How to Become an Expert: A Roadmap

Roadmap for Mastery

Wouldn’t you like to be an expert? To intuitively know the right answers? Enter the Dreyfus model of skill acquisition, which shines a light on how we develop and master skills, helping us understand how we progress from novice to expert, including all the steps in between.

Experts are Not Just Supercharged Novices

There’s much more to mastering a skill than just acquiring more knowledge. Just like adults are not simply bigger children, experts are not only smarter, more knowledgeable or faster than novices. The differences can be found at a more fundamental level, such as in how they perceive the world and approach problems.

Let’s take a familiar example: cooking. The novice cook needs detailed recipes to prepare even the simplest of dishes; the expert chef doesn’t need explicit recipes at all. It’s not that the chef memorized all the recipes. In fact, if he needs to make an unexpected change in how a dish is prepared — even one that was never made before — he can intuitively pull it off. Experienced folks seem to ‘just know’, don’t they?

To understand how that works, let’s turn to the ideas developed by brothers Hubert and Stuart Dreyfus in the early 80s, the Dreyfus model of skill acquisition. Their model breaks down the journey to mastery in five discrete stages, outlining what’s necessary to improve at each of them. Let’s see.

The 5 Skill Levels

1. Novices

The main goal of novices is to accomplish immediate tasks. Since they have little or no previous experience, they’re usually insecure and are focused only on having their first successes. Novices need clear rules and unambiguous instructions, and to concentrate on following them strictly. As such, they commonly don’t feel responsible for anything other than correctly following what was passed to them (“I’m just following orders!”).

To improve, novices usually need close monitoring to bring their actions as close as possible to achieve what is expected by adhering to the rules.

2. Advanced Beginners

Advanced beginners still operate following rules, but they’re able to apply them not only on the exact situations that they were intended for, but also on similar contexts. The once-rigid rules become more like guidelines. Advanced beginners try new things out, but still have difficulty troubleshooting problems. Just like novices, they’re still focused on completing tasks — they don’t want lengthy theorizing and don’t have much interest in the big picture.

To improve, advanced beginners need to gain experience dealing with real situations, preferably in limited and controlled situations (with much of the ‘real-world complexity’ filtered out).

3. Competent

As the rules and guidelines become prohibitively complex, practitioners begin organizing and sorting them by relevance, forming conceptual models. Competent practitioners can troubleshoot problems, and will work based on deliberate planning and past experience. They are willing to make decisions and to accept responsibility for their outcomes.

To improve, competent practitioners need exposure to a wide variety of typical, real-world, ‘whole’ situations. By dealing with those, they better grasp the connections between the isolated conceptual models they already use.

4. Proficient

Proficient practitioners create not only conceptual models, but a conceptual framework around their whole skill. They want the big picture, and become frustrated with oversimplified information. They’re conscious of their performance and can adjust their behaviors accordingly. They can also use and adapt others’ experiences, as well as grasp and apply maxims — which require much more sophisticated interpretation than mere rules or guidelines (as they’re much more generic and context-dependent).

To advance to the fifth and last level, proficient practitioners need even more practice — lots of it. And, as much as possible, they should practice without being hindered by policies or guidelines. The intuition of the expert starts with a vast pool of practical knowledge, and that can only be developed by experimenting freely.

5. Experts

The hallmark of experts is intuition: they just do what works — no explicit analysis or planning is involved. While proficient practitioners can intuitively identify problems, experts can go and intuitively solve them. They tap into their vast pool of knowledge and effortlessly identify patterns, applying solutions in context. Although experts are amazingly intuitive, they are usually rather inarticulate in explaining how they arrived at a conclusion.

Although technically this is the last stage in the model, experts never cease to practice and evolve in subtle ways, incorporating rarer and exceptional cases in their knowledge pool.

Common Themes: What Are the Fundamental Changes?

By looking at the five levels from a higher altitude, we can distill some common themes that emerge as one progresses from novice to expert:

  • Moving away from relying on rules and explicit knowledge to intuition and pattern matching.
  • Better filtering, where problems are no longer a big collection of data but a complete and unique whole where some bits are much more relevant than others.
  • Moving from being a detached observer of the problem to an involved part of the system itself, accepting responsibility for results, not just for carrying out tasks.

Lessons from the Dreyfus Model

How can we use the Dreyfus model in everyday life? Find below some key takeaways and ideas that speak most loudly to me. (I’m sure there are many others — feel free to contribute in the comments!)

  • Make skills acquisition as productive as possible. This is true both for individuals as well as for teams. By having a better idea of your skill level, you’re able to give yourself (or others in your team) exactly what’s needed at that particular level. If you want novices to operate at their best, they will need unambiguous rules. On the other hand, bothering the experts with intricate rules and policies is a recipe for frustration and bringing their performance down. We want to avoid ‘racing sheep and herding horses’.
  • Use it as a standard guidance and assessment framework. The Dreyfus model gives us a no-nonsense way to assess and compare skill levels in many contexts. We could use it to design better learning materials and courses, or salary ladders based strictly on skill level. Granted, the model is not 100% objective, but it’s much better than many ‘fluffy’ assessment tools I’ve seen around.
  • Pair up mentors and apprentices effectively. I’ve seen a big misconception many times, which is that the better you are at a skill the better mentor you’ll be. Not at all! In fact, experts can be the worst possible mentors, as they may lack the language (not to mention the patience) to deal with novices. It’s usually better to pair up people who are not more than two levels apart. That way, the mentor has significantly more experience than the apprentice, and can also hark back to the time he was an apprentice himself.

A Book Recommendation

Pragmatic Thinking and Learning
Most of the ideas in this article were taken from the book Pragmatic Thinking and Learning, which is my new all-time-favorite ‘how-to-use-your-brain’ kind of book.

If you’re interested in more details on the Dreyfus model, as well as many techniques and practical concepts for brain development, I highly recommend you to grab a copy. (Note: The book is marketed for software developers, but I found it’s highly readable and useful for ‘normal people’ as well) ;)