Book Cover image

Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise by Anders Ericsson & Robert Pool

Book cover

Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise by Anders Ericsson & Robert Pool

Totally Scientific Rating: ⭐⭐⭐

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This Book in a Minute (Or Less)

If you ever wondered if there was a book to help you learn anything this is it. Starting by breaking the myth that to achieve extraordinary things you need the right genes, it goes on to offer both proof and methods on how to go from wanting to be able to be the champion at whatever you chose.


Summary Notes

The ability to do something extraordinary is not a gift. The ability to develop the skill to do something extraordinary is, and we are all born with it.

The Power of Purposeful Practice

The marathon world record being cut in more than 30% in the last century is not because humans suddenly were born with more talent for long-distance running. Two better reasons for that are:

  • the increase in the amount of time people spent training;
  • the growing sophistication of training methods and equipment.

“The most effective/powerful practice in any field works by harnessing the adaptability of the human body and brain to create, step by step, the ability to do things that were previously impossible.”

The pattern we all follow with most skills we learn (cooking, writing) is very limited:

  1. start with a general idea of what we want to do;
  2. get some instructions (teacher, coach, book, site);
  3. practice until we get to an acceptable (for us) level;
  4. let it become automatic.

Research shows that once you reach the "acceptable" level and make it automatic, more "practice" doesn't lead to improvement. Actually, abilities can degrade once we reach the 'automatic' level simply because our effort to get better is not there anymore.


The 3 Levels of Practice

  1. Naive aka 'just play it'

    It's all about doing something repeatedly, expecting that, alone, will improve performance.

  2. Purposeful aka 'play it 3 times in a row without mistakes'

    Has 4 main characteristics:

    • Has well-defined goals;

    Without them, you can't judge if the practice session had success or not.

    The key is to transform the overall goal of improvement into something specific that we can work on during a training session, and with a realistic expectation that it can be achieved.

    • Is focused;

    100% focus on the practice. You don't let your mind want anything else besides succeeding at the task at hand.

    • Has feedback;

    You have to know if you are doing something right/wrong. Feedback as a starting point to devise new strategies.

    • Requires getting out of comfort zone

    Perhaps the most important attribute of this type of practice. It's outside of our comfort zones that lie what we want to be able to do but can't. Sometimes we face walls that seem impossible to break, but it's in the finding of solutions to go around them that we have one of the keys to purposeful practice.

    It's not always about trying harder but trying differently.

  3. Deliberate

(Comes later in the book and in this summary)

Harnessing Adaptability

The human brain changes in response to intense training.

Homeostasis - the tendency of a system to act in a way to maintain its stability.

When the body (muscles, cardio, etc) is stressed to the point where homeostasis can't be maintained, it responds with changes that are intended to reestablish homeostasis. That response is how the body becomes able to handle the physical activity that stressed it before.

That's why to keep evolving we have to keep raising the bar.

The brain functions a little bit differently than the rest of the body. In response to mental exercise, it doesn't become stronger, bigger, or creates neurons. It strengthens/weakens connections between neurons, adds new connections, or replaces old ones.

The difference between the traditional approach of learning and deliberate practice is that the traditional approach is not designed to challenge homeostasis: it assumes you can only fill the potential you are born with.

With deliberate practice, the goal is to fulfill your potential and build on it.

Mental Representations

“What sets experts apart from everyone else is the quality and quantity of their mental representations.”

A mental representation is a mental structure corresponding to an object, idea, information, anything, concrete or abstract, that the brain is thinking about.

A big part of deliberate practice is developing increasingly efficient mental representations that we can use in whatever activity we are practicing. That's why 'practicing' is not just doing the thing, but also includes developing a clear picture of what the movements should look like, and more importantly, how it should feel in our bodies when doing the movements we envision.

If a guitarist places the wrong finger by accident he will know the wrong chord was played, not only because of the sound but because his finger felt 'off'.

Mental Representations benefit is to help us deal with information: understanding, interpreting it, holding it in memory, analyze it, and making decisions based on it.

The higher the skill, the better the mental representations will be. The better mental representations, the better we can practice that skill.

The Gold Standard

Those who practice with more intensity, and full concentration, are not those that enjoy training the most, but those that better understand that practice is essential for improving their performance.

Two big differences between deliberate and purposeful practice:

  • deliberate practice is only appliable in a field already well developed, where top experts have a level of performance that sets them apart from those who are entering the field;
  • deliberate practice requires a teacher/coach who provides activities designed to help a student improve his performance.

Deliberate practice is guided by the best performers' accomplishments and the understanding of what these performers do to excel.


The Principles of Deliberate Practice

  • Develops skills that other people have already excelled at and where there are effective training methods established;
  • Takes place outside of one's comfort zone;

    • Requires you to try things that are just beyond your abilities;
    • Near maximal effort.
  • Begins with well-defined and specific goals;

    • Involves improving some aspects of the overall target performance.

      • Allows the performer to see that his performances have been improving (or not) by training.
  • Requires full attention and conscious actions;

    • It's not enough to simply go with the motions;
    • The concentration level must be 100% on the specific goal of the practice so that adjustments can be made even from internal feedback.
  • Depends on feedback received and acted upon;

    • Earlier in the training, the majority of the feedback comes from the coach;
    • Later, with experience, students must learn to monitor themselves, spot mistakes, and adjust.
  • Produces and depends on mental representations;

    • They show the right way to do something, allow you to notice when you've done something wrong.
  • Nearly always involves building/modifying previously acquired skills.

    • Focusing on particular aspects of those skills and working specifically on them.

What to do when deliberate practice is not possible?

Revert to the principles of purposeful practice and give it some extra steps:

  1. Identify experts in the field you are trying to evolve in;
  2. Figure out what makes them so good;
  3. Come up with training methods that allow you to do it as well.

Having a good coach/instructor/teacher is an invaluable advantage. They can lead a student first to build a ground foundation and then gradually build on top of that. They provide feedback we can't get anywhere else.

Effective feedback is about more than if you did something right/wrong. A good coach/teacher will look to more than the answer you gave to the problem, but also to how exactly did you arrive to the answer. If needed, will offer advice on how to think better about that specific type of problem.

We should pay more attention to what we intend to get out of performers in-game time and practice time. An hour playing in front of a crowd, where the focus is on delivering the best performance, is not the same as an hour of focus, goal-driven practice that is designed to address certain weaknesses/make certain improvements.

Principles of Deliberate Practice On the Job

“The 1st step forward in enhancing the performance of an organization is recognizing that improvement is only possible if all participants abandon the business-as-usual practices.”

The 3 myths than need to come down:

  • our abilities are limited by what we are born with;
  • if we just do something for long enough we will get better at it;
  • all it takes to improve is effort.

Anyone can improve with deliberate practice on their job, provided that the right approach is used. Turns out one of the best approaches is to learn/train while doing the actually needed work.

Here's an example:

If someone is giving a presentation (skills), have the audience listen (skills) and provide feedback (skills). All are involved, with different goals, providing value to each other, and improving different skills while their work gets done.

The difference is on how conscious you become of the process of getting better at something. You are focused on your performance, you detect mistakes in it and adapt. Through feedback, you depend on others, and they depend on you.

It gets people into the habit of practicing and thinking about practicing.

Principles of Deliberate Practice In Everyday Life

  1. First, find a good teacher/coach.

When practicing without help you have to rely on your mental representations alone, to monitor your performance. Not ideal.

A good coach will provide fundamentals and appropriate tasks for your skill level. You will also get guidance for when you are practicing alone: what errors are you likely to commit, what should you be paying attention to, or how to recognize good performance.

One of the most important things a coach will help you with is with developing your own mental representations.

  1. Engagement.

There's a decisive difference between mindlessly practicing, repeating until numb, and consciously engaging in the activity, with a clear plan to getting better.

With total engagement you focus on your technique for each rep, trying to make it perfect according to your current mental representation. It allows for recognizing when there's a deviation, and immediately to try to fix it.

If focus and concentration are essential we can build training sessions facilitate that:

  • Shorter training sessions, or even short exercises inside of those training sessions;
  • Only in maximal focus and effort are we getting closer to what will happen in real play;
  • Guarantee a good night's sleep before also helps.
  1. Repetition

“The hallmark of purposeful/deliberate practice is that you try to do something you cannot do, practicing it over and over, focusing on exactly how you are doing it, where you are falling short, and how you can get better.”

The purpose of repetition is to bring to the surface where the weaknesses are in the skill we want to develop and to try different methods until we find what works best for us.

  1. Overcome plateaus in skill development

The pace at which we evolve is not linear. It's much easier to go from 0 to something, than from there to the next level.

This is the reason why a lot of people stop improving: they think they arrived at the 'destination'.

To overcome a plateau you need to:

  • adjust the way you are testing what you are learning;
  • challenge yourself in different ways to verify the plateau is really there.

A complex skill has several components to it, and your level in each one will be different, so when you are having trouble see progress, it will probably be because of 1 or 2 components and not the skill in its entirety.

  1. Motivation

Evidence suggests that willpower is a very situation-specific attribute, so being able to endure sacrifices on studying math, doesn't say anything about being able to endure studying music.

To keep the motivation we can work with two sides: strengthen the reasons to keep going and eliminate reasons to quit.

Strengthen reasons to keep going:

  • Getting enough sleep and keeping healthy will fuel your brain and make you more resistant to distractions;
  • limit the time of practice to 1 hour since you can't focus for more than that.

Eliminate reasons to quit:

  • Set a time on the calendar and clear any obligations that compete with practice;
  • Repeat the practice daily at the same time, making it a habit that you can't break.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Very little has been done to learn about the mental representation athletes use. Encourage them to talk about what they are thinking when playing/executing their skills. This would help coaches and colleagues learn and improve with that experience. It would also help in the design of training activities to improve the representation of game situations.

Deliberate practice is all about the skills.

You pick up the knowledge to develop the skills, but knowledge is not the objective (just a nice side effect). When preparing a training/learning session, determining what the student should be able to do at the end, is far more effective than what the student should know.



If you enjoyed this, there are many others to come.

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