Book Review: Peak

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Let’s cut right to the chase on this one. If you’ve read anything about Ericsson’s work, especially the concept of “deliberate practice,” and you want to understand it, you should buy and read Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise at least a couple of times.

The fact is that most of the stuff out there about Ericsson’s work is incomplete and imprecise. I think we have Ericsson to blame for most of that.

Most commentators have based their understanding and perceptions on Ericsson’s interviews and academic writing. Those were sometimes works in progress and sometimes incomplete, but this book is different. This time, Ericsson used a professional writer, Robert Pool. I’m biased, of course, since I do the same kind of work that Pool does, but I think his participation in the book makes the book more comprehensive, more coherent, and more understandable.

The book begins with a review of things we’ve been learning from psychologists for the last 20 years or so. It’s all about how the brain isn’t a fixed thing but is very plastic and changes based on experience. Ericsson outlines his part in some of the research that’s led us to the “plasticity” conclusion.

The message is clear. Despite what you may have learned growing up (as I did), abilities and talents are not generally fixed at birth. We can improve our performance in almost any area if we work at it. But wait, there’s more.

It’s not enough to just work at it. Simply practicing your golf swing over and over will not make you a better golfer. There are specific ways to improve, and Ericsson presents us with two of them.

“Purposeful practice” is the first one. That’s a term you may not have become familiar with from other people’s writings about Ericsson’s work. Ericsson sums up purposeful practice this way.

“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.”

Deliberate practice is a subset of purposeful practice. Deliberate practice requires two things. First, it must be part of a field in which excellent performance has been observed and delineated and, second, there must be teachers who can provide practice activities designed to help the student improve performance. That’s a fairly limited range of domains.

Ericsson is very clear that you can only do true deliberate practice in a few fields. He’s talking about musical performance, chess, dance, gymnastics and other similar domains. In other words, if you’re in those domains get an expert teacher and don’t try this at home. What if you’re not, though?

Don’t despair. If you’re a manager or a practitioner of some other kind of field and you’d like to get better with some kind of purposeful practice, this book has a lot of guidance about how to do it well. I’ll speak about business managers because that’s the group that I write for.

Let’s say that you’re a business manager and you want to get really good at what you do. Ericsson says you should start with good “mental representations.” Mental representations are a key to getting things right if you’re not in a field where you can do deliberate practice. Here’s how it works.

In the beginning, you need to learn what effective work looks like. That matches what I’ve found in research into great bosses. Most of them had a boss early in their career who was an excellent role model. In other words, they could see from their first boss or two what good work looked like.

It helps if you get regular feedback from people who know more than you do about the craft. That’s one reason I encourage companies and managers to create peer support groups. Once the role models and feedback have given you a good idea of what good performance is, you can set up systems where you give yourself feedback.

Again, my own experience supports Ericsson’s assertions. In training, we would first have people develop an idea of what being a good boss looks like based on their personal experience of working for one. For the rest of the time we had together, we would keep referring back to that model. As we came to the end of the training, we would talk about what Ericsson would call “purposeful practice.” We’d discuss how you can grade your own performance.

That’s necessary because a manager’s most important work doesn’t have immediate feedback. The results show up down the road. So you have to have your own, more timely, feedback based on your mental model of great performance.

Bottom Line

Many writers have attempted to explain the implications of Anders Ericsson’s concept of deliberate practice. In Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise you’ll learn that deliberate practice is a subset of purposeful practice. You learn that true deliberate practice is limited to a very specific list of disciplines. Most important, you also learn how you can apply the principles of purposeful practice to just about any domain where you want to improve your performance. This book is worth buying and reading, more than once, as you apply the lessons of purposeful practice to your own life, work, and career.


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