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

Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, by Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool
New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016. 336 pp. $28 (hardcover).

At the beginning of Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool ask why some people are so good at what they do. Is their greatness, for example, innate or is it earned—is it the product of their genes or of their choices?

To answer that question, Ericsson and Pool look at peculiarities from why some people have perfect pitch to why others have perfect jump shots, they look at the history of these people for clues as to how they achieved such greatness, and sometimes they quote what the people themselves think.

On that latter count, for example, they cite the testimony of Ray Allen, the greatest three-point shooter in the history of the National Basketball Association.

Some years back, ESPN columnist Jackie MacMullan wrote an article about Allen as he was approaching his record for most three-point shots made. In talking with Allen for that story, MacMullan mentioned that another basketball commentator had said that Allen was born with a shooting touch—in other words, an innate gift for three-pointers. Allen did not agree.

“I’ve argued this with a lot of people in my life,” he told MacMullan. “When people say God blessed me with a beautiful jump shot, it really pisses me off. I tell those people, ‘Don’t undermine the work I’ve put in every day.’ Not some days. Every day. Ask anyone who has been on a team with me who shoots the most. Go back to Seattle and Milwaukee, and ask them. The answer is me.” And, indeed, as MacMullan noted, if you talk to Allen’s high school basketball coach you will find that Allen’s jump shot was not noticeably better than his teammates’ jump shots back then; in fact, it was poor. But Allen took control, and over time, with hard work and dedication, he transformed his jump shot into one so graceful and natural that people assumed he was born with it. (pp. xviii–xix)

For Allen, as for others who have achieved excellence in their fields, practice was indispensable—they were no more born with perfect pitch or a masterful chess game than they were born with the perfect jump shot.

In Peak, Ericsson and Pool focus on one kind of practice in particular, what Ericsson in his earlier research called “deliberate practice”; it has been popularized in recent years by authors such as Geoff Colvin (Talent is Overrated), Daniel Coyle (The Talent Code), and Malcolm Gladwell (Outliers).

Because of the popularity of these books, those who have read them undoubtedly will hear some of the same research and stories repeated in Peak. This is unfortunate for Ericsson and Pool, particularly because Ericsson was the trailblazer whose research those authors relied on. The repetition, however, is worth it.

For one, it provides an opportunity to clear up some misconceptions caused by those popular books. Ericsson and Pool show, for example, that Gladwell’s “ten-thousand-hour rule” is not really a rule at all—observing that “there is nothing special or magical about ten thousand hours,” that the number of hours it takes to be the best in any one field varies enormously, and that the kind of practice one engages in is all-important (p. 110).

For another, it offers readers a slightly different emphasis on the components of deliberate practice. More specifically, all of the other authors agree that deliberate practice is characterized by the focus on improving something specific through targeted practice that includes effective feedback. But Ericsson and Pool emphasize the importance of improving how to think about the content of a field through such practice. “What sets expert performers apart from everyone else,” they say, “is the quality and quantity of their mental representations.”

Through years of practice, they develop highly complex and sophisticated representations of the various situations they are likely to encounter in their fields—such as the vast number of arrangements of chess pieces that can appear during games. These representations allow them to make faster, more accurate decisions and respond more quickly and effectively in a given situation. (p. 62)

Ericsson and Pool show that the importance of these “mental representations” holds true for athletes and fighter pilots as much as for chess players and surgeons. They argue that it is the key difference between novices and experts. And they observe that there is a reinforcing relationship between practice and theory, skills and principles, or—in their words—performance and mental representations. As they put it:

Improving performance goes hand in hand with improving mental representations; as one’s performance improves, the representations become more detailed and effective, in turn making it possible to improve even more. Mental representations make it possible to monitor how one is doing, both in practice and in actual performance. They show the right way to do something and allow one to notice when doing something wrong and to correct it. (p. 100)

Simply by the variety of examples Ericsson and Pool offer, even readers who have read previous books on the subject are likely to come away with a richer understanding of what deliberate practice is and how to apply it in their own lives.

This is especially so in the case of teachers, or anyone at all involved in training. Ericsson and Pool argue that deliberate practice requires “a teacher or coach who assigns practice techniques designed to help you improve on very specific skills” (p. 100). They give examples of training exercises that are so designed. And, more broadly, they share why “training should focus on doing rather than on knowing”—on practicing a skill rather than listening to a lecture on it (p. 138).

This last may seem contradictory, given their focus on the mental products of deliberate practice, but as Ericsson and Pool say:

Despite the first word in the term “mental representation,” pure mental analysis is not nearly enough. We can only form effective mental representations when we try to reproduce what the expert performer can do, fail, figure out why we failed, try again, and repeat—over and over again. Successful mental representations are inextricably tied to actions, not just thoughts, and it is the extended practice aimed at reproducing the original product that will produce the mental representations we seek. (p. 161)

Ericsson and Pool provide an extended example of applying their deliberate practice approach to teaching physics, but the principles they share regarding deliberate practice and education are sufficiently clear that teachers everywhere—as well as learners—should be able to apply them immediately and judge the results for themselves.

All of this makes Peak a valuable addition to the popular literature on deliberate practice. It provides new insights into what deliberate practice is, along with how to apply it, and it is thus a good book for anyone interested in becoming much better at what he does.

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