Experts are made, geniuses are born

This article was first published on Jun 22, 2013 under Dr. Chow’s moniker of “Plantcloner”.

Every parent’s dream is for his/her offsprings to be experts of some measure. This is especially true among Asians and Malaysian parents are of no exception. I know of plenty a “tiger mum” and “lion father”.  The social norm is for parents to push their children to read medicine, dentistry, engineering, pharmacy, law etc. etc. at universities. Often the interest of the young high school graduate is ignored. “Mum / dad knows best” seems to be the favourite answer, when challenged by their respective offsprings.  However, the reality is, not all young learners turn out to be experts in studying and many would disappoint their parents. There is an old Chinese saying, “Háng háng chū zhuàng yuán” which literally means experts / masters / maestros are found  in every profession. It seems that most parents have not registered this.

So what is the key difference between two experts, one a genius and the other an “ordinary” person in any profession or field of work?

I think both the genius and the ordinary person have to learn a lot in their field before they could attain “expert status”. It is just  that the amount of time needed by the ordinary person to learn to be an expert may be a bit longer than the genius.

Malcolm Gladwell in his book, “Outlier” cited research which showed that experts usually require at least 10,000 hours of learning where continuous improvements during this period have to occur for them to attain “expert” status. The 10,000 hours figure is not absolute, but I think 10 – 20% either way is the norm.  There are lots of examples on expertise attained through learning. When I was diagnosed with having 2 large stones in my left kidney in 2013, my trust placed upon  my urologist was not formed by the many testamurs that hang on his clinic’s wall. It was because  he told me that he had done over 1,500 times the procedure which he wanted to perform on me, with only 5% having complications. Let us calculate the hours of working (and learning, as each patient’s case was different) for this urologist. A “normal” procedure takes about 2 hours in the operating theatre. Add in 4 hours of various preoperative and postoperative diagnosis and consultation sessions, thus each case needs about 6 hours of the urologist’s time. 1,500 procedures entail at least 9,000 hours of working and learning by the urologist. I am glad I did this quick calculation and my urologist did a good job on me. Of course the fact that he holds two F.R.C.Ss (Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons) gave me added confidence in his ability. But the two F.R.C.Ss were not included in my calculation!

Let us look at another profession. Your favourite “char koay teow” or fried noodles hawker. If he picks up his trade working as a fried noodles stall’s assistant, how long will he take to be an expert fried noodles hawker? Assuming that he has already picked up the basics in frying noodles and is ready to set up his own stall.  If he works  8 hours per day for 6 days a week, it would have taken him just about 4 years to clock in 10,000 hours to be an expert “char koay teow” hawker. That is assuming that he gets feedback from his clients and keeps on improving. Of course, if he did not learn enough in the first place and his fried noodles taste like rubber bands with seasoning there is no question of him attaining the “expert” status! His business would probably have folded within a short while.

So what about my own experience in attaining my expertise? My master’s and doctoral studies took me 5 years to complete.  At 40 hours a week of laboratory work and studies and 50 working weeks per year, in theory, when I completed my doctoral studies, I had clocked in about 10,000 hours. I should have been an expert in my field as a fresh PhD holder. But I am no genius, in fact it took me another  year, working in a university’s research laboratory as a postdoctoral researcher before I dared to hold my head up a little among experts in my field. Later, when I got a job as a commercial laboratory’s research scientist,  I had to re-learn a lot of my trade in this profit-driven establishment. My biggest culture shock was having to scale up my work from research laboratory to production scale. It was another year of learning before I “graduated” as a commercial scientist. So it took me at least 14,000 hours of learning to be an expert in my field.

Thus geniuses are born, but experts are made. The two are not synonymous. It does not  matter if you are a genius or not, to be an expert, you need to put in a lot of hard work, perseverance and have the attitude to learn and improve and do so continually.

Anyone can be an expert. You need not be a Nobel Prize winner to be one. You just have to be very good at what your are doing and keep on learning and improving. We have experts in every field of work: electricians, air-conditioning technicians, pest-control technicians, auto mechanics, plumbers, writers, teachers, bankers, managers etc. etc. and of course those in the “in” professional fields like doctors, dentists, engineers, lawyers and  scientists.

The only difference between experts in a field and the “so-so” practitioners is the fact that experts have conditioned themselves to continuously learn about developments, new technologies, market demand, regulatory environment etc.. about their  field. Thus Continuous Professional Development (CPD) and lifelong learning (LL) are two inescapable commitments that professional bodies have levied on its members. All self respecting experts of any field that worth their  salt will tell you how much of CPD or LL they have committed to each year.

So the next time a child tells you that when he grows up he wants to be a baker, a plumber, an electrician or a “char koay teow” hawker, do not belittle him or the job. Instead, you should tell him more about the job, the industry, and the work involved in that industry. Plumbers and electricians are some of the richest trade professionals in the West! Remember,  there is an expert in every field and anyone can be an expert.

Footnote: Plantcloner declares that he has never been a “lion dad”, though he exerted a lot of influence on his son, the young learner  has chosen his major for his college studies independently.

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