Do You Have Experience or Expertise?

It’s a common belief that the truly great ones—Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan, Wolfgang Mozart, Gary Kasparov, etc. have been blessed with tremendous innate talents that ordinary folks like you and me haven’t been given. It also happens to be dead wrong. Research in the past twenty years has shown quite conclusively that the notion of talent’s “chosen ones” is a myth. What the research on exceptional performance and expertise has shown is that it comes from deliberate practice—and lots of it.

In fact, studies have shown that it takes between 10-18 years of experience in a given activity (chess, golf, dancing, finance, marketing, etc.) to reach an expert level. This inconvenient truth poses some mental anguish for most of us because it means that we can’t keep attributing others success to their innate talents. The reality is that the people reaching expert levels of performance are simply working harder and in an increasingly challenging way in their chosen fields than their counterparts.

So spending lots of time doing an activity is the road to success? No, not necessarily. Experience is like cholesterol—there are two types—one  good and one bad. Active experience is the good cholesterol (HDL) while passive experience is the bad cholesterol (LDL), although I can’t recall if it’s pepperoni or sausage pizza that falls into the good cholesterol category (a man can dream, can’t he?).

Active experience involves continually taking on challenges that are just outside your competence or current ability level. It means continually monitoring progress and most importantly—generating insights on how to close the gap between where you currently are and where you want to be.

Unfortunately, passive experience is much more common. We’ve all worked with or for people who trumpeted their years of experience only to find out later that their business acumen ranked somewhere between shellfish and baboon. Just because you have 40 years of experience breathing doesn’t mean you’re getting better at it.

What are you doing to transform your experience into expertise? Try creating a logbook (I like logbook because “journal” sounds too Oprah-ish). Each week jot down what you learned about the business, the key insights you’ve come across. Think how powerful it would be to go into your next performance review with a book of insights instead of just a rehash of what you did the last twelve months. Might even land you on Oprah–the show, not the woman.

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