Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise by Anders Ericsson (Book Summary)
Anders Ericsson is the world’s leading scientist on elite performance and deliberate practice.
His research involves finding expert performers who can reliably do things that others can’t, and then figuring out how they’re able to do it.
Peak is the result of more than three decades of research. The book is packed with fascinating studies, eye-opening facts, and entertaining stories.
I highly suggest reading it, especially for what it’ll do for your mindset. It shatters the myth of talent, emphasizes effort, gives you evidence for the fact that all skills are improvable, and so much more.
Who is Peak for?
- Anyone who wants to get better at certain skills
- Anyone who believes in talent or fixed traits
- Anyone interested in the differences between average and elite performance
1. We All Have the Gift
“Why are some people so amazingly good at what they do? Anywhere you look, from competitive sports and musical performance to science, medicine, and business, there always seem to be a few exceptional sorts who dazzle us with what they can do and how well they do it. And when we are confronted with such an exceptional person, we naturally tend to conclude that this person was born with something a little extra. ‘He is so gifted,’ we say, or, ‘She has a real gift.’
But is that really so? For more than thirty years I have studied these people, the special ones who stand out as experts in their fields—athletes, musicians, chess players, doctors, salespeople, teachers, and more. I have delved into the nuts of bolts of what they do and how they do it. I have observed, interviewed, and tested them. I have explored the psychology, the physiology, and the neuroanatomy of these extraordinary people. And over time I’ve come to understand that, yes, these people do have an extraordinary gift, which lies at the heart of their capabilities. But it is not the gift that people usually assume it to be, and it is even more powerful than we imagine. Most importantly, it is a gift that every one of us is born with and can, with the right approach, take advantage of.”
…the clear message from decades of research is that no matter what role innate genetic endowment may play in the achievements of ‘gifted’ people, the main gift that these people have is the same one we all have—the adaptability of the human brain and body, which they have taken advantage of more than the rest of us.”
Modern society tells us that some people have “it” and some don’t.
Elon Musk has it. Arianna Huffington has it. Oprah has it. Mikaela Shiffrin has it. Lebron James has it. Lionel Messi has it. Roger Federer has it.
The magical “it” – some God-given talent that makes top performers different from normal folk like you and me. We could never do what they do. They have the gift; we don’t. Well, turns out that Anders Ericsson’s 30+ years of research say that’s bullshit. The difference between “them” and “us” isn’t some magical something. The difference is that top performers practice more and better than the rest of us.
The “gift” we all possess. According to Ericsson, the gift is simply the adaptability of the human brain and body – an adaptability, which top performers, through the right sort of training and practice, have exploited more than the rest of us.
2. Homeostasis, Adaptability, and Comfort Zones
“The human body has a preference for stability. It maintains a steady internal temperature. It keeps a stable blood pressure and heart rate. It keeps the blood glucose levels and pH balance steady. It maintains a reasonably constant weight from day to day.”
"The technical term for this is ‘homeostasis,’ which simply refers to the tendency of a system – any sort of system, but most often a living creature or some part of a living creature – to act in a way that maintains its own stability.”
Homeostasis means that your body wants to maintain stability, it doesn’t want to change. Think of it like your body’s comfort zone.
Now, I’m sure you’ve heard people say, “Push yourself out of your comfort zone and your comfort zone will expand.”
Well, that’s exactly what happens when you challenge your body. By pushing a body system – muscles, the cardiovascular system, or something else – out of its comfort zone, to the point that homeostasis can no longer be maintained, the body responds with changes that are intended to reestablish homeostasis.
Let’s say you take up a program of aerobic exercise – say, jogging three times a week for 30 minutes each time. If you push yourself hard, this sustained activity will lead to low levels of oxygen in the capillaries that supply your leg muscles. Your body will respond by creating new capillaries in order to provide more oxygen to the muscle cells and return them to their comfort zone.
That’s adaptability. Push yourself hard enough and your body (and brain!) will respond by changing in ways that make that push easier to do. You’ll have built a little more endurance, gotten a little stronger. Once a new normal has been created (homeostasis has been re-established) – the body can handle the physical activity that previously stressed it. It’s comfortable again. And the changes stop.
If you want to keep the changes happening, you have to keep upping the ante: run faster, run farther, run uphill. If you don’t keep pushing, the body will settle into homeostasis, albeit at a different level than before, and you will stop improving. This adaptability is what Anders Ericsson calls the “gift,” and we all have it. And it means each and everyone of us can get better at anything we want.
The difference between average and elite performance is practice – by continuously pushing themselves out of their comfort zones, high achievers establish new levels of normal that seem so far out of reach for most of us that it seems out of this world. But it isn’t. It’s simply harnessing the body’s desire for homeostasis.
Did you know that the record for most push-ups in a row is 10,507, established in 1980 by Minoru Yoshida of Japan? The human body is incredibly adaptable. And so is the brain…
Everything we’ve discussed on homeostasis and adaptability counts as much for the brain as for the body. Where the body creates changes in muscles or cells upon being pushed out of its comfort zone, the brain creates changes in its neural structures.
Push your mental capabilities beyond their current limits and your brain will respond by physically re-wiring itself. Instead of growing bigger biceps, the brain grows stronger connections, creates new gray matter, or strengthens certain synapses. The process of adapting and creating a new normal stays the same.
This ability of the brain to change itself is known as neuroplasticity. It’s essentially the “muscle building” part of the brain and works in much the same way as the body’s muscle building. The skills you train become bigger; the ones you neglect become weaker.
Ericsson gives plenty of examples in the book:
- London taxi drivers have been shown to have larger hippocampi (a brain region) than London bus drivers. This is because that specific brain region is associated with acquiring and using complex spatial information in order to navigate efficiently. Taxi drivers must navigate around London whereas bus drivers follow the same routes over and over again.
- Professional musicians have more gray matter volume in several brain areas involved in playing music, as compared to non-musicians.
- Bilinguals have a larger left inferior parietal cortex than monolinguals.
In one study, the longer someone had worked as a mathematician, the more gray matter he or she had in the right inferior parietal lobule.
We all have the gift of adaptability. The difference between average performers and elite performers is practice. This should be excellent news for everybody. Why? Because it means you can get better at anything you want. The brain and body don’t discriminate. When you push yourself out of your comfort zone, you will adapt and establish a new normal. Simple as that. Nothing magical about it.
4. The Power of Mental Representations
“So here is a major part of the answer to the question we asked at the end of the last chapter: What exactly is being changed in the brain with deliberate practice? The main thing that sets experts apart from the rest of us is that their years of practice have changed the neural circuitry in their brains to produce highly specialized mental representations, which in turn make possible the incredible memory, pattern recognition, problem solving, and other sorts of advanced abilities needed to excel in their particular specialties.”
“The more you study a subject, the more detailed your mental representations of it become, and the better you get at assimilating new information.”
So, we can change. We do so by leaving our comfort zones and establishing a new normal. What exactly changes, though? Mental representations. These are mental structures that correspond to objects, ideas, collections of information, or anything else, concrete or abstract, that the brain is thinking about.
According to Ericsson, improvements in skills come down to improvements in mental representations. The better a chess player, the better his mental representations for the game of chess. The better a football player, the better her mental representations for playing football.
We can’t go into details about what mental representations are, but the important part is that they get built up through practice. The more and better we practice, the better our mental representations for that skill become, and the more we improve at that skill. The difference between an elite performer and an average performer are their respective mental representations, which have been built up by practice.
This is liberating news! If someone is better than you at math, ping-pong, or socializing, know that they simply have better mental representations. They’re not more talented than you. They’re not smarter. They just accumulated more practice over their lifetime.
And remember. You can get better at those skills as well. All you need to do is push yourself beyond your current limits. All you need to do is practice. Or well, practice in the right way…
5. Naïve Practice
“People often misunderstand this because they assume that the continued driving or tennis playing or pie baking is a form of practice and that if they keep doing it they are bound to get better at it, slowly perhaps, but better nonetheless…But no. 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.”
We assume that someone who’s been driving for ten years must be a better driver than someone who’s been driving for five, or that a teacher who’s been teaching for twenty years must be better than one who has been teaching for ten.
After all, they practice day in and day out. Surely, they must be getting better.
Well, it turns out that’s not the case. This type of practice is what Ericsson calls naïve practice and it doesn’t lead to improvement. Naïve practice is what most of us do most of the time. We go through the motions. We repeat what we always do. We’re distracted. We don’t challenge ourselves.
If you think about the concept of comfort zones you realize why this doesn’t work. Merely repeating something over and over again doesn’t challenge homeostasis. It doesn’t trigger adaptation. And therefore, it doesn’t lead to changes.
6. Purposeful Practice
“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 repetition alone will improve one’s performance.”
“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.”
Naïve practice isn’t enough to improve our skills. What we need is a more focused and deliberate approach, what Ericsson calls purposeful practice. Purposeful practice is what allows us to trigger adaptation, create a new normal, and continuously improve our performance.
There are four characteristics of purposeful practice.
- Purposeful practice has well-defined, specific goals. You need to establish an overall goal for your practice, a purpose if you will. Then you break that down into well-defined, specific goals.
- Purposeful practice is focused. You need to give 100% undivided attention to whatever it is you’re practicing. No distractions or interruptions allowed. Full focus. High concentration.
- Purposeful practice involves feedback. You must know what you’re doing wrong and how you can improve. In other words, you need feedback, and the more immediate, the better.
- Purposeful practice requires getting out of one’s comfort zone. According to Ericsson, this is the most important aspect of purposeful practice. If you don’t push yourself, you won’t trigger adaptation, and you won’t get better.
Purposeful practice is a powerful way to improve our skills. But there’s an even better option…
7. Deliberate Practice – The Gold Standard
“…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. Of course, before there can be such teachers there must be individuals who have achieved a certain level of performance with practice methods that can be passed on to others.
With this definition we are drawing a clear distinction between purposeful practice – in which a person tries very hard to pushing himself or herself to improve – and practice that is both purposeful and informed. In particular, deliberate practice is informed and guided by the best performers’ accomplishments and by an understanding of what these expert performers do to excel. Deliberate practice is purposeful practice that knows where it is going and how to get there.”
Deliberate practice is the gold standard for improving performance. In other words, it’s the best way to become better at whatever you want to get better at.
The difference between deliberate and purposeful practice is simple: deliberate practice is both purposeful and informed. This requires a field that is well developed and a teacher who knows what he or she is doing. Put differently, deliberate practice means copying the training techniques of the highest performers in a given field and then applying these principles using the four aspects of purposeful practice.
8. The 10,000 Hour Rule
“By now it is safe to conclude from many studies on a wide variety of disciplines that nobody develop extraordinary abilities without putting in tremendous amounts of practice. I do not know of any serious scientists who doubts that conclusion. No matter which area you study, music, dance, sports, competitive games, or anything else with objective measures of performance—you find that the top performers have devoted a tremendous amount of time to developing their abilities.”
Greatness requires a ton of deliberate practice. You may have heard of the 10,000-hour rule, which Malcolm Gladwell popularized in his book Outliers. The rule states that the key to achieving world-class expertise in any skill comes down to practicing for a total amount of 10,000 hours.
Ericsson dismisses this rule for a variety of reasons. Essentially, he’s saying that reaching the top of any field requires a ton of deliberate practice, but it’s impossible to say how many hours that is. In some fields, it may only take 100 hours. In others, it may take 20,000 hours.
So while the 10,000 hour rule isn’t really a rule, one thing remains certain: Greatness requires a ton of deliberate practice.
9. No Shortcut. No Prodigies.
“…to become an excellent violinist requires several thousand hours of practice. We found no shortcuts and no ‘prodigies’ who reached an expert level with relatively little practice.”
“…you generally find that the best performers are those who have spent the most time in various types of purposeful practice.”
One of Anders Ericsson’s first studies was with violinists. What he found was that the best violinists were the ones who spent the most time in various types of purposeful practice. More practice, higher level of performance.
In addition, he found that 1) there were no prodigies. Nobody reached an expert level of performance with relatively little practice or with far less practice than others. 2) There were no people who did NOT become elite performers if they put in enough time and effort. Even people who seemingly had no talent, if they put in enough purposeful practice, they eventually became great at playing the violin. Ericsson has since replicated these findings in various fields of expertise.
The bottom line is this: Skill is largely a function of how much purposeful or deliberate practice you put into it. Maybe you think you’re just naturally untalented. You’re just naturally bad at math. You were born lazy. You’re just not good at languages. The truth is, none of that is true. The reason you suck at certain skills is that you haven’t put in a lot of practice. It’s as simple as that.
10. How to Get Better At Anything
“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 makes them so good, then come up with training techniques that allow you to do it, too.”
Want to get better at something? Here’s your blueprint. Find the best performers at this skill. Figure out how they train or what makes them so good. Come up with training techniques that allow you to do the same. Then practice with the purposeful practice guidelines: Set clear goals. Focus hard. Learn from feedback. And most importantly, push yourself past your comfort zone.
Getting better at something isn’t rocket science. If you’re willing to put in the time and effort, you can do it.
If you enjoyed Peak, here are some similar books you might enjoy.
- The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle. A very similar book to Peak. All about the path to elite performance. Uses a lot of Ericsson’s research.
- The Little Book of Talent by Daniel Coyle. A short book with 52 tips for improving your skills.
- Deep Work by Cal Newport. Want to apply the principles of deliberate practice to productivity? This is the book to read.
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