One of the major themes of Nat Chat has been how people developed their skills on their own, whether explicitly by studying the methods of learning, or indirectly through practice. I’ve been trying to find a more rigorous way to define different skill levels and how to move between them, and I think I’ve found it.
I read “Pragmatic Thinking and Learning: Refactor Your Wetware,” a book for developers on how to improve their learning process, and in it, Andy Hunt (the author) references a model for skill development called “The Dreyfus Model” created by Stuart and Hubert Dreyfus at UC Berkeley in 1980.
That first version of the model was later revised by Stuart Dreyfus in a paper in the Bulletin of Science, Technology, and Society where he broke skill level down into five categories:
I’m going to first explain what defines these categories, then show you how you can use that knowledge to assess your own abilities and progress towards expertise by taking advantage of the differences in cognition at each skill level.
You’ll find that this is more useful than abstract ideas like the (misinterpreted) 10,000-hour rule, and lets you progress well beyond basic skill hacking as described in The First 20 Hours, The 4-Hour Chef, and other books which can’t get you past the Advanced Beginner stage.
First, the five levels of expertise.
This is one part of a 7-part masterclass on teaching yourself anything. If you want the other 6 parts, you can get them for free here.
The novice stage is the first level of skill acquisition, where you are just getting started in the skill and have little familiarity with it.
The defining element of the novice is a reliance on recipes. Novices need clear instructions on how to do something in order to do it. They don’t have an intuitive understanding of the skill, so they need someone else’s recipes to follow in order to complete any task within the skill.
Some examples of that might include:
Following coding guides on Codecademy or Learn Python the Hard WayUsing a pre-packaged marketing guide for launching a businessKnowing the rules and score of chess, but no strategiesFollowing composition templates for taking good photosShifting a manual transmission based on rules (e.g. 2nd when speedometer hits 10).
A student graduating from college who only ever focused on their grades and extracurriculars might be a novice, but might not even be at that stage. This is part of why college can be so worthless for teaching skills: it doesn’t provide recipes and practice that let you truly develop skills.
The Dreyfus brothers break each level down by four criteria which help us to understand each level better. For the novice, here’s how they rank:
Novices have no context for why they’re doing anything. You can tell them to add more sugar or salt to a recipe, but they don’t know what that is going to do or why that’s the right decision in the situation. You can tell them to move their bishop into enemy territory, but they won’t know why that’s a good idea. You can tell them to use shorter headlines to rank higher in Google, but… you get the idea.
Novices also don’t know what variables in the skill are worth focusing on and which ones aren’t. They want to look at everything at once. They can easily get overwhelmed by too much information, which causes them to freak out and get exasperated and wonder how anyone can possibly be good at what they’re doing.
The novice driver tries to look at every gauge and road variable, the novice marketer tries to track every metric, the novice cook keeps checking the food every few seconds.
Since the novice doesn’t have an intuitive sense for the skill, their decision making is analytical. They look at the data they have, plug it into the recipe, and go with whatever the recipe spits out. The oven hits 10 minutes and they flip over the steak. The car hits 10mph and they shift to 2nd gear. They get their fifth set of 5 reps and they add 5 pounds.
Since the novice is only following a recipe, they’re completely detached from the process. They don’t have an emotional or intuitive investment in the goal setting, deciding what to do, or the outcome. When something goes wrong they will blame the process, when something goes right they will say it’s a good process. They have no personal involvement in what’s happening.
The challenge with being at the novice level should be obvious. When you can only follow recipes, you get derailed very, very easily. Your reaction to errors is to blame the recipe, and without a good system for troubleshooting on your own, you can get stuck.
But as the novice gets more experience following recipes and gaining more and more context of the skill, eventually they can start to move to the “Advanced Beginner” stage.
The novice becomes an advanced beginner when they can start to troubleshoot their problems and work on their own. You’re still primarily using recipes, but you have more contextual awareness of when to use which recipes.
The defining characteristic of the Advanced Beginner is recognizing “aspects” of a situation. You can see what’s different about one situation and move through the layers of abstraction and use that information to apply different recipes and guidelines to solve the problem.
You don’t have a full “big picture” view of the skill yet, but you’re starting to develop more context and are not completely lost when something goes wrong. Instead of blaming the recipe when you hit an error, you know to look for another recipe.
Finally, you start to be able to use less rigorous “maxims” instead of recipes. A novice won’t understand “shift up when the engine sounds like it’s racing,” but an advanced beginner will.
Some examples might include:
Building a web app but relying heavily on Stack Overflow to figure out new things / troubleshoot.Recognizing when you’re “overextended” in chess and what to do about it.Learning to shift up in gear when “the engine sounds like it’s racing.”Reading a few different marketing guides to cobble together a strategy more relevant to your situation.Looking at a scene and being able to identify what photographic composition styles might be appropriate.
For the four criteria, the only one that has changed is Context.
While the Novice has no context of what recipes to use when the Advanced Beginner has a better idea of what recipes are relevant and can start to use maxims in their decision making. They can combine situational information (the sound of an engine, the road conditions) with non-situational information (the speedometer) to figure out what to do.
This is only possible after a certain amount of exposure to the skill. A Novice won’t know what an engine should sound like, but after a while following the recipes, they can learn to identify these situational cues.
While the Advanced Beginner can start to understand the context of the situation and make decisions based off of it, they still aren’t sure what information is relevant and don’t know how to filter their inputs. They can easily get overwhelmed by everything they feel they have to keep track of (especially as they absorb more recipes and maxims), and so they can feel like they’re never going to master it.
But eventually, with more exposure to the skill and more practice, the Advanced Beginner can start to understand what information is important and what isn’t and move to the Competent stage.
As you progress through the Advanced Beginner stage, you add more and more recipes and maxims to your experience with the skill that help you perform better and better. Eventually, you hit the point where it’s completely overwhelming and you have to develop rules about what recipes to apply when.
The development of these rules is the key characteristic of the Competent. You have a better sense of what is relevant and what isn’t, and you can draw on a wide collection of recipes based on those situational rules.
These rules might sound like:
“Focus primarily on shutter speed when it’s a fast moving subject.”“The unbalanced pawn structure in this game is important because [other variables].”“To slow down off the highway, focus on speed, not changing gears.”“For this kind of article, I should apply SEO maxims like X, Y, Z”
The second characteristic of the Competent is that since you’re picking your rules and using those rules to apply different recipes, you become emotionally involved in the outcome.
While the Novice and Advanced Beginner are largely detached from the outcomes, the Competent can experience joy at making the right choice of recipes and remorse at choosing the wrong one. The locus of blame shifts from the recipe to yourself, since you are now involved in choosing what to do.
That characterizes the two main shifts required to become competent:
You’re starting to recognize what recipes and maxims apply in different situations and so you choose which ones to apply based on the context. You can look at a situation and decide which recipes to apply, instead of trying to apply them willy-nilly or based on someone else’s recommendation.
You still aren’t personally engaged in the deciding what your goal is or how to do it since you’re following rules, but you are engaged in the outcome since you decided which recipes to apply to the situation. This is great when you get it right, but frustrating when you get it wrong.
Since you’re making decisions about what rules to apply and you’re emotionally involved in the outcomes, you can easily burn yourself out and exhaust your interest in the skill by getting things wrong.
The key here is to not beat yourself up when things go wrong, but rather to use it as data. If you beat yourself up for wrong decisions then you will burn out and quit, but if you can use it as data to improve your decision-making process, then you will start to move towards proficiency.
As you react emotionally to your decisions at the level of Competence, your positive and negative responses to decisions will reinforce the correct ones and discourage the incorrect ones and you will develop an increasingly intuitive sense of what recipes and maxims to apply to the situation.
The defining characteristic of the Proficient is an intuitive sense of what the goal should be given the situation. While the Competent has to create or find rules for what to do in a situation, the Proficient has an intuitive sense of what the goal should be, but not necessarily exactly how to do it.
They can feel in the seat of their pants that they are going too fast, but have to decide how best to slow down.They can recognize a vast repertoire of chess positions but have to decide what to do in them.They can tell that an article should be optimized for SEO, Social, or Referrals, but have to decide how best to do it.They can tell that a subject demands a focus on Aperture, but have to decide how best to optimize it.They can understand what someone is saying in a foreign language but must decide the best response.
There are two main shifts of the four criteria when you go from Competent to Proficient:
Whereas the Competent performer chooses what criteria to focus on and what recipes and maxims to use based on that, the Proficient performer knows what criteria to focus on. They’re absorbed enough in the skill to be able to intuit what data are important, and what aren’t.
The second shift comes in moving from merely being involved in the outcome to being involved in the goal setting as well. Just as the Competent practitioner will have an emotional investment in a good outcome, the Proficient practitioner will have an emotional investment in a good outcome and good selection of goals.
Since you’re intuiting what your goal is, you’re more invested in whether or not that was the right goal. It affects you more personally when it appears that you chose the right or wrong thing to focus on. You can’t blame the rules or maxims anymore since it was your own intuition that led to selecting that goal.
There’s only one last piece now to reach Expertise. Not just intuitively knowing and being invested in what your goal should be, but also in what you should do about it.
The Expert operates entirely by intuition. He or she knows what their goal should be, what to do about it, and what should happen as a result. They’re emotionally involved and invested in the whole process, and since they’re running on intuition, they might have a hard time explaining why they do things to non-experts.
The expert driver can feel they’re going too fast and knows how much to brake in response.The expert chess player can recognize 100,000+ positions and make the best move in response without more than a few seconds of thought.The expert photographer knows how to position subjects and adjust camera variables without articulating why those are the best decisions.The expert language learner can speak fluidly as if a native, they don’t need to think in their native language at all.
At this point, they’ve reached the final stage in each of the four criteria of expertise:
They know what’s important and what isn’t, and can identify all the relevant pieces of the skill whether those are universal variables (car speed, piece value) or situational ones (road conditions, king position).
The expert knows what’s important and what isn’t and what they should focus on entirely intuitively. They don’t need to choose what to focus on and don’t need rules for it, they just know what’s important for setting their goals and devising a method.
Whereas the first four levels of expertise still relied on analytical decision making by consciously deciding what the best course of action is, the expert intuitively knows what they should do and does it. They don’t need to explain the reasons, they can recognize it as they can recognize the face of a friend.
Because the whole process is intuitive, the expert is emotionally invested in the outcomes of each part of the process. They emotionally feel the rightness or wrongness of their intuitions at the goal, action, and result stages, and can use that feedback to improve their intuitive decision making.
This can also be summarized in a nice chart, based on the one provided in the paper:
Now that we have a complete understanding of the model, it’s easier to assess our own skill level based on the defining characteristics of each threshold.
One thing to remember is that people are not evenly distributed throughout the skill levels. Though there isn’t any perfect scientific distribution that we can cite, Hunt emphasizes that most people are advanced beginners, following a distribution roughly like this:
Before you assume that you’re an expert, remember that you’re probably an advanced beginner. Hunt points out that many programmers and other knowledge workers never advance past the Advanced Beginner stage primarily because they never accept emotional consequences for their decisions. If you don’t look first inside yourself to assess your intuition around goals and actions, and instead choose to look for more recipes, you are not proficient or an expert.
To put it in an easy flow chart:
What I’d recommend, again, is that even if you think you’re proficient or an expert, assume you’re an advanced beginner. This keeps with the concept of Shoshin or “Beginner’s Mind.” If you assume you’re an expert then learning stops, and it’s better to assume you’re more of a novice and that there’s more to learn than to assume you already know everything.
Now, that said, here is how you would move up from one stage to the next.
Based on the model as we’ve outlined it so far, we can create a guided method of learning to help us more towards expertise.
It’s worth saying first, though, that ultimately it all boils down to deliberate practice as described by Anders Ericsson in Peak. If you’re unfamiliar with the concept, most of the idea of deliberate practice can be boiled down to:
Deliberate practice requires a teacher or method of feedback that can provide practice activities designed to help a student improve his or her performance.Practice must be done near maximal effort where you’re constantly being taken out of your comfort zone. It shouldn’t be light or “fun.”The practice must be well defined with specific goals and not aimed at “overall improvement.”You must give the practice your full attention. No autopilot.You need feedback and constant little improvements, modifying efforts in response to feedback.You must be focusing on building and improving specific skills by focusing on aspects of those skills and improving them.
But by understanding the Dreyfus model, we can focus on which parts of the skill to apply our deliberate practice towards.
At this stage focus on collecting recipes. You should be reading books, blogs, listening to speeches, taking classes, whatever will give you a large repertoire of recipes as fast as possible. But you can’t just read them, you have to apply them. Try following along with them, doing whatever is being talked about, and not just reading.
If you only read or hear about the recipes but don’t do them yourself it is impossible to move beyond novice. The next stage requires a contextual understanding of different situations and the only way you develop that context is through practice.
To become a novice and get started in a skill, focus on collecting recipes.
Now that you’ve collected a large database of recipes and started applying them, you should begin to develop some contextual understanding of when to use which recipes. Start looking for more maxims and applying them to your practice, and seeing if they make sense to you. Try breaking away from the clear recipes you have, trying to change things in them, and seeing what happens. Make your own versions of the recipes by piecing together different recipes and looking up help as you need it.
The only way you graduate from novice is by breaking away from fixed recipes. You need to try improvising, combining recipes, and letting yourself make mistakes. More importantly, when something goes wrong, start looking for how to solve it without blaming the recipe. You won’t have the personal involvement yet, but you can start learning to troubleshoot by combining different sources of knowledge instead of relying on singular recipes.
To become an Advanced Beginner, break away from fixed recipes and start combining them with maxims into new projects.
At this point you should have a large repertoire of recipes and maxims that you can apply, but not a lot of clarity around what is important in deciding which ones to use. You might get overwhelmed by decisions easily, and as a result, revert to simply following a recipe and hoping you get lucky.
Now you need to start trying to figure out what data and information is important and what isn’t. This can be hard to do on your own, which is why the Advanced Beginner to Competent stage is benefited greatly by a mentor who can provide rules and guidelines on what information to focus on. Without a mentor, you’ll need to find guidelines and rules online or in books to help you, or through trial and error, develop them on your own.
One method for doing this might be to deliberately restrict yourself in a situation to not using all of your available recipes. Maybe you force yourself to write without any adjectives, or draw using only pencil, or play with only your pawns and king. By deliberately limiting what data you can focus on, you’ll develop a more intuitive understanding of what is and isn’t relevant in novel situations.
With this deliberate limiting should come more joy and despair when you succeed or fail. You’re no longer following clearly defined recipes, you’re improvising more, and that means you need to accept the emotional stress of doing so. Don’t resist this emotional burden. If you revert to blaming recipes or teachers for your failures, you will never develop the intuitive understanding of what to do and what not to do that’s necessary for competence, proficiency, and expertise.
To become Competent, deliberately limit what information you can consider in order to develop a more intuitive understanding of what is and isn’t important.
At this point you’re emotionally invested in the outcomes and you’re starting to develop an understanding of what inputs are important, but you haven’t completely internalized what data you need to focus on. There’s still a choice being made about what to focus on, it’s not intuitive.
This is where tactics start to get hazy. It’s difficult to practice making something intuitive, so you need to keep employing deliberate practice around what to focus on and set as your goal and assess the outcomes in order to reach proficiency. As you get better at picking what data and goals to focus on, you will slowly develop a more intuitive understanding of which decisions will do well and which ones won’t and you’ll move from competent to proficient.
It will be an emergent shift. You won’t be able to do it as deliberately as you did the last three, rather, you’ll wake up one day and realize you know what to focus on. You’ll look at a chess board and know what your goal should be. You’ll look at a setting and know what variables to focus on with your photo. You’ll look at a site and know which marketing tactics will work well for it.
To become Proficient, keep practicing and collecting more experience until your chosen perspective becomes intuitive. Until you have a sense of what to focus on and what goals to set instead of having to choose it deliberately.
Finally, to reach expertise, you need to not only intuit what to focus on but also how to do it. Everything must feel completely intuitive like recognizing the faces of your family or navigating the streets around where you grew up. In most cases, you won’t be able to explain what you’re doing to non-experts. You’re going by feel and subconscious reason instead of conscious deciding and choosing.
To reach this stage, it again comes back to deliberate practice. You must keep experimenting and practicing and limiting yourself in order to see how different goals you intuitively set lead to different outcomes until you can intuitively set the process as well.
Practice following your instincts and seeing where they lead, and allow yourself to feel good or bad about the outcomes in order to learn the most from the experience. You have to let yourself be emotionally involved in the whole process in order to develop expertise.
The move from proficient to expert will take the longest, so be patient with it. Keep practicing, keep experimenting, and with time, you’ll develop the intuition you need.
Now that you understand the five levels of expertise, what defines them, and how to move up in them, you can develop a clear roadmap for improving any skill you want to become an expert at.
Assess your skill level using the criteria and flow chart provided.Figure out what you need to do to reach the next level: get more recipes? Limit your inputs? Practice improvising? Consult the relevant section.Keep employing deliberate practice to move from Competent to Proficient to Expert. Don’t get stuck at Advanced Beginner as most people do, keep challenging yourself and letting yourself be emotionally invested in the outcomes to keep progressing.
Best of luck, and don’t forget to enjoy the process.