Peak: Secrets From The New Science of Expertise

Peak: Secrets From The New Science of Expertise is one of those popular science books that’s simultaneously worth reading and what feels like an over-simplification. Written by Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool it focuses on explaining how the main “gift” that top performers have is one we all posses: the adaptability of the human brain and body.

They contend that what separates us is not any innate ability. Instead it’s the amount and intention of practice we put toward a task. We often start out learning a skill with what they term “naive practice.” This is basically no more sophisticated than the occasional lesson and pure repetition. When we rely on this we’ll reach some level of competence, but it’s basic and our skills will relatively quickly plateau and then degrade.

One step better is purposeful practice. This is practice that

  • Has well-defined and specific goals. You want to take some general goal for improvement and create something you can work on with a realistic expectation of improvement.
  • Is focused. You will rarely be able to improve without giving the task your full attention.
  • Involves feedback, which you need to be able to identify where and how you’re falling short.
  • Pushes you to get outside of your comfort zone.

By relying upon that type of practice we can make much more sustained and significant improvement. In all this approach pushes our bodies and brains to adapt. If we can push them hard enough for long enough they respond by making that push easier to achieve. But the trade off is that to keep the adaptation happening we have to keep raising the intensity, otherwise things will level off and remain static.

The key to improved mental performance of almost any sort is the development of mental structures that make it possible to avoid the limitations of short-term memory and deal effectively with large amounts of information at once.

Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool

These mental structures are one way to distinguish purposeful practice from deliberate practice (what the authors term the gold standard of training). Much of deliberate practice involves the building, refining, and quickening of these mental representations. We hold these in long-term memory and the patterns they encode allow us to respond to situations more quickly and effectively. They make it easier to process large sets of information and it’s that processing that often separates “good enough” performance from true world class achievement.

This type of deliberate practice builds upon the traits of purposeful practice. The authors note that there are some common traits among the fields in which deliberate practice most appears. In short:

  • They have objective, or at least semi-objective, ways to measure performance.
  • They are competitive enough to offer a strong incentive to practice and improve.
  • They are generally well-established with the relevant skills having developed over centuries or, at least, decades.
  • They have a subset of performers who serve as teachers or coaches and who have developed increasingly sophisticated training methods.

As far as what distinguishes deliberate practice itself, it really boils down to a handful of core elements. It’s something which:

  • Develops skills that other people have already figured out how to do and for which there are established training techniques. Often the most effective way to learn these is through interaction education and not through didactic lectures.
  • Takes place outside of one’s comfort zone and requires trying things just outside of one’s current abilities.
  • Involves well-defined, specific goals and is not aimed at some general improvement.
  • Requires a person’s full attention and conscious actions. If your mind wanders you should stop as 100% for less time is better.
  • Involves feedback and modification of efforts in response to that feedback. The faster this loop is the more effective it is at teaching.
  • Produces and depends upon mental representations.
  • Focuses on step-by-step improvement and skill acquisition.

One way to go about learning some of these things is to identify the top performers in an area and then learn what distinguishes them. From there you can develop a training program to practice that particular skill. One of the best places to start is by finding what a particular top performer does differently from others in their field.

They close the book by addressing the question of natural talent. They’ve found that any innate characteristics play a much smaller role than people generally assume. While there are occasionally large gaps in performance among beginners this lessens over time. The more you zoom out the more you find that:

In the long run it is the ones who practice more who prevail, not the ones who had some initial advantage in intelligence or some other talent.

Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool