THE BRAZEN CAREERIST- Expert-ease: Being one takes time, not talent

I've been walking around with the July/August 2007 issue of the Harvard Business Review for close to three years because it contains an article that I'm attached to, "The Making of an Expert" by Anders Ericsson, Michael Prietula, and Edward Cokely.

Being an expert is not innate. Successful performers "practiced intensively, had studied with devoted teachers, and had been supported enthusiastically by their families throughout their developing years."

You need to work every single day at being great at that one thing if you want to be great. This is true of pitching, painting, parenting, everything. And if you think management in corporate life is an exception, you're wrong. I mean, the article is in the Harvard Business Review for a reason.

It used to be, more than 100 years ago, that you could be a prodigy and come out of nowhere and be great. An example the authors use is Mozart. Yes, he had innate ability, but also, his father was a professional violinist, a skilled composer who wrote the first violin instruction book.

Today, the standard for being an international success at anything is so high that the authors say you need to spend at least 10 years working in a very focused, everyday way on the thing you want to be great at. Evidence: today's high schools swimmers beat Olympic records from years ago.

A lot of being great at something is having the right coaching, and part of the right coaching is someone telling you where you're not gonna make it and where you are.

But the coaching that successful experts get is special. According to the article, usually someone starts with a local coach and then the person moves on to a coach who has achieved huge success himself. And people who practice very hard every day start to have a sense of who can be a coach who is capable of helping them succeed, and who is a coach they have outgrown.

I recall the day I realized that my figure skating coach was an alcoholic. My dad picked me up at the rink. He asked why my skate guards were on. I said I never went skating. I said, "I think Ivar is sick."

My dad said, "Yeah. I've been thinking that for a while."

I said, "I don't think he really can teach me any more."

My dad said, "I've been thinking that for a while."

I remember the heartbreak I felt knowing that I didn't have a teacher. If you are a person who wants to be an expert, the thing you want most is a teacher. I think that's why I carry the magazine with me everywhere I go. To remind me to look. Like my life depends on it.


Penelope Trunk has started several companies and worked for many more.