|Peak by Anders Ericsson, Robert Pool.|
This book is centered around the idea that talent - meaning the innate ability to perform well on particular fields - is overrated. Expert performers are not born with those abilities ( except for those who practice domains that require physical characteristics, such as height ), but they acquire them through extensive practice. It is noted, however, that not all types of practice are effective. One needs to apply the principles of deliberate practice in order to succeed in becoming an expert.
Anders begins by describing “the gift” which we all possess, which is the adaptability of the human brain and body. He explains that the expert performers have taken advantage of that gift - through extensive practice - in order to become experts in their field. As a first example, he presents perfect pitch which was believed to be an innate ability ( you are either born with it or you aren’t ) but was later discovered to be something that can be trained.
How to practice
Three different kinds of practice are presented - naive, purposeful and deliberate practice.
The most common - naive practice - is when we simply repeat the same thing over and over again in “autopilot”. That doesn’t help us improve, as we are sitting comfortably on this “plateau” of acceptable performance which is, for most of us, good enough. Several examples of the above scenario are presented - Doctors who practice medicine for 20 years not being better than fresh doctors with very few years of experience, tennis players who just play recreationally and don’t improve, singers that gather with their band every Saturday for fun, etc.
The second type is purposeful practice. Purposeful practice involves having a specific goal, and giving our full attention in order to achieve it. It requires immediate feedback in order to understand what we are not doing right and fix it. More importantly, it requires that we get out of our comfort zone - enough that we get that push to move beyond our plateaus but not so far that we lose our motivation.
Deliberate practice is basically purposeful practice plus an expert coach that can teach us. Deliberate practice exists in highly developed - competitive fields, where there are objective win / loss / evaluation criteria. Those competitive fields offer high incentives ( fame, money ) and there are established best ways to practice and available experts to teach those.
Deliberate practice is the “gold standard”, and we should aim for that when possible.
One of the main objectives of deliberate practice is developing effective mental representations.
Mental representations are a way to retrieve large amounts of information at once - a way to sidestep the short term memory. They help chess experts immediately identify who’s having an advantage just by taking a quick look at a chess board. Expert software engineers identify code smells based on them and expert tennis players know where the ball will land without looking - just by feeling the contact with the racket.
Those patterns, that those experts have developed with extensive practice, are what really sets them apart from the rest.
Characteristics of Deliberate Practice
As discussed earlier, deliberate involves having specific goals, intense focus, immediate feedback, frequent discomfort and expert coaching. Here are some characteristics that need to be introduced into the process in order for it to be more effective.
Practice on real world conditions
Practising at real world condition plays an important role in improving one’s abilities on a particular subject. Anders gives top gun as an example of that approach, where the US navy pilots managed to significantly improve their performance on air dogfights with this programme.
Getting past those “plateaus” of performance is very difficult. However, research has shown that immutable limits are very rare, which means that obstacles can most usually be overcome. It’s usually not a matter of trying harder - just throwing more hours itself won’t do it - we need to try differently. During that process, it is very common we lose our motivation, believing that we have reached our highest potential, so we sometimes give up. It is therefore of great importance to stay motivated during that process, by receiving positive feedback (e.g. from the coach or family ), having an incentive to continue ( reward, fame). Also, being part of a group which shares the same goals, and whose members are encouraging each other can be extremely helpful.
Deliberate practice usually takes place every day. Experts have installed routines which allow them to effortlessly practice every day without even thinking about it. This long term practice is far more important than an initial advantage that someone could have, for example by a higher IQ.
Anders ends this book by suggesting that one of the main characteristics of human beings is that we have the ability to continuously improve ourselves. Everyone therefore, should follow their dream, and by applying the principles of deliberate practice a whole new world of possibilities - one that we thought was out of reach - opens up.