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“Peak”, by K. Anders Ericsson – Book #385 of 1,000 – Expert Performance And Deliberate Practice

On my way to reading 1,000 books before I turn 30, this was number 385.

I take notes on everything I read, with my notes organized by book and by year. I also have a single word document containing my most important notes from each book, and I use these to raise money for Doctors Without Borders, the international human rights and disaster relief organization.

I also write about self-discipline, fitness, and other topics related to self-development. 

If you think about something all day every day, then you just have to write about it. That’s how I feel about books and literature, so here are some of my notes and thoughts on the book, “Peak”, by K. Anders Ericsson. Enjoy!

“The right sort of practice carried out over a sufficient period of time leads to improvement. Nothing else.”

From Amazon: From the world’s reigning expert on expertise comes a powerful new approach to mastering almost any skill.

Have you ever wanted to learn a language or pick up an instrument, only to become too daunted by the task at hand? Expert performance guru Anders Ericsson has made a career studying chess champions, violin virtuosos, star athletes, and memory mavens.

Peak condenses three decades of original research to introduce an incredibly powerful approach to learning that is fundamentally different from the way people traditionally think about acquiring a skill.

Ericsson’s findings have been lauded and debated, but never properly explained. So the idea of expertise still intimidates us — we believe we need innate talent to excel, or think excelling seems prohibitively difficult. Peak belies both of these notions, proving that almost all of us have the seeds of excellence within us — it’s just a question of nurturing them by reducing expertise to a discrete series of attainable practices.

Peak offers invaluable, often counterintuitive, advice on setting goals, getting feedback, identifying patterns, and motivating yourself.  Whether you want to stand out at work, or help your kid achieve academic goals, Ericsson’s revolutionary methods will show you how to master nearly anything.


THE STORY BEGINS

You’ve heard of the 10,000 Hour Rule, you’ve heard of Malcolm Gladwell, and you may have even heard about the original researcher from whom Gladwell distilled most of the research into elite performance.

I’ve read everything that Gladwell has written (all his books anyway), and I’m a big fan. But “Peak” is written by the actual researcher who conducted his own investigation into superior performance, and you just can’t get at the whole story with some bite-sized introduction as part of some other book.

Another part of the story is that 10,000 hours was measured by age TWENTY in many elite performers, with 25,000-30,000 or many more hours put in over the course of their lifetimes.

So, 10,000 hours is a start but it’s not enough.

Disheartening? Read on.

The main meat of this story is that we all have latent potentialities that we are not even close to reaching.

Ericsson (the two “s’s” always trip me up) maintains that the number 10,000 has almost ZERO significance unless you are engaging in the right KIND of practice, and that practice is what he calls “deliberate practice”.

“The main gift that we all have is the adaptability of the human brain and body”

The usual way to practice is to get to a comfortable level and then let things go to automatic, without working on specific sticking points. Rote repetition for thousands of hours won’t get you nearly as far as being strategic about it, and breaking down the sport or activity into precisely defined SKILLS, and hammering away at those in a certain way, all in a deliberate way (there’s that word again), in order to get better.

We often just settle for good enough and never really challenge our abilities and what we do naturally each day. That is NOT deliberate practice, and doing something the wrong way, without feedback on what you’re doing right or wrong, and without changes to what you’re doing based on that feedback, will never lead to expert performance.

Ten thousand hours be damned.

Well what about those of us who don’t want to be world-class? Who just want to get our golf scores down or learn some of our favorite songs on the guitar?

Excellent questions.

Good enough can be “good enough”, but we should remember that the option exists to push ourselves further.

Generally “fit” adult males can do 40-50 push-ups and 40-50 pull-ups, but the record for consecutive push-ups and pull-ups is in the thousands. Most people aren’t even close. Even the ones whom we consider “fit”.

“Rarely will there be a direct obstacle to improvement that will prevent any further efforts from being successful and it’s not even something you should think about.”

You seldom improve much without giving the task your full attention, and in fact, automated abilities gradually deteriorate in the absence of deliberate efforts to improve.

That’s why you can have a doctor who has been practicing for 20 years who is not necessarily better than a doctor who has been practicing for only 5 years.

The former will have let his skills deteriorate, without making any efforts to improve, while the latter is fresh out of med school, and is still operating under the mindset that he has a lot more to learn. Only if he lets his learning and his training slip will he see himself making more and more mistakes, and causing more iatrogenic deaths.

YOUR COMFORT ZONE

There’s just no escaping being uncomfortable. Everything worthwhile is beyond the outer reaches of your comfort zone, and you need to start getting comfortable with being uncomfortable if you actually want to improve.

Both the body and the brain grow most quickly by being pushed just outside their comfort zone, but not by too much. You don’t want to stress yourself too hard, but you don’t want a life of absolute comfort. It’s a very delicate balance, and a balance that’s critical to maintain.

“Get outside your comfort zone in a focused way, with clear goals, a plan for reaching those goals, a way to monitor your progress, and maintain your motivation over time”

When a bodily system is stressed to the point at which homeostasis can no longer be maintained, the body responds with changes that are intended to reestablish homeostasis.

That means that you achieve a new normal.

When homeostasis used to mean that you could bench 195lbs, and you put up 205lbs, your body reacted in such a way that because it knew that it had to be able to deal with 205lbs from now on, it forced itself to be able to bench 205lbs the next time you called for it.

You told your body: “Listen up, I used to be able to bench 195lbs, but that’s no longer working for me. I want to bring my bench press up over 200lbs, and the only way I can do that is if you get stronger. You need to step up, and adapt yourself so that this is possible the next time I need to lift that much weight. Let’s do this.”

“Working past your comfort zone not only fulfills your innate abilities but pushes further towards what is possible and expands your limits”

There may be limits to human adaptability, but we haven’t even come close to reaching them. That’s what Ericsson hammers home again and again in his book.

Also, he say that while you can clearly see improvements with respect to your body, improvements in the brain are easily overlooked.

They’re there, and they’re either working for or against you, but you have to look for them, and you have to actively shape them.

MENTAL REPRESENTATIONS

If you’ve been reading the psychological and educational literature over the past few decades, you would have run across the terms “mental models” or “mental representations” a few times or more.

It’s basically what expert performers see in their heads when they’re doing what they do.

They have a vision, a mental image, of what their activity is supposed to look like when done correctly. When their actions deviate from their image, they know that they’ve made a mistake and that they need to go back and course-correct.

It’s over the span of years and years that this process of building mental models leads to highly developed skills and intuitions. In fact, we all create mental models, at least somewhat, and they are what we use to navigate our days.

“What sets expert performers apart is the quality and quantity of their mental representations.”

The superior organization of information is a theme that appears over and over again in the study of expert performers, and someone just starting out on the path to elite status would do well to heed their advice, and the findings of Dr. Ericsson.

You must have a very accurate idea of what an expert performer’s mental representations look like if you’re going to replicate their success. You must have a detailed image inside your mind of what you SHOULD be doing, what your activity LOOKS LIKE when done correctly, and you need to generate awareness about how you can improve.

The main purpose of deliberate practice is to develop effective mental representations, and as they get better, you get better.

Like What You're Reading? Want More?

YOUR POTENTIAL

There is no point at which performance maxes out and additional practice does not lead to further improvement.

This bears repeating, and you can remember it by thinking to yourself that no matter how far you progress, you can always become better. We simply don’t know the limits of human adaptability and achievement, and it’s downright shameful to give up before you’ve tested yourself against what you think you can do.

The very first step is the shedding of your limiting beliefs; the ideas that other people foisted upon you that gave you the mistaken impression that your abilities were fixed, and that nothing you can do will improve upon your natural skill levels.

“The very first step in improvement is a mindset shift, where you get rid of ideas such as that you aren’t creative, you are limited by genetics, etc”

We can shape our own potential, and all the most current research is bearing out this conclusion.

Richard Feynman. Nobel Prize-winning physicist; too stupid for MENSA.

It may even surprise you that there are numerous extremely intelligent people with IQ’s probably around the same level as yours. And in fact, there are a number of Nobel Prize-winning scientists who have IQ’s that wouldn’t even qualify them for Mensa.

So what gives?

Each and every one of them worked with what they had, and pushed the limits of what other people said was possible for them.

There is a danger of giving up if you believe that you need innate talent in order to succeed, and bottom line, those people didn’t.

Whole avenues of achievement and self-exploration are often closed to children because they don’t seem gifted right away and the kids with the initial advantage get all the attention.

If this seems wrong to you, it’s because it is.

It should be encouraging to you to know that the people who practice, deliberately, gain distance on those with “natural” talent who don’t work at what they’ve been given.

Here are some other insights from the book, “Peak”, which should prove helpful:

QUICK TIPS

The best way to get past a barrier is to approach it from a different direction

Look for ways in which normal activities can be turned into opportunities for practice

An overemphasis on knowledge prevents people from getting adequate opportunities for practicing and improving their skills

It’s better to practice at 100% effort for a shorter period of time than it is to practice at 70% effort for a longer period

When you reach a plateau, it won’t usually be every aspect of the skill that is giving you trouble, but one or two specific parts

You can either increase the strength of the reasons to keep going, or reduce the strength of the reasons to quit

CONCLUSION

The need for four or five hours of daily practice is more of a hindrance than any mental or physical limitations.

The number 10,000 is just that; a number.

If you want to be really, really, terrifyingly good at something, you have to practice deliberately, for hours and hours and hours, every single day, week, month, and year, until you get good. There’s simply no way around it.

Before too long, innate abilities take on a smaller and smaller role, and the amount of deliberate practice starts to determine the extent of progress made in a particular skill or activity.

Let’s review:

Deliberate Practice, Again:

-Push outside comfort zone and attempt to do things that are not easy

-Get immediate feedback on the performance and what can be done to improve it

-Identify the best performers in a certain area and what makes them better than everyone else

-Develop the particular skills that experts in the field possess

This whole thing requires self-discipline on a scale that might seem unreasonable to most people.

But that’s exactly what it takes.

It’s better to know what it takes NOW, than to start half-assed and then quit when it gets too hard, and you come up against all these realizations later.

You’d better make your ONE THING something you enjoy, because you’re probably not going to spend 10,000 hours doing something that you don’t enjoy.

And if you do, you’re wasting your life.

What I can, in good faith, suggest to you is to pick one thing that fascinates you, and make it the one thing in which you want to be the best in the entire world.

You need to soberly, rationally, and coolly decide that you have understood the risks, requirements, demands, necessary sacrifices, blood, tears, disappointments, ecstasies, and triumphs involved in pursuing excellence in this one and only thing for hours and hours and hours each day, for years and years and years of your one and only life.

Then, you can get down to work.

All the best,

Matt Karamazov

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AUTHOR BIO:

Matt Karamazov is a human rights activist, boxer, and writer who reads at least 100 books every year and throws 300 punches per minute. His website, Godlike Discipline, is dedicated to raising money for causes like Doctors Without Borders, and Human Rights Watch, among others. It’s also dedicated to helping people tackle their biggest willpower challenges. He also like death metal, and so, consequently doesn’t get many second dates. Here he is on a horse.

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