How and why peak performance really is achieved…or isn’t
I first read this book when it was published (April 20, 2010) and then recently re-read it before reviewing it. As is also true of several others (notably Geoff Colvin, Daniel Coyle, and Malcolm Gladwell) Matthew Syed became keenly interested in the on-going, pioneering research on peak performance conducted for almost 30 years by Anders Ericsson and his associates at Florida State University. Until recently, it was widely assumed that having talent explains the achievements of great creative and performing artists such as Mozart and Picasso as well as of athletes such as Ronaldo and Roger Federer.
We now know that a combination of circumstances explains peak performance. They include natural talent, yes, and luck to some extent (i.e. being born at the right tine into the right circumstances) but of greatest importance is iterative, “deep” and “deliberate” practice under expert and strict supervision for about 10,000 hours. That is, as Syed notes, “a minimum of ten years is required to reach world-class status in any complex task.” Just to be clear, if I were sixteen years-old and completed 10,000 hours of intensive practice under John Wooden’s or Butch Harman’s direct and demanding supervision, my skills and performance as a basketball player or golfer would be improved…but I would never be good enough to compete with professionals in the NBA or PGA.
The key to all this is to understand that there is a lengthy and exhausting process that results in peak performance and not everyone who completes that process can then achieve such performance. However, it cannot be achieved without the substantial time and attention commitment. There are no short-cuts.
Ericsson has identified what he characterizes as “the iceberg illusion.” That is, “When we witness extraordinary feats of memory or of sporting or artistic prowess), we are witnessing the end product of a process measured in years.” This point reminds me of a concept introduced by Baldassare Castiglione in his Italian Renaissance classic, The Book of the Courtier: sprezzatura defined by the author as “a certain nonchalance, so as to conceal all art and make whatever one does or says appear to be without effort and almost without any thought about it.” It is almost certain that the easier a peak performance seems, the harder and (yes) smarter the achiever has worked.
For me, some of the most valuable material is provided in the final chapter when Syed responds to a question its title poses, “Are Blacks Superior Runners?” His flow of thought is best revealed within the narrative, in context, but I am comfortable noting that he discusses more, much more than black athletes involved in track and field competition. This is how Matthew Syed concludes the book: “The tendency to see black and white as genetic types (which, to a large extent, underpins racial stereotyping) has long been contradicted by the findings of population genetics. If we could ditch our race-tinted spectacles, the world would not only look very different, it would soon become very different.”
I hope I live long enough to see that day arrive.