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Peak by Anders Ericsson is the best book on the emerging field of psychology that he himself dubs “the science of expertise”.
“Peak” is the best book available both on the science and on the actual methods and training for peak performance.
- Bullet Summary
- Peak Summary
- Naive Practice: The Wrong Way of Training
- Purposeful Practice: A Step Forward
- Deliberate Practice: The Gold Standard of Training
- Skills Are Based on Mental Representations
- The Mindsets of Enhancing Performance
- The 10.000 Hour Rule Is Cr@p
- Training Beats Knowledge
- Maintaining Motivation
- Blowing Past Plateaus
- Genetics DO Count
- Purposeful Practice is Not A Must
- Peak Quotes
- Peak Criticism
- Peak Review
- Innate talent might be part of the performance equation, but most of the variance comes from training
- How willing people are to train might be, at least in part, governed by our genes
- The best training is focused, get instant feedback, and works around plateaus
“Peak” presents several examples from violinists and chess players. I will skip the example here to focus on the main takeaways.
Naive Practice: The Wrong Way of Training
Naive practice looks like this:
- “Just do it”
- Not knowing whether or not you’re doing it correctly
- Not having a specific goal
Many people believe that the more you do something, the more you learn.
And they train with simple repetition.
The truth is that simply repeating something won’t make you better, and if you repeating the same actions and behavior in “automation mode” (ie.: driving) without working on your weaknesses and without operating at the edge of your abilities, then chances are that you actually get worse over time.
So the person who’s been driving for 20 years or baking the same pie for 5 years is not getting better at riving or baking pies unless they switch gears and challenge themselves.
Purposeful Practice: A Step Forward
Purposeful practice is a step forward and goes in the right direction.
- Has specific, well-defined goals (or you have no way to get feedback and measure success)
For example: “play the piece through, at the proper speed, without mistakes, 3 times in a row”.
- Get feedback to work on your weaknesses
- Leverages coaches and trainers for the feedback
- Breaks tasks into smaller pieces
Says the author: “purposeful practice is all about putting a bunch of baby steps together to reach a long term goal”.
Also make sure to get enough sleep (read When by Dan Pink on the science of breaks).
- Goes outside of your comfort zone
Getting out of your comfort zone means trying to do something that you couldn’t do before. If it’s easy, you keep going. If you can’t, finding ways around it is one of the hallmarks of purposeful practice.
- Attacks plateaus by trying different approaches
- Gives full attention to the task at hand
- Monitors the progress
To keep improving with purposeful practice you need motivation. Purposeful practice is much harder than naive training or playing for fun of course, and it can be the case that you will not enjoy it.
Indeed as soon as we feel like “we’re good enough” and we slow down, we move out of purposeful practice and we will likely not improve any further, no matter how often you keep playing or “training”.
Deliberate Practice: The Gold Standard of Training
Deliberate practice is what makes the champions and what we think are geniuses.
The elements of deliberate practice are:
- Find a good teacher
- A good teacher is not necessarily someone who’s good at the craft
- Find a teacher who’s good for your level of skills
- He must help you develop your own mental representations so you can feedback yourself
- He must give you exercises you can practice at home
- Don’t be afraid of changing teacher when you’re too good for him or when he’s not helping anymore
- Operate at your outermost level of skills
- Define specific goals
- Be fully present and attentive in your trainings
- Train at home: the best training is lone training
- Work on your weaknesses and mistakes with constant feedback
- Choose a developed field, otherwise, you must pave the way to peak performance
Fields With No Codified Training
If you are engaged in pursuits with no clear experts and no well-developed training methods, then do the following:
- Find out the best performers
- Reverse-engineers what makes them top performers
- Most of all, find out what type of training they engage in
- Copy what they and train as they do. Then seek to improve upon it
If you can’t find a teacher you can always focus on the “3 Fs”:
- Fix it
Try to break your work down into smaller components that you can analyze and repeat. Then determine your weaknesses and train to eliminate them.
Andersson seems to focus mostly on weaknesses.
However, other authors also make the valid point that you should focus more on your strengths rather than weaknesses (also read: Strengthfinder 2.0).
I think that whether you should focus more on weaknesses or on strengths depends heavily on your situation and that’s something that should be determined on a case by case basis.
Fields Without Deliberate Practice
There are many fields in which deliberate practice is not as easy.
Business consultants for example, or artistic pursuits. But also “folk dancing” or “playing music in a pop music group”. There are many fields that have no codified and standard training approaches.
When all the steps of deliberate practice are not possible, you should strive to implement as many as you can (I also invite you to read “Deep Work” and “Mastery” which are probably more suited for intellectual and artistic types of work).
Skills Are Based on Mental Representations
Anders Ericsson spends a lot of time on the concept of “mental representations”.
It’s difficult to define them because they differ dramatically from field to field, but in essence, the author says:
Pre-existing patterns of information, facts, images, rules, relationships and so on. They are held in long-term memory and can be used to answer quickly and effectively in certain types of situations.
They make it possible to process large amount of information quickly (despite the limitations of short-term memory)
Mental representations allow for:
- Pattern recognition
- Effective information handling
- Quicker reaction times and problem-solving
Deliberate practice builds better and better mental representations by changing the neuro-circuitry in the brain.
What sets experts apart is the quality and quantity of mental representations.
Mental representations are very domain-specific, and that’s why deliberate is not for everyone. Some of the skills you build might not be very transferrable to other domains of life.
Mental Representations for Reading
Mental representations apply to any domain, including reading and absorbing information.
That’s why some people are better at understanding and retaining information.
The Mindsets of Enhancing Performance
Ericsson talks about enhancing performance in the workplace as well, and it starts with dropping the following three mindsets:
- Drop the belief that one’s ability is limited by innate talents
- If you do something for long enough you’ll get better
- All it takes to improve is to “try harder”
Since the workplace is unstructured and not as well codified when it comes to training, you should first figure out what are “habits of most successful people” first and then find a way to train those skills in all the rest.
The 10.000 Hour Rule Is Cr@p
Gladwell, Andersson explains, did not understand his study well (or chose to ignore reality to sell something which is more marketable).
- There is nothing “magical” about 10k hours and there is no fixed time: some will need less to achieve the top of the field, some more
- How much you need to train also depend on the competitiveness of the field
- Time matters, but how you train is equally, if not more, important
Training Beats Knowledge
In “Peak” Anders Ericsson dedicates a good portion to discussing schools and training systems.
He dedicates some time to a very important aspect of people’s lives: doctor’s training. Doctors train like most other students train: in the classroom absorbing knowledge.
But Andersson shows that classroom knowledge translates very poorly into
Surgeons, for example, get better with surgeries.
But that also means that the first surgeries they perform will be far from optimal.
Ericsson says that we stick with a knowledge-based system though because it’s easier.
Since for Ander Ericsson the main differentiator among peak performers is, by far, training, it ensues that different abilities to stick to the training regimes will make the biggest difference.
He does not like to talk about “willpower” though because people can easily fall into a circular thinking trap that if they don’t have willpower then they might as well not even try (read here the science of willpower).
He prefers talking about “motivation”.
And to stick to the training routine, you must have strong motivation.
To keep a high motivation:
- Increase your reasons to continue
- Do what you enjoy
- Use social motivation: create groups of people with the same goal
- Decrease your reasons to quit
- If practicing is too hard, limit the time and increase the focus
- Get enough sleep
- Take breaks in-between sessions
- Measure your progress for encouragement
Feedback can be internal, such as the pleasure of seeing yourself improve, or external, such as getting recognition for your work.
- Make your training and field part of your identity
- Take pride in your identity
Blowing Past Plateaus
The way past plateuas often is in looking for different approaches.
Since plateau can be discourating, it’s crucial that you don’t think you’ve peaked but that you understand that it’s only a question of technique, training and time before you will break through.
Genetics DO Count
I have read around the web some bad reviews about “Peak” which purports to say that talent does not matter.
These reviewers did not understand Anders Ericsson’s message.
I quote the author here:
More generally, there is a complex interplay between genetic factors and practice activity that we are just beginning to understand.
Some genetics factors may influence a person’s ability to engage in sustained deliberate practice. For example, by limiting the person’s capability to focus for long periods of time every time.
However, the author does also make the point that everyone can improve. And, in most cases, improve a lot.
Purposeful Practice is Not A Must
Remember that purposeful practice is not a must.
If “good enough” is good enough for you or if your “good enough” is enough to live well, then there is no point in engaging in deliberate practice.
And certainly, you can’t engage in deliberate practice in all fields of your life.
As the author says:
And for the most part, that’s OK. “Good enough” is generally good enoguh. But it’s important to remember that the option exists.
If you wish to become significantly better at something, you can.
In short, the human body is incredibily adaptive.
There might be limits, but there is no indications we have reached them yet.
On who deliberate practice is for:
Deliberate practice is for everyone who dreams.
And on people who stop at “average” and “good enough”:
The reason that most people don’t possess these extraordinary physical capabilities isn’t because they don’t have the capacity for them, but because they’re satisfied to live in the comfortable rut of homeostasis and never do the work that is required to get out of it. They live in the world of “good enough.” The same thing is true for all the mental activities we engage in
Albeit I loved “Peak” by Eric Andersson, there is also a lot I disagree with:
Extremist Position On Nature VS Nurture
Anders is pushing his own agenda here.
I quote him when he talks about a mentee of his he really liked:
Dan gave an answer I really liked.
He said he didn’t appreciate the attitude that only certain people can succeed in certain areas. That only those people who are logical and good in math can go to mathematics. That only athletic people can go to sports (…)
I would like to tell Anders that it’s not about what you like and appreciate.
It’s about how things are.
At least as long as he’s speaking as a scientist.
A scientist should force himself to stick to facts.
For a much better overview on the role of nature, if only slightly too much on the nature side, I can highly recommend Steven Pinker’s “The Blank Slate: The Denial of Human Nature“.
Mixes Correlation With Causation
The author looks at “prodigies” and then makes the case that there are no prodigies but only hard work. I never liked the idea of “prodigies” either.
The author also says that no ballet dancer has reached the top without working hard.
He then uses that information to marginalize the role of talent.
But that says NOTHING about the role of talent. It might simply be the case -and probably it is the case- that making it to the top requires both talent and hard training.
Which is interesting, because the author is well aware of the issue when he delivers his criticism of Gladwell. He says:
(..) To show a result like this, I would have to put a collection of random people through 10.000 hour of deliberarte practice on the violin and the see how they turned out.
The question of whether anyone can become an expert in any given field by taking part in any designed practice is still open.
Yet, why does he keep pushing the agenda that training is everything?
Unconvincing Marginalization of IQ
In his effort to make the point that there is no nature but it’s all about training, the author engages in what in my opinion is a rather poor attempt at marginalizing the role of IQ on math, science and scientific research.
So what does he do?
He parades a list of successful scientists who have low IQs.
That by itself would proof absolutely nothing.
But what sounded even more ludicrous is that the scientists he paraded did NOT have low IQs. They simply didn’t have “crazy high IQs”, but they were all above average.
Anders makes the point that the path to becoming a scientist might naturally screen for higher IQ.
Which might be the case indeed (albeit I don’t think it’s the only cause for the correlation between IQ and the scientific profession).
In any case, the technique Anders uses of looking for exceptions to disprove a general rule should have no place in a scientific text. Especially one coming from such an esteemed author.
The Chess-IQ Fallacy
In his war against IQ Anders also recruits data and statistics from chess, a profession that in the minds of many is heavily interlinked with intelligence and IQ.
The author makes the case that IQ matters little in chess mastery.
But again, that proves nothing.
The fact that people believe that chess is correlated with IQ means nothing: people were simply wrong.
The “Lost Talent” Fallacy
Discussing the tendency of discouraging poor performers early on, Anders says:
We lost a whole collection of children who might have become accomplished in this if only they had not been labeled as “no good in math” in the very beginning
“Peak” is the best book on peak performance, effective training and the best resource on how to improve yourself in almost any area.
In my opinion, unluckily, it’s polluted by an aura of feel-good self-help that removes from its otherwise incredible scientific findings.
“Peak” indeed seems to force a feel-good agenda that “yes, you can do anything” and that “no, innate talents and predispositions don’t count”.
And, in my opinion, we didn’t need that. We need more facts and less feel-good self-help.
Nature VS Nurture
“Peak” sits near the extreme end of the nature VS nurture debate.
In my opinion, to get the biggest bang for the buck, a more balanced approach is best for each one of us.
Such as, you’re better off also taking into account your natural tendencies and abilities when deciding which career and goals to pursue to the best of your abilities.