Even the novice engages in effortful study at first, which is why beginners so often improve rapidly in playing golf, say, or in driving a car. But having reached an acceptable performance--for instance, keeping up with one's golf buddies or passing a driver's exam--most people relax. Their performance then becomes automatic and therefore impervious to further improvement. In contrast, experts-in-training keep the lid of their mind's box open all the time, so that they can inspect, criticize and augment its contents and thereby approach the standard set by leaders in their fields.
Meanwhile the standards denoting expertise grow ever more challenging. High school runners manage the four-minute mile; conservatory students play pieces once attempted only by virtuosi. Yet it is chess, again, that offers the most convincing comparison over time. John Nunn, a British mathematician who is also a grandmaster, recently used a computer to help him compare the errors committed in all the games in two international tournaments, one held in 1911, the other in 1993. The modern players played far more accurately. Nunn then examined all the games of one player in 1911 who scored in the middle of the pack and concluded that his rating today would be no better than 2100, hundreds of points below the grandmaster level--"and that was on a good day and with a following wind." The very best old-time masters were considerably stronger but still well below the level of today's leaders.
This article was originally published with the title The Expert Mind.