Book Review – Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise

Hiker standing on the peak of a large rock.

Photo by Kalen Emsley

Peak is Co-authored by Anders Ericsson (a heavyweight in the field of physiology) and Robert Pool (an established technical writer). Peak is a summation of close to 40 years of Dr. Ericsson’s research in elite performance and some the surprising discoveries made along the way. A lot of his research has surfaced in other titles such as:

  • Outliers: The Story of Success By Malcolm Gladwell – Which introduced the concept of the 10,000 hour rule, something derived from Dr. Ericsson’s research. Outliers takes a very different position on the meaning of the results and is interesting to see the contrast.
  • Deep Work  By Cal Newport – A recommended book on the application of many of these concepts in the context of programming and the knowledge worker economy.

But Peak is direct from the man himself and revels quite a few insights overlook by other authors.

Deliberate Practice

This book centers around the concept of deliberate practice, what it is and isn’t, and how its different from how we usually learn. So what is deliberate practice? Let review the key concepts:

  1. Has Specific Goals – Deliberate practice must have very clear constraints and focus. You must dive deep to become an elite performer and goals keep us on track. Veering off costs you time and productivity.
  2. Focused Practice – You need to be completely focused for long periods, no distractions. The authors mention that high level violinists practice so intensely that many take mid-day naps to recover. Most people have to build up and practice to reach the required levels.
  3. Always Uncomfortable– Its important to always be working on the area which you are worst. This seems obvious but usually once we get pretty good at something we stick to habit and stop improving.
  4. Feedback Loop – In order to improve areas which we are weak we need to know where we are weak. Its important that our practice gives us as close to real-time results as possible so we know if we are heading in the right direction.
  5. Teachers – If possible you should have a teacher, coach, or mentor to help uncover your weak areas. They can also show you the proper mental representations that will improve your ability to make complex ideas useful.

Mental Representations

One of the concepts discussed is the idea of mental representations. The key idea behind this is that we can generalized concepts once they are intuitive to us and build a hierarchy of knowledge.

For instance, the example of a study participant who worked his way up to memorizing about 80 unique numbers. At first he just tried memorizing the numbers but was limited to around 7-9 numbers. Which is the usual limit of short term memory.

By creating memorized representations like robot is 42 or cat is 68, simply picturing a robot picking up a cat could generate the number 4268.

We humans are better at recalling stories and images (chess-masters sometimes refer to picturing the board as lines of force for example) rather than raw information. Meaning a large part of building knowledge involves finding the best way to represent a complex topic as a simple abstraction.

Things need to be practiced and mulled over till it seems obvious. Concepts made intuitive integrate easy with the rest of your knowledge. This web of knowledge allows you to make new and unique connections that is seen in expert performance.

Final Thoughts

Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise is an excellent book. I would say it’s required reading for anyone in a technical field.

Unfortunately, if you are looking for step by step advice you wont find it.

But it does do a great job giving everything needed to classify deliberate practice, helping to qualify whether you are actually performing it. Figuring out the steps ultimately requires advice from experts as well as experimentation.

If you are a developer you may find it difficult to find truly great teachers. The good news for those starting out, you just need someone who is good at explaining things and better than you. But as you progress, you will continue to need better teachers.

Something Cal Newport brings up quite a bit is that few people know or implement this stuff. That means if you can figure it out you can enjoy a huge advantage over your peers. Its fertile territory for those who want to blaze a path since most knowledge work has yet to reach the structure of sports or music.

If you are interested you can pick up Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise from Amazon fairly cheap, the audio version is also great.

If you enjoyed the read or have any comments be sure to follow me @zen_code and let me know.

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