Book Summary: “Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise” by Anders Ericsson


Title: Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise
Author: Anders Ericsson
Scope: 3 stars
Readability: 5 stars
My personal rating: 5 stars
See more on my book rating system.

Topic of Book

Ericsson seeks to explain why some people are so amazingly good at what they do.

Key Take-aways

  • Humans are not born with talent. We are born with a brain so flexible and adaptable that it could, with the right sort of training, develop a capability that seems quite magical to those of us who do not possess it.
  • Gaining expertise is largely a matter of improving one’s mental processes: deliberate practice.
    • Get outside your comfort zone but do it in a focused way
    • with clear goals
    • a plan for reaching those goals
    • a way to monitor your progress.
    • figure out a way to maintain your motivation.
  • Much of deliberate practice involves developing ever more efficient mental representations that you can use in whatever activity you are practicing.
  • Such mental representations is that they are very domain specific;  there is no such thing as developing a general skill.
  • These representations allow them to make faster, more accurate decisions and respond more quickly and effectively in a given situation.
  • Once you have practiced for a while and can see the results, the skill itself can become part of your motivation. You take pride in what you do, you get pleasure from your friends’ compliments, and your sense of identity changes.

Important Quotes from Book

“Mozart was indeed born with a gift, and it was the same gift that the children in Sakakibara’s study were born with. They were all endowed with a brain so flexible and adaptable that it could, with the right sort of training, develop a capability that seems quite magical to those of us who do not possess it.

In short, 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.”

“But since the 1990s brain researchers have come to realize that the brain—even the adult brain—is far more adaptable than anyone ever imagined, and this gives us a tremendous amount of control over what our brains are able to do. In particular, the brain responds to the right sorts of triggers by rewiring itself in various ways. New connections are made between neurons, while existing connections can be strengthened or weakened,”

 “Over my years of studying experts in various fields, I have found that they all develop their abilities in much the same way that Sakakibara’s students did—through dedicated training that drives changes in the brain (and sometimes, depending on the ability, in the body) that make it possible for them to do things that they otherwise could not.”

“we now understand that there’s no such thing as a predefined ability.”

“This is a game changer, because learning now becomes a way of creating abilities rather than of bringing people to the point where they can take advantage of their innate ones.”

“Learning isn’t a way of reaching one’s potential but rather a way of developing it. We can create our own potential.”

“my colleagues and I came to realize that no matter what the field, the most effective approaches to improving performance all follow a single set of general principles. We named this universal approach “deliberate practice.”

“gaining expertise is largely a matter of improving one’s mental processes.”

“What the second half of the twentieth century did see was a steady increase in the amount of time that people in different areas devoted to training, combined with a growing sophistication of training techniques. This was true in a huge number of fields, particularly highly competitive fields such as musical performance and dance, individual and team sports, and chess and other competitive games.”

“Research has shown that, generally speaking, once a person reaches that level of “acceptable” performance and automaticity, the additional years of “practice” don’t lead to improvement… these automated abilities gradually deteriorate in the absence of deliberate efforts to improve.”

“Purposeful practice has several characteristics that set it apart from what we “might call “naive practice,” which is essentially just doing something repeatedly, and expecting that the repetition alone will improve one’s performance.”

“Purposeful practice has well-defined, specific goals.”

“Purposeful practice is focused.”

“Purposeful practice involves feedback. You have to know whether you are doing something right and, if not, how you’re going wrong.”

“Purposeful practice requires getting out of one’s comfort zone. This is perhaps the most important part of purposeful practice”

“This is a fundamental truth about any sort of practice: If you never push yourself beyond your comfort zone, you will never improve.”

“But sometimes you run into something that stops you cold… Generally the solution is not “try harder” but rather “try differently.” It is a technique issue, in other words.”

“So here we have purposeful practice in a nutshell: Get outside your comfort zone but do it in a focused way, with clear goals, a plan for reaching those goals, and a way to monitor your progress. Oh, and figure out a way to maintain your motivation.”

“Although the specific details vary from skill to skill, the overall pattern is consistent: Regular training leads to changes in the parts of the brain that are challenged by the training. The brain adapts to these challenges by rewiring itself in ways that increase its ability to carry out the functions required by the challenges.”

“First, the effects of training on the brain can vary with age in several ways. The most important way is that younger brains—those of children and adolescents—are more adaptable than adult brains”

“A second detail worth noting is that developing certain parts of the brain through prolonged training can come at a cost: in many cases people who have developed one skill or ability to an extraordinary degree seem to have regressed in another area.”

“Finally, the cognitive and physical changes caused by training require upkeep. Stop training, and they start to go away.”

“Much of deliberate practice involves developing ever more efficient mental representations that you can use in whatever activity you are practicing. ”

“A key fact about such mental representations is that they are very “domain specific,” that is, they apply only to the skill for which they were developed.”

“This explains a crucial fact about expert performance in general: there is no such thing as developing a general skill.”

“one could define a mental representation as a conceptual structure designed to sidestep the usual restrictions that short-term memory places on mental processing.”

“So everyone has and uses mental representations. What sets expert performers apart from everyone else 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”

“These representations allow them to make faster, more accurate decisions and respond more quickly and effectively in a given situation. This, more than anything else, explains the difference in performance between novices and experts.”

“The more you study a subject, the more detailed your mental representations of it become, and the better you get at assimilating new information.”

“Initially, we had seen mental representations as being just one aspect of deliberate practice among many that we would present to the reader, but now we began to see them as a central feature—perhaps the central feature—of the book.”

“We found no shortcuts and no “prodigies” who reached an expert level with relatively little practice.”

“we were saying that deliberate practice is different from other sorts of purposeful practice in two important ways: First, it requires a field that is already reasonably well developed—that is, a field in which the best performers have attained a level of performance that clearly sets them apart from people who are just entering the field. ”

“Second, deliberate practice requires a teacher who can provide practice activities designed to help a student improve his or her performance.”

“Deliberate practice both produces and depends on effective mental representations.”

“Deliberate practice nearly always involves building or modifying previously acquired skills by focusing on particular aspects of those skills and working to improve them specifically; over time this step-by-step improvement will eventually lead to expert performance.”

“This is the basic blueprint for getting better in any pursuit: get as close to deliberate practice as you can. If you’re in a field where deliberate practice is an option, you should take that option. If not, apply the principles of deliberate practice as much as possible. In practice this often boils down to purposeful practice with a few extra steps: first, identify the expert performers, then figure out what they do that makes them so good, then come up with training techniques that allow you to do it, too.”

“This distinction between knowledge and skills lies at the heart of the difference between traditional paths toward expertise and the deliberate-practice approach. Traditionally, the focus is nearly always on knowledge.”

“Deliberate practice, by contrast, focuses solely on performance and how to improve it.”

“In general, professional schools focus on knowledge rather than skills because it is much easier to teach knowledge and then create tests for it. The general argument has been that the skills can be mastered relatively easily if the knowledge is there. One result is that when college students enter the work world, they often find that they need a lot of time to develop the skills they need to do their job. Another result is that many professions do no better a job than medicine—and in most cases, a worse job—of helping practitioners sharpen their skills. Again, the assumption is that simply accumulating more experience will lead to better performance.”

“over the long term I believe the best approach will be to develop new skills-based training programs that will supplement or completely replace the knowledge-based approaches that are the norm now in many places.”

“To effectively practice a skill without a teacher, it helps to keep in mind three Fs: Focus. Feedback. Fix it. Break the skill down into components that you can do repeatedly and analyze effectively, determine your weaknesses, and figure out ways to address them.”

“First, there is little scientific evidence for the existence of a general “willpower” that can be applied in any situation… the available evidence indicates that willpower is a very situation-specific attribute. People generally find it much easier to push themselves in some areas than in others.”

“Studies of expert performers tell us that once you have practiced for a while and can see the results, the skill itself can become part of your motivation. You take pride in what you do, you get pleasure from your friends’ compliments, and your sense of identity changes.”

“Deliberate practice can be a lonely pursuit, but if you have a group of friends who are in the same positions—the other members of your orchestra or your baseball team or your chess club—you have a built-in support system.”

“One of the best bits of advice is to set things up so that you are constantly seeing concrete signs of improvement, even if it is not always major improvement. Break your long journey into a manageable series of goals and focus on them one at a time—perhaps even giving yourself a small reward each time you reach a goal.”

“Having studied many examples of creative genius, it’s clear to me that much of what expert performers do to move the boundary of their fields and create new things is very similar to what they were doing to reach that boundary in the first place.”

“While people with certain innate characteristics—IQ, in the case of the chess study—may have an advantage when first learning a skill, that advantage gets smaller over time, and eventually the amount and the quality of practice take on a much larger role in determining how skilled a person becomes.

Researchers have seen evidence of this pattern in many different fields.”

“We do know—and this is important—that among those people who have practiced enough and have reached a certain level of skill in their chosen field, there is no evidence that any genetically determined abilities play a role in deciding who will be among the best. Once you get to the top, it isn’t natural talent that makes the difference”

“I suspect that such genetic differences—if they exist—are most likely to manifest themselves through the necessary practice and efforts that go into developing a skill.”

“I think there would be tremendous value in helping children and, especially, adolescents develop detailed mental representations in at least one area,”

“One benefit that a young student—or anyone, really—gets from developing mental representations is the freedom to begin exploring that skill on his or her own”

“I would argue that we humans are most human when we’re improving ourselves. We, unlike any other animal, can consciously change ourselves, to improve ourselves in ways we choose.”

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