Book Notes: Peak by Anders Ericsson, Robert Pool

Not all practice is created equal.
Book Notes: Peak by Anders Ericsson, Robert Pool

I used to think the more I practiced, the better I became.

So I spent years practicing all kinds of things:

Soccer, guitar, kickboxing, weightlifting. Drawing, programming, sales, entrepreneurship. Making friends, talking to strangers. Thinking, doing, not doing.

And I didn't start getting good at what I did until I asked myself two questions and found answers to them: Why and How.

Why gives me the fundamental reason for doing something, and How shows me the way to achieving it.

Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise is about How. It is also one of my favorite books on practice, learning, and becoming better.

You don't improve through sheer practice. You improve when you practice in a deliberate, structured manner.

I figured it out eventually through trial and error, wasting a whole lot of time in the process.

So don't be me, learn from the experts!

Why I liked this book

  • It's massively inspiring. It helped me recognize the immense potential for improvement within myself and within those around me. If you've ever wanted to become better at something but weren't sure if you can do it, you'll like this book.
  • It taught me the How of improving at anything. Figure out the basic principles of learning and practicing efficiently, and you can apply this framework to whatever you're working on, no matter the area. It's that powerful.
  • It's scientific, practical, and entertaining. Peak is neither a dry research paper nor motivational self-help fluff. The book is written in clear language and combines scientific studies with real-world examples.

My favorite ideas from this book

Years of experience, or years of complacency?

We think of people who've spent decades doing something as "experienced" or "experts". But it's not always the case.

Years of experience don't necessarily mean years of improvement, and sometimes it's the opposite. The more time you spend doing something, the easier it is to get complacent. And the more complacent you get, the less you learn, if at all.

According to some studies, experienced and tenured doctors may perform worse and make more mistakes than their younger, less experienced counterparts.

Another experiment has shown that replacing traditional lectures with a more hands-on and practice-oriented approach to teaching physics increases the performance of students significantly.

I remember being annoyed by the outdated teaching methods and ancient technologies used by some of our older college professors. It's a waste of time to be taught computer science in the 2010s by someone relying on the almost-Soviet handbooks from the 90s.

It didn't matter what I thought, though. They knew better, and I should just do what I'm told. I ended up learning a lot by practicing it myself instead.

And it's not just a problem in medicine of education. This happens everywhere, leading to wasted time, worse outcomes, and lost opportunities.

When it comes to expertise, the number of years of experience and pure theoretical knowledge matter less than the applied knowledge practiced in a deliberate manner.

Let's stop glorifying years and focus on quality instead.

You can teach an old dog new tricks if he's willing to learn

Age is not a death sentence for your skills. Mental plasticity is real.

We might not grow neurons as actively later in life, but our brains are still incredibly plastic and adaptable.

And there are plenty of studies showing this.

The famous London cab driver study has shown that regular practice leads to changes in the specific brain regions related to the practice.

The study of visual cortex activity in early and late blind people shows that the visual cortex can adapt to take on new responsibilities, such as reading Braille.

The study of subjects with age-related farsightedness has indicated that the act of practicing vision-improving exercises can improve vision not by improving the eyes, but by training the brain regions that are responsible for interpreting the visual signals from the eye.

This shows that just like physical training can grow our muscles and make us stronger, mental training can build new neural connections and lead to better mental performance.

So the adage that you can't teach an old dog new tricks is only valid if the dog isn't willing to learn. We can stay active and fit well into our later years, and we absolutely can keep learning as we age.

If that doesn't feel massively motivational to you, I don't know what does.

The different types of practice: regular, purposeful, deliberate

Not all practice is created equal. Doing something for a few hours isn't the same as practicing it deliberately.

There are a few different types of practice:

  • Basic practice. You keep doing something without thinking about it too much. The least useful type of practice.
  • Purposeful practice. You have clear goals and a plan in mind and practice outside your comfort zone. A much better way.
  • Deliberate practice. You learn from the best, with the best. Your practice routines are based on the best available knowledge and tailored specifically to you by your coach. You are laser-focused on building better mental representations and improving every little aspect of the skill. The most efficient practice method.

Basic practice is something we all can do, but it stops being useful fast. You can swing a tennis racket for days on end and even learn some basic moves, but most of this time will be wasted effort if you don't know what you're doing.

It can also be harmful. When you don't have immediate feedback and someone to tell you you're doing it wrong, you'll end up learning it the wrong way. I'm lucky enough not to have injured myself once during all those years I had spent in the gym having no idea what I was doing.

Purposeful practice is a major step up from this. This is when you're aware of what your goal is and what you're doing exactly. You know your skill level, you choose exercises that are just beyond it and are capable of noticing and correcting your mistakes.

This is something I started doing in the gym after having finally consulted with a coach. I wasn't training with a coach, but at least I now knew which exercises I need to do, and how.

Deliberate practice is the next level. You now learn from the experts in the field and work with a coach to practice in the most effective manner. Your exercises are tailored to you, and you rely on your ever-improving mental representations to always perform at the top of your ability.

If I decided to become a competitive weightlifter (I won't), surrounding myself with the top weightlifters and practicing deliberately with a coach is what I would do.

The ability to harness the power of deliberate practice is what separates the top performers from the rest.

Mental representations are how we see the world

You know the feeling when you just know how something's done? You don't think about it, it's just part of you.

That's what mental representations are. It's how what you're doing is represented in your mind.

A few simple examples: swimming, driving a car, playing the guitar.

I'm a good driver, but I'd have a hard time teaching someone to drive a stick shift.

Thinking about how I drive, there's a lot to it: operating the stick and the pedals, knowing when to switch exactly, feeling the dimensions of the car, scanning the environment for traffic signs, pedestrians, other cars, and myriad other things.

But I don't think about these actions consciously, I just perform them. The act of driving isn't the sum of these actions, it's more than that. And it's all in my head.

I'm not a good swimmer. I learned to swim myself years ago. When I'm swimming, I'm performing a bunch of separate actions: bend arm, move it, raise it, stretch it, other arm, breathe out, turn head, breathe in, shit, forgot about the legs.

I don't have a good mental representation of swimming yet, and it makes the process exhausting and inefficient. Last week, I've finally signed up for 1:1 swimming lessons. It's astounding how much I've already improved after just a few hours of deliberate practice.

Mental representations are always around us. We walk, talk, eat, breathe, and do a million other things.

What makes experts experts is their ability to consciously work on improving their mental representations, and relying on them to keep sharpening their skills.

It's the feedback loop of deliberate practice and continuous improvement.

Deliberate practice is the way to grow

The most efficient way of improving is to know where you're going and how to get there.

A chess study has shown that the greatest predictor of skill was the number of hours spent in serious, solitary study. Not just hours of chess play, but the time spent practicing chess in an analytical manner.

Here's what separates deliberate practice from the rest:

  • It's informed and guided. It includes well-defined goals and a plan to improve every little aspect tying into those goals.
  • It's built on top of the skills of experts. The more developed the field is, the more applicable is deliberate practice.
  • It's guided by a coach familiar with the abilities of experts and capable of providing the student with the exercises that are tailored to them and are just beyond their abilities.
  • It requires complete and conscious attention and self-monitoring that creates a strong feedback loop to immediately address problems and update the relevant mental representations.

Put it simply, practicing deliberately means doing it in a structured manner, being guided by someone in possession of expertise, and giving it your full attention.

I really wish I had come across this concept sooner. I'm sure I'd be a much more capable swimmer, guitar player, entrepreneur, and a better person in general.

And it's something all of us are capable of doing.

It's not talent, it's dedication

Yes, there are genetic traits we can't change that be helpful in certain areas. You're more likely to become a pro basketball player if you're tall.

It's not talent, though. Science hasn't found talent genes yet. If they do exist, they're more likely to be related to practice, learning, social interaction, or focus, not a specific area like music.

Studies show you don't succeed by being talented, you succeed by staying committed over a longer period of time, always learning, and applying your skills to make your practice more and more efficient.

Some innate traits might give you an initial advantage, but relying on them in the long run will get you outmatched by the dedication of your competitors lacking those traits.

So stop worrying about your talent and start working on your dedication.

The promise of a great future

It's not just about chess or sports.

We have a tremendous capacity to improve our performance in any area within our physical ability given enough time and dedication.

The world is changing at an accelerating pace, and we have to adapt to it by never stopping to improve ourselves.

Deliberate practice gives us confidence in our ability to keep improving and the tools to do it.

It is how we evolve from Homo sapiens, or "thinking man", to Homo exercens, or "practicing man".

Imagine a world in which 50 percent of the people learn to perform at the level that only the top 5 percent manage today.

Let's strive for a world like this where boredom is never a problem.

If you're into audiobooks, I recommend getting the Audible version of Peak. The narration is great.

If you're interested in my 5000+ words of notes from Peak, hit me up on Twitter.