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Virtuoso Performance

It’s been said that a wise man knows when to make the exception to every rule. Danu considers what we miss out on when we take rules and rationality too seriously, and examines why for some people, bending the rules seems so effortless.

Virtuoso Performance

Here are three short video clips. Each shows someone practising a capability with incredible high-level skill. These practitioners all display breathtaking ability that we recognise is far beyond mere competence or proficiency — it is instant, effortless expertise.


Wayne Rooney | Football


Damien Walters | Parkour


Mnozil Brass | Brass Ensemble

What kind of knowledge is it that these practitioners possess? More interestingly, how does one acquire it?

Keep those questions in mind, we’ll return to them in a moment.

Let’s consider an important skill — cardiopulmonary resuscitation, or CPR. The ability to practise this skill effectively can and frequently does mean the difference between life and death. Additionally, CPR is not a skill we are born with, it’s something we have to learn, so it’s especially important that we get it right.

Some years ago in the US, six paramedics were involved in a research study. Only one of the six was an experienced paramedic — the other five were trainees just starting out. Each of the six paramedics was recorded performing CPR on a victim of acute heart failure. The videos were then shown to a series of test subjects, some of whom were experienced paramedics, some who were trainees and some who were instructors in CPR.1

we are not simply watching someone solving problems and making decisions really fast — they’re just doing it.

The test subjects were asked: “Who of the six persons shown in the films would you choose to resuscitate you if you were the victim of such an accident?”

Among the experienced paramedics, 90% chose the experienced practitioner. Among the students, only half did. This much should not be surprising. But among the life-saving instructors, only 30% chose the experienced paramedic.2 Why?

Here we return to one of our original questions. What kind of knowledge does the experienced paramedic possess that is readily identified by similarly experienced practitioners, but not by those who are instructors in that practice?

The answer, it seems, lies in how we acquire knowledge. Hubert and Stuart Dreyfus characterise this process of learning as a series of levels, each of which involves different ways of understanding and carrying out the skill.3 The levels of the Dreyfus Model are:

  1. Novice
  2. Advanced beginner
  3. Competent performer
  4. Proficient performer
  5. Expert

Advanced beginners are qualitatively better at performing the skill than novices, competent performers are qualitatively better than advanced beginners, and so on. Depending on the type of skill, there may be very few people who ever reach expert level (such as the performers in the videos we saw earlier), while other sorts of skills (e.g. cooking, driving) may comfortably accommodate large numbers of experts.4

So what is the difference between the levels?

According to the Dreyfus Model, novices start out by learning the objective facts of the skill — the kind of context-independent rules that define what facts are relevant and what actions are required by certain circumstances. ‘Stop at a red light’, ‘give way on a roundabout’, ‘change gears at x speed’. Novices can learn these rules without any direct experience in practising the skill. When they are put in a real-life situation for the first time, they learn to identify the relevant fact — ‘here is a red light‘ — and perform the appropriate action — ‘I will stop’. The novice can evaluate how well they are doing by how accurately they choose and apply the correct rules.

As experience accumulates, the novice learns to recognise certain situations which match their previous encounters. Gradually, they find it no longer necessary to consciously identify certain facts and apply actions each and every time — instead, they become reflexive. Experience has produced a category — red lights — that can be matched situationally. This is how a novice becomes an advanced beginner — no longer do they think ‘here is a red light I will stop at’ — they simply stop at red lights.

Crucially, there are limits to the number of rules that a learner can usefully take on, with a marked decline in effectiveness if rules are added after the limit has been reached.

The ability to start improvising — that is, to pick out which rules are relevant to the situation at hand — characterises the shift from advanced beginner to competent performer. A nursing professor gives an illuminating example of what this involves when describing the difficulty her interns had coping with too many rules:

I give instructions to the new graduate, very detailed and explicit instructions: when you come in and first see the baby, you take the baby’s vital signs and make the physical examination, and you check the I.V. sites, and the ventilator and make sure that it works, and you check the monitors and alarms. When I would say this to them, they would do exactly what I told them to do, no matter what else was going on … They couldn’t choose one to leave out. They couldn’t choose which one was the most important … They couldn’t do for one baby the things that were most important, and leave the things that weren’t important until later on … If I said, you have to do these eight things … they did those things, and they didn’t care if their other kid was screaming its head off. When they did realize, they would be like a mule between two piles of hay.5

This sort of indecision can have drastic consequences, as Barry Schwartz and Kenneth Sharpe relate in a particularly dramatic example concerning firefighters, who for a long time kept to some simple guidelines for survival:

  1. Build a backfire if you have time.
  2. Get to the top of the ridge where the fuel is thinner, where there are stretches of rock and shale, and where winds usually fluctuate.
  3. Turn into the fire and try to work through it by piercing together burned-out stretches.
  4. Do not allow the fire to pick the spot where it hits you, because it will hit you where it is burning fiercest and fastest.6

These guidelines, though far from a complete how-to manual for fighting fires, allowed firefighters to improvise as the situation demanded—a sort of ‘moral jazz’, as Schwartz and Sharpe call it. Over the years, these simple guidelines have morphed into comprehensive procedures with several dozen items or more. Schwartz and Sharpe cite a study which found that the more specific procedures—harder to remember, more difficult to learn by experience—were a factor in the declining survival rates among firefighters.

Becoming a competent performer then involves using some sort of hierarchy that helps determine what is most important in a given situation. This prompts an interesting shift in the locus of responsibility. At the lower levels, a learner is usually operating in fairly controlled conditions, in a sort of ‘sandbox’ mode. If something goes wrong, the consequences are not that great and the error will probably be blamed on the rules not being adequately specified. When improvisation becomes part of the action — something which necessarily involves intuition and judgment — the responsibility becomes much more personal.7 In a sense, more human.

It is this essentially human element to knowledge that the experienced paramedic was using when practising CPR, and that the other experienced paramedics were able to recognise. By contrast, the instructors, who were likely concentrating more on watching for the context-independent rules being applied correctly, missed something important.

It is often assumed, particularly in cognitive models of intelligence, that intelligent behaviour follows a pattern something like this: ‘elements-rules-goals-plans-decisions’.8 Subsequently, this kind of problem-solving approach has been applied to designing artificial intelligence systems. But such systems, for example in robotics, have been conspicuously ineffective at replicating the best human ability, despite these days employing far superior ‘processing’ power than the human brain can manage. It might be said this is because sufficiently complex rules have not yet been properly specified, but this sounds a little too familiar. It may be simply that we are thinking about the problem the wrong way. It may be that the cognitive approach also misses something important.

As learners progress into the upper levels of the Dreyfus Model, their actions are characterised more and more by rapid, intuitive judgment and less by reference to rules. At the expert level, this all happens at once. It is the level of ‘effortless performance’, or virtuosity, that we saw earlier in the videos. It is important to emphasise here that we are not simply watching someone solving problems and making decisions really fast — they are rather, for want of a better term, just doing it.

Dreyfus describes the feeling of knowing the right move to make as taking place ‘in the whole body. In the pit of the stomach.’ When we feel hungry, he continues, ‘you can’t say that your brain thinks it is hungry, you experience your whole body as craving.’9 The virtuoso performer is having ‘the same type of experience.’ This account certainly fits with the experiences reported by expert sportspeople and what we know about the mind as ‘embodied’ thanks to the work done by neuroscientist Antonio Damasio.10

I shall have much more to say about virtuoso knowledge later. But first I would like to ask another question. We saw in the videos some examples of virtuoso sportspeople and musicians, and most of us can easily recollect many other examples. My question is — what does a virtuoso teacher, journalist or politician look like? And where are they?

We can perhaps recollect a few possible candidates here, but not many, I’d venture. Especially few contemporaries. Something here too is missing, it seems. There are forms of human knowledge that we need urgently to comprehend and recover, especially in our shared, public life. The key I think is in what the nursing professor said earlier:

They couldn’t choose one to leave out. They couldn’t choose which one was the most important … They couldn’t do for one baby the things that were most important, and leave the things that weren’t important until later on.

Choosing what’s important is the key to improvising. Our public life, at least in the form of democracy, is little but a constant improvisation in answer to that question. Effortless it ain’t, and perhaps we will never become experts at it. But surely we can do better than a mule stuck between two piles of hay. ◾

Offline References

1 H & S Dreyfus, Mind Over Machine: The Power of Human Intuition and Expertise in the Era of the Computer, 1986, Free Press, New York, p. 200–201 in B Flyvbjerg, Making Social Science Matter, 2001, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, p. 10

2 B Flyvbjerg, Making Social Science Matter, 2001, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, p. 10

3 ibid.

4 ibid.

5 P Benner, From Novice to Expert: Excellence and Power in Clinical Nursing Practice, 1984, Addison-Wesley, California, p. 23–24 in Flyvbjerg, p. 13

6 B Schwartz & K Sharpe, Practical Wisdom, 2010, Penguin Group, New York, p. 41–42

7 Flyvbjerg, p. 13

8 ibid, p. 14

9 ibid, p. 15

10 A Damasio, Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain, 2006, Vintage, London.

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