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How to Master Any Subject and become an Expert Genius in Anything: be able to persist is more than ability

Updated on July 26, 2011


You can learn to master ANY subject you wish. It will not be overnight, or in a week, or in a month, but, with sufficient time and determination, you can indeed master any subject, or if you are willing, teach your child to do the same.

The key is... practice, so you literally rewire the brain through education.

In 1909, chess grandmaster Jose Raul Capablanca of Cuba, who was on a chess tour, won 168 games in a row, and spent only 2-3 seconds at EACH board. He glanced, and voila, makes a move, and his opponents are there still considering the response. When asked how many moves he sees ahead, his answer was said to be "I see only one move ahead, but it is always the correct one."

This knowledge-guided perception, sometimes called apperception, is what us "normals" consider to be experts and master, and it is possible to gain apperception through a LOT of practice.

Chess pieces on a chess board
Chess pieces on a chess board | Source

How about a nice game of chess?

Chess is one of the most reliable measure of skill as it uses statistical formulas and records. This gives researches a lot of data to mine. By interviewing grandmasters, and even taking MRIs of their brains as they play, researchers have discovered that grandmasters do NOT analyze the board they see. They have ALREADY seen it before, or at least a certain section / region of the board, and they ALREADY know the proper response to the move.

How did the scientists learn that? They asked three groups of people: masters, experts (class just below masters), and amateurs, to look at a chessboard, and try to memorize as much of it as possible in 10 seconds. Half of each group was given a chessboard with a real famous game, and the other half was given a board with the pieces randomly removed and shuffled.

The masters and experts did better on the random boards than the amateurs, but not that much better. None of the three groups got more than 15% right on the random board.

However, on the board with the REAL game on it, the amateurs got 20%... experts got 50%... and masters got 80%.

The masters scored better because they had seen the game before, many times, and the experts may have seen it once of twice. Amateurs... never.

When a master sees a chessboard, he doesn't see individual pieces. He sees patterns, and recognize the pattern from the structured knowledge in his head, and the associated response. 

This sort of knowledge accumulation and recall has been studied in bridge players (ability to remember moves of many previous games), computer programmers (ability to remember code chunks), musicians (ability to remember music snippets), and other subjects that require a lot of knowledge and recall.

These experts literally rewired their brains through learning.  

Tiger Woods, NOT a child prodigy, but a carefully cultivated golf expert
Tiger Woods, NOT a child prodigy, but a carefully cultivated golf expert | Source

There is no prodigy, only early-starter

Some may wonder, is there such a thing as child prodigy? That they display some natural talent at a very young age? The answer is no. They basically happen to luck into a family where they were initiated early, VERY early, and was encouraged to go on.

Let us take Tiger Woods for example. When do you think he touched his first golf club? About age of 1. No, that was not a joke. At age 2, he was on the Mike Douglas Show putting against Bob Hope. He had been in golf ever since, winning every sort of championship for his age category, over and over. His father Earl introduced him early on.

How about Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart? He started playing the clavier when he was four, but became interested in music when he was 3 watching his sister play. His father was a minor composer for the court. Mozart learned music at 4, and started composing when he was 5.

The point is clear: expertise is learned, not born. In fact, an educator in Hungary, Laszlo Polgar, decided to do an experiment on his own children. He has three daughters, and he home-schooled them in chess. He started encouraging all three daughters to learn chess, play chess, and become VERY good in chess, taking them to tournaments and such. The result is one international master and two grandmasters... the strongest chess-playing siblings in history.

Bill Gates, may be lucky, but you need talent and skills to take advantage of any luck available
Bill Gates, may be lucky, but you need talent and skills to take advantage of any luck available | Source

Even the Success Stories are NOT what you think

Some times, the success stories you hear do NOT tell you the whole truth.

Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft, is a very bright person who happens to be VERY VERY rich having started Microsoft early and earned bazillion dollars. Some of the stories told about him and the company made him appear to be without talent and only succeeded because he was at the right place at the right time, and the first choice for the OS was out on vacation.

What the story does NOT tell you is that Bill Gates is a prodigy in computers. He practically lived with computers starting in HIGH SCHOOL (when most colleges don't even have one). Before he entered college he already amassed over 10000 hours of programming experience. He was indeed at the right place at the right time, but he also had the talent and skills to take maximum advantage of the situation.

Another story... Who knows the Beatles? How did they succeed? They must have started SOMEWHERE, right? The answer is... They were recruited to perform in Hamburg, Germany, and performed there for LONG periods, non-stop for hours and hours, for days on end. For a period of 18 months, they spend about half in Hamburg in 3 spurts, doing club performances. This is where they honed their skills doing a wide variety of cover songs, to engage the audience (most of whom are German and don't speak much English, or even like English songs), and became the band that became the legend. They did well over 10000 hours of performances before they became famous.

(for full story on this era, read the Wikipedia entry)

Plateau shaped function: you need extra effort to get back onto the up-slope
Plateau shaped function: you need extra effort to get back onto the up-slope | Source

Avoiding the Plateau Effect

Merely experience is not enough, the scientists warned. It must be "effortful study", which means continually tackling challenges that lie just beyond one's competence.

Most amateurs can spend hours, days, weeks, months, even years doing the activities, but always stay within one's comfort level, thus making no progress whatsoever. At the beginning, they have an incentive to keep up, but once they reached that plateau, they decided that's enough, and there is no more incentive to surpass.

The experts-in-training, on the other hand, constantly challenge oneself by facing tougher and nastier competition, setting the bar higher and higher, and constantly inspect, criticize, and augment their knowledge structure on their way to expert-dom.

By tackling challenges that are just beyond one's reach, yet appear to be almost within reach to have a chance of accomplishment, one learn how to grow and how to overcome one's limitations.

Playing a piano requires a LOT of muscle memory to be really good
Playing a piano requires a LOT of muscle memory to be really good | Source

How do experts train and recall (and how you can too)

Expertise theorists (the scientists who study how people become experts in a certain area) agree that it takes enormous effort to create the structure of knowledge that makes that person an expert. However, with the proliferation of computers and Internet, any one now has access to master level knowledge, and thus higher challenges than ever.

Chess players are no exception. In 1958, long before the Internet, Bobby Fischer got grandmaster title at age 15. Today, the youngest chess grandmaster is 12 and a half years old. With home computer chess programs able to play a very tough game, and ability to play chess games via Internet, it is easier than ever to find challenges that will help one to build that structured knowledge, leading one closer to expert-dom.

Even physical skills can be learned through repetition. It is sometimes called Muscle Memory. It is basically a set of muscle movements practiced and can be called upon immediately without mental coordination. Golf and other physical sports needs a lot of muscle memory, and you do that by physical exercise as well as physical challenges. How did you think Tiger Woods got to be so good? Practice and competition! 

In other words, if you want to master something, do that a lot, and do it in competition, against people who are better than you, so you'll get better. If there are no local competition, look for online competitions, online clubs, and so on. You need people who are better than you to help you become better.

As you become better, do NOT become complacent. Find even BETTER people to compete against. It is the only way to keep growing.


There is little doubt that experts are made, not born. With the educational system set to minimal competence (i.e. "No child left behind") due to political and budget restraints, it is clear that "effortful study" is not a priority in our schools. 

What will you teach yourself, or your children? What do you wish to be expert in? 


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    • kschang profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from San Francisco, CA, USA

      Do more medicine, of course. Young doctors are often sent to ER as assistants or follow doctors on their rounds to soak up the experience.

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      M doing medicine ... how shouldi master it??

    • kschang profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from San Francisco, CA, USA

      @Den -- you go into college, get an economics degree, then graduate degree in economics, and soon you'll have 10 years of experience doing all that. :)

      The question there is one of reputation, and that's a different issue altogether. In the individual skills like golf, chess, etc. such success is easily measured. When it comes to more abstract theory like economics, measurement of mastery is far murkier.

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      But how do you master economics? Just keep reading books? What can you compete against in academics?

    • hatimyal profile image


      9 years ago from India

      nice article.

      I mean it was really useful. chess is one of the game i like and only because of the strategies you plot in it.

      nice article.

    • Alma Cabase profile image

      Alma Cabase 

      9 years ago from Philippines

      True..I love chess but all i see when I play are chess pieces which makes me an amateur..Y.Y

    • Tracy Lynn Conway profile image

      Tracy Lynn Conway 

      9 years ago from Virginia, USA

      Kschang, Wow! This is such a great hub and the concepts are so well explained! I have observed that many youngest boy siblings excel in sports since as children they were always striving to keep up with their older brothers. This forced them to always be challenged. I will share this on twitter.

      Voted up and awesome!


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