Peak: A book review by Bob Morris

Peak (Ericsson)kPeak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise
K. Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool
An Eamon Dolan Book/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (April 12016)

Why some people are amazingly good at what they do…and why so many others aren’t

In “The Making of an Expert,” an article that appeared in the July–August 2007 issue of Harvard Business Review, K. Anders Ericsson, Michael J. Prietula, and Edward T. Cokely share several important revelations from decades of research on peak performance. They could not have anticipated (but may have suspected) that one of the concepts, the so-called “10,000” Rule,” would become so widely and so durably misunderstood. In essence, the idea is that if you spend (on average) about 10,000 hours of practice on a sport such as golf, a musical instrument such as a violin, or a game such as chess, you can master the skills needed to become peak performer. Ericsson, Prietula, and Cokely acknowledge the potential value of practice. However, “Not all practice makes perfect. You need a particular kind of practice — deliberate practice — to develop expertise. When most people practice, they focus on the things they already know how to do. Deliberate practice is different. It entails considerable, specific, and sustained efforts to do something you can’t do well — or even at all. Research across domains shows that it is only by working at what you can’t do that you turn into the expert you want to become.”

Nine years later, Ericsson has co-authored this book with Robert Pool in which they explore in much greater depth what deliberate practice is…and isn’t. It is an approach, in some ways a way of life, that can enable almost anyone to develop “the ability to create, through the right sort of training and practice, abilities that [peak performers] would not otherwise possess by taking advantage of the incredible adaptability of the human brain and body. Furthermore [Peak] is a book about how anyone can put this gift to work in order to improve in an area they choose. And finally, in the broadest sense this book is about a fundamentally new way of thinking about human potential, one that suggests we have far more power than we are realized to take control of our lives.”

A number of musicians have perfect pitch. Ericsson and Pool explain that it is not a gift. 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.”

Although they are the co-authors, the narrative is presented in the first person because they want to establish a direct, personal, almost conversational rapport with their reader. The first half of the book describes what deliberate practice is, why it works as well as it doers, and how various experts in diverse fields apply it to develop — yes, over time — their extraordinary abilities. Next, in a brief interlude, they examine more closely the issue of innate endowment and what role it might play in limiting how far smoke people can go in attaining expert performance.

“The last part of the book takes everything we have learned about deliberate practice by studying expert performers and explains what it means for the rest of us. I offer specific advice about putting deliberate practice to work in professional organizations in order to improve the performance of employees, about how individuals can apply deliberate practice to get better in their areas of interest, and even about how schools can put deliberate practice e to work in the classroom.”

These are among the hundreds of passages of coverage of greatest interest and value to me, also listed to suggest the scope of Ericsson and Pool’s coverage:

o K. Albers Ericsson: The Digit Memorization Study (Pages 9-10)
o Deliberate practice vs. purposeful practice (14-22)
o Adaptability (26-49)
o Homeostasis (37-41)
o Bill Chase: Case Study (55-56)
o KAE: The Violinist Study (87-95)
o Deliberate practice: Differences from other sorts of purposeful practice (97-100 and 106-107)
o “Top Gun” approach (115-120, 124-130, and 130-144)
o Deliberate practice mindset (120-121)
o Knowledge vs. skill (130-137)
o A New Approach to Training (137-144)
o Reproduction of mental representations (160-161)
o Childhood of Experts (173-174 and 184-188)
o Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (211-215)
o Self-fulfilling prophecy of talent (238-242)
o Deliberate Practice: Physics education study (243-247)
o Education, learning and mental representations (250-251)
o Future of deliberate practice (247-255 and 256-259)

In these passages, Ericsson and Pool focus on various dimensions and components of mental representations:

o Planning Process (72-76)
o Deliberate practice (99-100 and 106-107)
o Pattern recognition (63-68)
o Medical diagnosis (68-72 and 128-129)
o Learning and mental representation (76-82)
o Reproduction of mental representations (160-161)
o Education (250-251)

With regard to the concept deliberate practice, that is so widely and so durably misunderstood, there is no doubt that less than 10,000 hours of deliberate practice (preferably under expert supervision) can help almost anyone strengthen certain skills that peak performance in a given field may require. That is not to suggest, however, that – with very rare exception –anyone can shoot a basketball as well as Michael Jordan, Ray Allen, or Stephen Curry; that anyone can play golf as well as Bob Jones, Jack Nicklaus, and Tiger Woods; or that anyone can develop skills playing chess that are comparable with those of Alexander Alekhine, Bobby Fischer, or Boris Spassky. (Let’s save IBM’s Big Blue for discussion on another occasion.) That said, it is indisputable that deliberate practice can only help someone to become their best at doing [whatever] that would otherwise not be possible.

Here are Ericsson and Pool’s concluding observations: “Ultimately, it may be that the only answer to the a world in which rapidly improving technologies are constantly changing the conditions under which we work, play, and live will be to create a society of people who recognize that they can control, their development and understand how to do it. This new world of Homo exercens may well be the ultimate result of what we have learned and will learn about deliberate practice and about the power it gives us to take our future into our own hands.”

This is probably what Alvin Toffler had in mind when suggesting, “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.” Those who refuse to learn, unlearn, and relearn will compound their illiteracy with deliberate practice.

Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise is a brilliant achievement, indeed a “must read” for those who are eager to learn, unlearn, and relearn. To K. Anders Ericsson Robert Pool, I now offer a heartfelt “Bravo!”

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