Experience vs Expertise

Should the people who’ve been in the job the longest be paid the most money?

This is the way many businesses work. Employers pay their staff an annual increment based on their years of employment, even if the role hasn’t changed. Experience, so the saying goes, counts. So, the longer you do the job, the more you should be paid.

But what if experience didn’t count? Or, at least, what if not everyone was making their experience count?

In his book Peak[1], Anders Ericsson highlights research on drivers, teachers and doctors that shows performance can decline with experience. This is what we call the experience versus expertise problem. You can only become an expert with experience, but experience alone does not make you an expert.

Why is this so? How come experience counts for some people but not for others?

The issue is that it’s not the time on the job that counts. It’s how you spend the time.



According to Ericsson, people who build their abilities and become experts spend a great deal of time engaged in either deliberate practice or purposeful practice. I describe these types of practice as Virtuous Practice, because they have the virtue of leading to growth and making future growth possible.

Virtuous Practice extends your abilities. It involves stepping outside your comfort zone. It’s highly focused and is guided by specific performance measures. Importantly, Virtuous Practice is characterised by mistakes that guide future learning.



People who fail to develop expertise with time tend to engage in Naive Practice – so called because we naively believe it will lead to growth, but it doesn’t.

Naive Practice often involves repetition and rehearsal, performing tasks that have already been mastered. It can involve working hard, but in an unfocused and undirected way. This sort of practice is, at best, inefficient. At worst, it’s ineffective at creating growth and fails to lead to expertise.

This raises the interesting idea that –  from the perspective of your future self – you are under-performing. If you’re capable of a much higher level of performance, why aren’t you operating at that level now? And, more importantly, how do you achieve that higher level of performance? What’s your true potential?

The reason why you can’t simply start performing at your future self’s level now is because you don’t have the brain for it. Your current brain isn’t wired the same way as your future brain. This means those future abilities are beyond your current potential.

Virtuous Practice works through your brain’s plasticity. It causes your brain to rewire in new ways, which in turn creates new abilities. To do this effectively, Ericsson says we must engage in the 3 Fs of Virtuous Practice:

  1. Focus

Simply working hard doesn’t cut it. You need to focus on improving on small, specific skills. This allows you to target specific parts of your brain for rewiring and to create effective change. Taking a directed, purposeful approach is key.

  1. Feedback

You won’t get it right at first, but with every attempt, you’ll get closer to creating change. Getting specific feedback about what went right and what needs to be corrected are vital to the process. Ideally, this feedback comes from an expert, someone who’s done it before and knows exactly what steps will lead you to growth. If there’s no expert available, then there must be a clear set of standards about what you aim to achieve.

  1. Fix it

Armed with feedback and a focus on what you need to change, you must go back and modify your actions to get it right. This means re-entering the process of focus, feedback and fix it again and again. It’s important to do this until the process results in new connections in the brain. Only then will new abilities be formed.

Keep in mind that learning through Virtuous Practice isn’t a way of reaching your potential; it’s a way of developing it. We create our own potential. We are limited only by our opportunities to engage in Virtuous Practice.



Practice and rewiring your brain take time. There are no short cuts. That’s why you can only achieve expertise with experience. Expertise takes experience – but it must be the right sort of experience.


[1]Ericsson, K.A. & Pool, R. (2016) Peak: Secrets from the new science of expertise. Bodley Head, UK



James Anderson is a speaker, author and educator who is passionate about helping fellow educators develop students as better learners. James’ work combines Growth Mindset with Habits of Mind and Practice to create Learning Agility. He puts the growth back into Growth Mindset. And through creating and describing the Mindset Continuum, he provides the cornerstone for effective Growth Mindset interventions.

James is a Certified Speaking Professional and speaks regularly at conferences around the world. He has published several books including Succeeding with Habits of Mind, The Agile Learner, The Mindset Continuum and The Learning Landscape.

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