How People Get Good at Their Jobs
By Bryan Caplan
From The Case Against Education:
How People Get Good At
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.” 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.
Attaining world-class expertise in chess, music, math,
tennis, swimming, and long-distance running requires roughly ten years of
deliberate practice. Even champions only deliberately practice for
two or three hours a day, so ten years roughly equals ten thousand hours. Malcolm Gladwell famously dubbed this the “Ten
Thousand Hour Rule.” 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. What really counts, of course, is not the
mere passage of time, but the amount of practice.
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. 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.
 Ericsson, 2008.
“Deliberate Practice and Acquisition of Expert Performance,” Academic Emergency Medicine, p.991.
 Ericsson, Prietula, and Cokely, 2007. “The Making of an Expert,” Harvard Business Review, p.3
 Ericsson et al. 1993, p.366.
 Ericsson et al. 1993, p.391-2.
 Gladwell, 2008. Outliers.
 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.
 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.
 See Ericsson, 2012.
“Training History, Deliberate Practise and Elite Sports Performance.”