God has called you to, where do you want to be? Do you want it to still be “good enough to get by” or “excellence in the service of the King?”
    • What will it take to get there? What will “effortful study” look like for you? What are the obstacles and hindrances to this? What hindrances can be removed from your life, and which just need to be worked around?
    • How can you encourage those around you (family, students, coworkers…) to aim for a higher standard?
  • Here are some quotes from the article:

    The 10-year rule states that it takes approximately a decade of heavy labor to master any field.

    Motivation is a more important factor than innate ability.

    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.

    Experts-in-training keep the lid of their mind’s box open all the time, so that they can inspect, criticize and augment its contents and thereby approach the standard set by leaders in their fields.

    Belief in the importance of innate talent, strongest perhaps among the experts themselves and their trainers, is strangely lacking in hard evidence to substantiate it.

    The preponderance of psychological evidence indicates that experts are made, not born. What is more, the demonstrated ability to turn a child quickly into an expert—in chess, music and a host of other subjects—sets a clear challenge before the schools. Can educators find ways to encourage students to engage in the kind of effortful study that will improve their reading and math skills?

    Instead of perpetually pondering the questions, “Why can’t Johnny read?” perhaps educators should ask, “Why should there be anything in the world he can’t learn to do?”

    I’m sure this won’t be the final word in the nature vs. nurture debate, but it did stimulate thought about how I work and what I’m aiming for in my students’ lives. We all have calls and vocations; my primary call—outside of the calls as a Christian and a parent—is in science education. Many tell me: “You’re a really good science teacher, Kevin. The kids love your classes, and they learn so much.” The risk is that it would be easy to allow myself to plateau. Ross describes this in the article:

    Even the novice engages in effortful study at first, which is why beginners so often improve rapidly in playing golf, say, or in driving a car. But having reached an acceptable performance—for instance, keeping up with one’s golf buddies or passing a driver’s exam—most people relax. Their performance then becomes automatic and therefore impervious to further improvement.

    Some questions for thought:

    Caution: life is not all about being the best in the world at something. It is about following Christ our savior, and letting him do a work in us.

    The article can be found at

    Grace and Peace

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