Bryan Caplan  

How People Get Good at Their Jobs

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From The Case Against Education:

How People Get Good At Their Jobs

If schools teach few job skills, transfer of learning is mostly wishful thinking, and the effect of education on intelligence is largely hollow, how on earth do human beings get good at their jobs?  The same way you get to Carnegie Hall: practice.  People learn by doing specific tasks over and over.  To get better at piloting, you fly planes; to get better at obstetrics, you deliver babies; to get better at carpentry, you build houses. 

For the unskilled, progress is easy.  Given common-sense conditions, it's almost guaranteed.  In the words of K. Anders Ericsson, the world's leading expert on expertise, novices improve as long as they are, "1) given a task with a well-defined goal, 2) motivated to improve, 3) provided with feedback, and 4) provided with ample opportunities for repetition and gradual refinements of their performance."[1]  Before long, though, the benefit of mere practice plateaus.  To really get good at their jobs, people must advance to deliberate practice.  To keep learning, they must exit their comfort zone - raise the bar, struggle to surmount it, repeat.  As Ericsson and co-authors explain:

You need a particular kind of practice - deliberate practice - to develop expertise.  When most people practice, they focus on the things they already know how to do.  Deliberate practice is different.  It entails considerable, specific, and sustained efforts to do something you can't do well - or even at all.[2] 
Attaining world-class expertise in chess, music, math, tennis, swimming, and long-distance running requires roughly ten years of deliberate practice.[3]  Even champions only deliberately practice for two or three hours a day, so ten years roughly equals ten thousand hours.[4]  Malcolm Gladwell famously dubbed this the "Ten Thousand Hour Rule."[5]  Reaching the pinnacle of achievement in writing and science takes even longer.

Fortunately, the labor market offers plenty of sub-pinnacle opportunities.  A few thousand hours of deliberate practice won't make you a superstar, but is ample time to get good in most occupations.[6]  What really counts, of course, is not the mere passage of time, but the amount of practice.[7]   

The Ten Thousand Hour Rule is widely seen as an intellectual victory for effort over talent.  This is a serious misinterpretation.  The Ten Thousand Hour Rule doesn't say that anyone can become a master if he tries hard and long enough.[8]  What the Rule says, rather, is that even the best and brightest must spend years practicing their craft to reach the top.  People don't become skilled workers by dabbling in a dozen different school subjects.  They become skilled workers by devoting years to their chosen vocation - by doing their job and striving to do it better.

[1] Ericsson, 2008.  "Deliberate Practice and Acquisition of Expert Performance," Academic Emergency Medicine, p.991. 

[2] Ericsson, Prietula, and Cokely, 2007.  "The Making of an Expert," Harvard Business Review, p.3

[3] Ericsson et al. 1993, p.366. 

[4] Ericsson et al. 1993, p.391-2.

[5] Gladwell, 2008. Outliers.

[6] McDaniel, Schmidt, and Hunter. 1988.  "Job Experience Correlates of Job Performance," Journal of Applied Psychology finds that the effect of job experience on job performance is especially strong for workers with under three years of experience.  For more experienced samples, the effect substantially shrinks, suggesting that most workers approach their peak performance after a few years of practice. 

[7] Quiñones, Ford, and Teachout.  1995.  "The Relationship Between Work Experience and Job Performance: A Conceptual and Meta-Analytic Review."  Personnel Psychology find that all measures of work experience predict job performance, but direct measures of the amount of practice are markedly more predictive than time on the job.

[8] See Ericsson, 2012.  "Training History, Deliberate Practise and Elite Sports Performance."


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COMMENTS (11 to date)
Tom writes:

While education is still important for the development of the whole person, job specific and life skills are woefully undercovered in our education system, and thus, must be addressed!

Peter writes:

One thing missing though, especially for expertise in certain fields, is you need access to peers. At some point you plateau and no longer know how to progress as you have reached the end of your own experience. I can be an expert ditch digger with a stick but if I never independently come up with the idea of a shovel more deliberate practice isn't going to help. Have ran into this in my own life where I exceed all my accessible peers and don't have access to other outside ones. Additional deliberate practice isn't going to do anything for me.

claudio writes:

Am I wrong? If the student practice economics a lot (say, in a laboratory or in a simulated meeting of the FOMC - like a shadow committee), this will require a lot of economic skills and, then, practice works.

However, it is not a case against education, isn't it? Am I wrong?

Tom DeMeo writes:

I agree with the core point about practice. However, that is how I see education too: as practicing increasingly complex learning tasks. As you point out, we don't remember most of the learning, but we get better and better at the process of learning. When we go out into the world, we don't already know what we need to know, but we are prepared to learn it.

p. writes:

The 10.000 hour rule is being severely questioned these days. Maybe it is worth a look => http://www.sportsscientists.com/2011/08/talent-training-and-performance-the-secrets-of-success/

JKB writes:

Deliberate practice, the difference between having 10 years experience and one year experience ten times, requires a systematic approach. The practitioner must not only face new situations but start to see the commonalities. They must not stick with the convention but alter the parameters to see the impact of small variations.

The latter is directly inhibited by regulations and conformity. No one may get fired for buying IBM (Windows, these days) but few will learn anything new if they don't try something different. Regulation brings in liability if something doesn't go right as the doer is outside accepted policy. Our methods of instruction also induce "school helplessness":

"In spite of the fact that schools exist for the sake of education, there is many a school whose pupils show a peculiar "school helplessness"; that is, they are capable of less initiative in connection with their school tasks than they commonly exhibit in the accomplishment of other tasks."

An oddity is that to gain real expertise, one must abandon their mentors and experts to try things outside the coach's instruction. Not because those individuals are wrong but that it is near impossible to teach/show someone how to do something exactly right. The student must range around the skill till they settle upon it in their own way. It is a limitation of communication. No matter how precise the instructions, the student's understanding of the words or movement will be off just a bit. They will, however, hopefully gain an awareness of when they've hit the sweet spot after systematically altering parameters as they find their own way.

That is not to say the student requires a coach or teacher to reach expertise. In fact, their are none of those for the highest levels. But having been instructed, the student is likely to reach skills faster as they avoid blind alleys and get a sense of their destination.

Brian writes:

"People learn by doing specific tasks over and over. To get better at piloting, you fly planes; to get better at obstetrics, you deliver babies; to get better at carpentry, you build houses."

Right, so if you want to read better, you have to read many different types of writing over many years. And if you want to write better, you have to write in many different contexts over many years. And if you want to be an expert at quantitative analysis, you have to do that in many different contexts over many years. And all of it has to occur, not in a by-the-seat-of-your-pants way, but with deliberate practice, which includes continual and specific feedback from knowledgeable experts. Wait...that sounds a lot like education! Be careful, Bryan, or you just might make a case FOR education.

LD Bottorff writes:

This should be obvious; if you practice something incorrectly, you will not be good at it. You need the feedback of a supervisor, mentor, or teacher to guide you.

In theory, education should make sure you know how to communicate in the standard way so that you can receive and understand feedback. You should know basic math, logic, reading, and writing. I'm not convinced that our high schools are consistently conveying these skills.

Massimo writes:

Three counter points:

- Many jobs require entry knowledge before you can begin meaningful practice.
- For lots of science + math work, university education is the dominant form of meaningful practice. Workers don't get salaried jobs until they have lots of academic practice and demonstrable experience.
- Sometimes employers know exactly what they want done, and what skill set they want it done with. Other times, they don't know how problems should be solved ahead of time and want to hire a worker with a large toolbox of skills in a general area so that the worker can choose the right skill.

In K-12 education careers, advancement is strictly geared around credentials, the skill building involved is minimal, and the skills that are taught aren't important. This is also the general consensus view and not some fringe view point. I'd guess the process is just a mechanism to justify the power hierarchy and reinforce the education process.

Koen writes:

The 10,000 hour rule is pop science of the bad kind: it's based on a misinterpretation of a single, very small and very specific study. David Epstein talks about this in his 'The Sports Gene' (one of the best and most enjoyable books I have ever read btw), and in this Econtalk episode . The transcript at this page pretty much begins with a discussion of the 10,000 hour rule http://www.econtalk.org/archives/2013/09/david_epstein_o.html

Qiyang Chen writes:

One of my high school teachers used to told us that the function of schools is not teaching you the knowledge. the function is teaching you how to learn the knowledge. Thus, the education of job skills is still necessary, although the skills are almost useless in the future.

Mostly, people forget what they learned in schools a few years after they graduated. Many people cannot find a job that focus on their major. They learn the new skills in their job and practice the skills for many years. It may be the most common deliberate practice in today's society. Improving skills by repeating is just for the unskilled job. Mostly, the things make people expert are the experience in the years they practice, mostly the challenge. Actually, challenges make them improve themselves.

Today's society improves so fast for a person, every one have to learn some new skills, never from school. The unskilled workers have to learn how to control the machines. Taxi-drivers have to learn how to use their new facilities in their taxies such as GPS and in-company radio, not just improving their skills of driving and memorizing the roads and time of traffic lights. Deliberate is not just make people better in their jobs. In today's society, if a person does not do the deliberate practice, he or she will be behindhand, and mostly, he or she will be fired.

There is an old saying in my hometown, studying from your birth to your death. (Many people think it is "it is never too late to study," but I think they are different.)1000 hour rule shows that a person needs 1000 hours' practice to make himself or herself to be expert, but if a person want to keep in expertise, he or she should deliberate practice forever.

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