Book: Peak – Ericsson & Pool

Peak: secrets from the new science of expertise

I heard about this book from Mithuna Yoganathan, a PhD student at Cambridge. Mithuna has a well known youtube channel about mathematics and quantum physics which I strongly recommend: Looking Glass Universe.

The book starts by dismantling the idea of innate ability and inherent talent. The authors take the example of the perfect pitch, and argue that it is not a gift but the product of a certain amount of practice. To support this claim, they mention the research of the Japanese psychologist Ayako Sakakibara, which showed that twenty-four children developed the perfect pitch after a-months long training. 

The first chapter delves deeper into the topic of deliberate practice. The case study is an experiment conducted by one of the authors (Ericsson) that involves memorizing digits. The results are astonishing: with two years of purposeful practice, a student established a new record by holding eighty-two random digits in his memory after hearing them at one per second. 

The second chapter discusses the case of London taxi drivers to introduce the idea of brain adaptability. The chapter describes the research carried out by Eleanor Maguire. Maguire’s study showed that the posterior part of the hippocampus, which is engaged in spatial navigation, was bigger in taxi drivers than non-taxi drivers of the same gender and age. These results are clear evidence that the human brain grows and changes in response to intense training. The chapter concludes by defining the concept of homeostasis, which is the tendency of a system to act to maintain its stability. In contrast, to improve in something, it is necessary to force the brain and body to challenge homeostasis.

Chapter three introduces blindfold chess to instantiate the role of mental representations. The takeaway message is that studying a subject leads to more precise mental representations of it, thus better assimilating new information. Moreover, mental representations support learning by helping identify possible errors.

Chapter four explains how deliberate practice does not align with enjoyment. Top music students and future teachers agreed that improvement required hard work. The chapter characterizes deliberate practice (DP) as follows:

  • DP develops skills for which effective training techniques have been established;
  • DP takes place outside one’s comfort zone and requires near-maximal effort;
  • DP involves well-defined specific goals;
  • DP requires a person’s full attention and conscious actions;
  • DP involves feedback and modification of efforts in response to that feedback;
  • DP produces and depends on effective mental representations;
  • DP nearly always involves building or modifying previously acquired skills. 

Chapter five describes the principles of deliberate practice on the job. By taking the cases of radiologists and surgeons, the authors state the importance of practicing precisely the targeted skills (i.e., prioritize being able to do, not to know, although contextual knowledge is required). Besides, any improvement requires the right approach. If there is no improvement, it’s not because of the lack of innate talent but because the practice is not correct. Therefore, the challenge is figuring out precisely who the experts are and what they do to acquire their skills. 

Chapter six explores the principles of deliberate practice in everyday life. The chapter takes the example of a 30 years old man (Dan) who decided to become an expert golfer putting ten thousand hours of deliberate practice into pursuing this goal. The authors stress that deliberate practice isn’t just for kids who are beginning a life training, nor is it just for members of large organizations. Deliberate practice is for everyone who dreams. 

To practice, it is important to find a good teacher and find students of similar age and relevant experience. However, in the absence of a teacher, it is indispensable to develop self-designed exercises by breaking the skill down into components that can be done repeatedly and analyze effectively (i.e., determining weaknesses and figuring out ways to address them). 

To engage in a way that helps in consciously refining a skill, it is imperative to concentrate for the entire duration of the deliberate practice (i.e., it is better to train at 100 percent effort for less time than at 70 percent effort for a longer period). Researchers have shown that maintaining motivation and effort is challenging but possible. Observing the results of the practice can foster motivation, but believing that it is likely to succeed is also a key motivational factor. Being surrounded by supportive people helps create a build-in support system (i.e., other orchestra members can share training tips and understand each other practice’s effort).

Chapter seven investigates the idea of extraordinary and reports the case of a Hungarian psychologist László Polgár, and his wife, who trained their three daughters to become expert chess players. The example underlines that a child is initially attracted by an activity as a toy. Additionally, observing older siblings performing an activity can guide the child’s attention towards that activity sooner than they might otherwise, and competition with the sibling may itself be motivating. Throughout this process, the encouragement and support of parents are crucial to a child’s progress. 

The authors wrap up the chapter by addressing the possible limitations of starting training as adults. Although there are benefits in starting young, the general lesson is that humans can acquire new skills as they age, but the specific way they acquire those skills changes as they get older.

The chapter also discusses pathbreakers and creativity by saying that one thing to consider before breaking new ground is to be intimately familiar with – and able to reproduce – the accomplishments of those who came before (i.e., new inventions are always built upon older ones). 

Chapter eight goes back to the initial topic of innate abilities highlighting that extraordinary abilities require intense training and extended practice. The authors mention the case of the autistic savants who are more likely to practice obsessively and thus develop skills in certain areas in the same way people engaging in deliberate practice do. The authors cover the disruptive consequences that the belief in innate talent has. Believing in innate talent leads toward decisions and actions that often preclude possibilities to those who don’t excel at something right away. Furthermore, this belief is in contrast with the results of another study that compares chess performances in children with higher and lower IQ. In the long run, “the ones who practice more are the ones who prevail, not the ones who had initial advantage in intelligence or some other talent“.

The last chapter mentions the advantages of deliberate practice to develop expertise and mental representations over lifetimes. The authors end by coining the term “Homo exercens” or “practicing man” to describe the species that takes control of its life through practice and makes of itself what it will.

The book includes several other reflections that I did not mention above, and indeed an encouraging point of view for the ones who wish to find great satisfaction and pleasure from pushing themselves to develop new skills. The authors give enough arguments for leaving behind any excuse not to pursue things that might be enjoyable and perhaps even bring to enlightening outcomes. Consciously changing ourselves ensures a never boring life and contributes to building the foundation of a better society, “a society of people who recognize that they can control their development and understand how to do it“. 

Below a bunch of citations from the introduction of the book:

“Perfect pitch is not the gift, but, rather, the ability to develop perfect pitch is the gift – and, as nearly as we can tell, pretty much everyone is born with that gift.”

“Since antiquity, people have generally assumed that a person’s potential in any given field is inevitably and unavoidably limited by that person’s inherent talent. […] But we now understand that there’s no such thing as a predefined ability. The brain is adaptable, and training can create skills – such as perfect pitch – that did not exist before. This is a game changer, because learning is now becomes a way of creating abilities rather than of bringing people to the point where they can take advantage of their innate ones.”

“You wish to climb a mountain. You’re not sure how high you want to go – that peak looks an awfully long way off – but you know you want to get higher than you currently are. You could simply take off on whichever path looks promising and hope for the best, but you’re probably not going to get very far. Or you could rely on a guide who has been to the peak and knows the best way there. That will guarantee that no matter how high you decide to climb, you are doing it in the most efficient, effective way.”

Have a look at the book!

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