One topic I’ve been truly fascinated by recently is how to become better at things. I know, things sounds rather vague and ‘stuff’ isn’t cutting it either, but I’m talking about a wide range of things, sorry, I’d love to get better at.
Running for instance. Playing the drums. Writing. The kind of things that are ‘measurable’ in some way, where progress can be quantified.
Peak is the latest book I read on this journey and it’s been another great read. First author Anders Ericsson is a Psychology Professor (one with a distinguished career) who has been studying peak performance for years. In this book, he answers the question ‘What does it take to be really, really good at something?’
‘Peak’ by Anders Ericsson & Robert Pool
Here’s the key message from the book: aside from things where physical aspects really matter (like length in basketball for instance), most people can learn to become good at anything—if they want to and dedicate themselves to it.
This message is not new, as Malcolm Gladwell created the infamous 10,000 hours rule to become an expert at something—a rule he distilled from research Anders Ericsson did by the way. Ericsson doesn’t agree with Gladwell, since the 10,000 hours is an arbitrary number that also omits a crucial aspect of what makes you excel at something. (For Gladwell’s theory, see his book Outliers)
Citing examples from music (playing the violin for instance), athletics and sports, chess, and mind gymnastics like memory championships, the authors show what the crucial ‘recipe’ is for peak performance: deliberate practice and solid mental representations.
One key thought I will remember from this book, is that there’s a big difference between practice and deliberate practice. Practice means just trying something in the hopes to get better, like playing through a musical part a few times. Deliberate practice is something else entirely, since it has multiple elements the authors analyze carefully:
- It has well-defined, specific goals (“Play the piece entirely without mistakes twice”)
- It is focused, meaning you focus on task of practicing and give it your full attention
- It involves feedback on your performance
- It requires getting out of your comfort zone and pushing beyond what you think is doable
- It involves learning from someone who is already an expert (or at least several ‘levels’ above you)
- It requires pushing through plateaus and staying motivated, even when practice gets boring or tough
Deliberate practice, then, is way more than just trying. It’s consistently building your skills, rather than your knowledge, by getting feedback and using this to improve. But the second element is equally important: creating a solid mental representation.
To me, this was the most fascinating part of the book. The authors state that experts, those who excel at something, have really, really good mental images of what they’re doing, how it’s supposed to sound, look, go, etc. Musicians know what a perfectly played piece is supposed to sound like for instance, runners know what the perfect stride feels like, chess players see the board and know all possible outcomes with each scenario.
The more you learn and practice, the more detailed your mental representations become and the better you become at assimilating new information. Much of deliberate practice is about developing more efficient and effective mental images of your desired outcome.
This, in a nutshell, is the key message of Peak: everyone can excel, if they use the concepts of deliberate practice and mental representations. Peak is full of stories and examples of ‘normal people’ who pushed themselves to excel through these strategies. That makes it an incredibly powerful and challenging book, because really, we’re out of excuses now to not be good at something…