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Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise

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In 100 Words or Less: Why do some people become exceptional at what they do? Anders Ericsson has studied elite performers from all walks of life and he concludes that the answer to this question isn't talent; rather, it's an approach he calls deliberate practice. Whether you're gunning for the record books or just want to get better at the guitar, Peak will show you how it's done.

Here are my key takeaways:

  • The human brain — even the adult brain — is far more capable of growth than we once gave it credit for. Since the 1990s, the latest in neuroscience continues to reaffirm that with few exceptions, you really can teach an old dog new tricks. Genetics do influence performance in various physical activities — for example in sports where height and body size are relevant — but beyond this, the human brain remains fully capable of learning and even mastering new skills. It literally “rewires” itself in response to intense training.

    The reason that most people don’t possess extraordinary capabilities is not because they lack the capacity, but simply because they have not devoted themselves to the difficult work of breaking out of “good enough”.

  • Practice doesn’t make perfect. Vince Lombardi was famous for observing that “perfect practice makes perfect”, but perfect practice is only half the story.

    How do most of us “learn” something new? We work with a coach, read a book, or watch a video on YouTube. Rinse and repeat.

    For awhile, this works, but eventually you reach a level of competency and at this point, “what got you here won’t get you there.” In other words, merely reiterating your previous approach or repeating what you can already do will produce no further gains in skill; if anything, your skills will deteriorate slightly over time.

  • “Purposeful practice” is the next step. Purposeful practice is driven by sustained effort. It’s composed of specific goals which are broken down into steps; each step just outside of your current comfort zone. It is focused; demanding full attention and not merely “going through the motions”. Finally, and most importantly, it makes use of valuable feedback; you have to be able to determine that you’re doing something right and if not, where you went wrong. Or in other words, that which is measured (either by yourself or with the help of an observer), can be improved.
  • “Deliberate practice” makes perfect. Deliberate practice adds to purposeful practice, differentiating itself as practice which is both purposeful and informed by others who have gone before you. In other words, it looks to established experts; requiring a skilled teacher and building upon effective training techniques which have already been established. Generally, working with a great coach is better than any self-taught approach.

    Ideally, the expertise can be measured in an objective way; for example, research has demonstrated that professional wine tasters or financial advisers are inconsistent and in many cases, no more of an “expert” than a minimally trained layperson.

    In fields you are already familiar with, start with trying to identify the objective measures which differentiate great performers.

  • For the most part, we haven’t actually reached any true “limits” on human performance. I vividly remember watching both Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt in the 2008 and 2012 Summer Olympics. In each of their respective sports, each man set numerous records. They just blew away their competitors, who were themselves world-class athletes. How was this even possible?

    Yet the record books are continuously rewritten. Anders notes that in all of his years of study, he has rarely observed a hard limit on someone’s capabilities; rather, people simply call it quits.

  • Deliberate practice builds better mental representations. Take a series of words; “Tonight should my I to but love instead lawn softball would I mow play”. How many of these could you remember? Basic limits to short-term memory dictate that the average adult would remember six or seven.

    But re-arrange them into something more meaningful — “I would love to play softball tonight but I should mow my lawn instead” — and you could probably recall most of the sentence, if not the entire thing verbatim.

    The second form allows you to make use of a mental representation; something which is not random but has meaning, and meaning always aids memory. To make a diagnosis, doctors must dial in on relevant information and ignore everything else.

    A chessmaster doesn’t see the board as a queen at A5 sitting next to a pawn at B4; they see patterns expressed in the potential interactions between all of the pieces. An elite NFL quarterback reads the defense, inferring where each of his opponents will be three seconds from now based on subtle movements which are invisible to the average fan.

    In general, a key difference between experts and beginners is both the quality and quantity of their mental representations.

  • Mindset matters. It’s worth repeating; you won’t grow until you move past the excuses (I can’t do ____, I’m not good at ____) and genuinely believe you can.
  • The “ten-thousand hour rule” isn’t the whole story. Malcolm Gladwell popularized the 10,000 hour rule in Outliers based on Anders’ research. Anders notes that there is nothing magical about ten thousand hours; the numbers vary by person and field, and performing (Gladwell cites the Beatles playing tours together) is not the same as practice.

    However, Anders agrees that the research makes this very clear; to develop extraordinary skill, you must put in extraordinary hours of practice.

  • Starting young helps, but with very few exceptions, isn’t strictly necessary. The body and brain are simply more adaptable in childhood and adolescence.
  • IQ may help you learn in the beginning, but over time, the advantage becomes irrelevant. In fact, Anders found that elite chess players with lower IQs tended to practice more, giving them a slight advantage in the long run.
  • Deliberate practice can transform jobs and schools. Most teaching or training is designed to dispense knowledge in a lecture format — maybe with a few group exercises or a test thrown in for good measure — rather than develop skills through deliberate practice. It’s no wonder that our children are falling behind or that so many training programs end up a waste of time and money.

    There are challenges to learning in most jobs; lack of understanding of the mental representations that separate elite performers, lack of definition around the skills themselves and of course a lack of feedback. The book provides a number of interesting examples; I’ll summarize one here.

    Early into the Vietnam War, the U.S. Navy was losing roughly one of its own fighter jets for each North Vietnamese MiG it shot down. In response, they formed the now famous Top Gun school, in which they engaged in “deliberate practice”; closely simulating real air-to-air combat and reviewing their videotaped performances each day. This produced a dramatic turnaround; toward the end of the war, they were shooting down twelve North Vietnamese for each they fighter they lost.

  • Deliberate practice can transform you. In a nutshell: Identify what makes someone an expert; figure out how to build those skills one, small step at a time; measure your progress as you go along; fix what isn’t working.

I have few regrets in life, but I cannot help but wish that I read this book eighteen years ago.

I was an average college basketball player for a mediocre Division 3 team. I put in my practice time just like anyone else did, but I had no concept of what it would take t get to the next level. Now I’m not saying that I would’ve gone on to become an NBA superstar, but how good could I have really been had I applied myself in this fashion? Now that I’m thirty-six and my knees are wrecked, I can only wonder.

More recently, I broke into wedding photography in 2009. Over the next few years, I quickly became pretty good at it; although I benefited from some occasional mentoring, I was mostly self-taught. Awhile ago, I realized that I do some things well but I had mostly stopped becoming better. Primarily, I was making the same mistakes repeatedly and failing to observe feedback.

Now, I review each shoot as I process it, taking detailed notes of what I did wrong and visualizing specifically how I will avoid that mistake or improve upon a shot the next time around. I devote a lot more time to studying shots I love from other photographers and imagining how they went about setting it up; the lighting, the interactions with the subject. Of course, it’s difficult to experiment too much on someone’s wedding day — the couple relies upon me to get things right and we’re often on a tight timeline — but I’m confident that this small expression of “deliberate practice” will really help.

Peak also shares some truly remarkable exploits; Rajveer Meena who memorized 70,000 digits of pi, the chess grandmasters who can play several dozen simultaneous games blindfolded, and more.

You may not have 10,000 hours to devote to the violin; you may genuinely not want to. And that’s okay. The point is that all of us want to get better at something, whether that’s because we need to or we just enjoy it. Maybe you want to become a true expert at it. Peak will help you to understand what makes elite performance possible.

Chris Aram

I'm one-half of Webster Park Digital. I'm a devoted family man, avid reader, coffee snob, fajita-eater and professional PlayStation4 dabbler.

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