Peak: Summary & Review

peak book cover

In Peak (2016), Anders Ericsson explains how to train to achieve mastery and expertise.
Peak” is a book about a newly emerging field in psychology that has sometimes been dubbed “the science of expertise”, and it’s the best book I have personally read on mastery and expertise.

Bullet Summary

  • 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, gets instant feedback, and works around plateaus

Peak Summary

About the Author: K. Anders Ericsson is a Swedish psychologist and researcher, and he is a professor of psychology at Florida State University. He is internationally recognized as one of the main experts in the psychological nature of expertise and human performance

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 repeat the same actions and behaviors in “automation mode” (i.e., 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 driving 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.
Purposeful practice:

  • 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 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).

  • Pushes you 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 plateau 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 slow down, we move out of purposeful practice, and we will likely not improve any further, no matter how often we keep playing or “training”.

Deliberate Practice: The Gold Standard of Training

Deliberate practice is what makes champions and what we think are geniuses.

The elements of deliberate practice are:

  1. Find a good teacher
    1. A good teacher is not necessarily someone who’s good at the craft
    2. Find a teacher who’s good for your level of skills
    3. He must help you develop your own mental representations so you can feedback on yourself
    4. He must give you exercises you can do at home
  2. Don’t be afraid of changing teacher when you’re too good for him or when he’s not helping anymore
  3. Operate at your outermost level of skills
  4. Define specific goals
  5. Be fully present and attentive during your training sessions
  6. Train at home by yourself: the best training is lone training
  7. Work on your weaknesses and mistakes with constant feedback
  8. 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:

  1. Find out the best performers
  2. Reverse-engineers What makes them top performers
  3. Most of all, find out what type of training they engage in
  4. Copy what they do 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”:

  • Focus
  • Feedback
  • 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.

My Note:
Andersson seems to focus mostly on weaknesses.
However, other authors also make the valid point that you should focus more on your strengths than your 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.

There Are Fields & Professions 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 lack 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 transferable 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 Mindset of Enhancing Performance

Ericsson talks about enhancing performance in the workplace as well, and it starts with dropping the following three mindsets:

  1. Drop the belief that one’s ability is limited by innate talents
  2. If you do something for long enough, you’ll get better
  3. 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 the “habits of most successful people” are and then find a way to train those skills in all the rest.

The 10.000 Hour Rule Is Cr@p

Eric Andersson talks about the “10.000 hour rule”, popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in “Outliers” and since then become a famous slogan in self-help (also read: debunking self-help myths).

Gladwell, Andersson explains, did not understand his study well (or chose to ignore reality to sell something which is more marketable).
In details:

  1. 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
  2. How much you need to train also depends on the competitiveness of the field
  3. 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 as most other students train: in the classroom, absorbing knowledge.

However, Andersson shows that classroom knowledge translates very poorly into on-the-job skills.

Surgeons, for example, get better with surgeries, not with classroom time.
Unluckily, 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.

The Key to Mastery: Maintaining Motivation

Since for Anders Ericsson, the main differentiator between peak performers and “good” performers is training, it ensures 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
  • Get (positive) feedback

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 (also read: antifragile ego)

Blowing Past Plateaus

The way past plateaus often is by looking for different approaches.

Since plateaus can be discouraging, 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.

If you wanna quit tell yourself you’ll do it after the plateau, and then you probably won’t quit at all.
If you are still junior in your field, ask for feedback from coaches who’ve done it and if you don’t have those mentors, look at how others do it.

Genetics DO Matter

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 also makes 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.

peak book cover

Peak Quotes

In short, the human body is incredibily adaptive.
There might be limits, but there is no indications we have reached them yet.

On whom the 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

Peak Criticism

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 of the role of nature, if only slightly too much on the nature side, I can highly recommend Steven Pinker’s:

Or also see Scott Young’s more balanced position in “Ultralearning“.

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.

This 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 in math, science, and scientific research.

So, how does Anders go about denying the role of IQ in the scientific disciplines?
He parades a list of successful scientists who have low IQs.

That by itself proves 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.
This 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 there is no major correlation between IQ and chess skills does NOT mean IQ doesn’t matter in general. It only means it doesn’t matter that when it comes to chess.
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

I disagree with the “loss” thing.
We didn’t “lose” those children, they simply went down different paths!

And if there are any innate differences, and of course there are, then it’s probably good for many of them -but not necessarily all, that they went into something that might be better suited for them.

Sure, encouraging or discouraging people to pursue this or that field is far from perfect.
But an imperfect sorting system is better for the world than encouraging everyone into something for which they show no early signs of excellence.

Peak Review

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.

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