Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise

There are loads of self-help books. Boat loads, as they say. Some are good. Most are not. This new book—part self-help, part popular science—won’t help you lose weight or find inner peace; but if you want to learn to fly, or get better at piloting, or be the best pilot in the world in some airplane or mission—this is the best book you will read this year.

It’s written by Anders Ericsson, the lead psychology researcher who’s spent his career studying how humans acquire expertise, and Robert Pool, a science writer. How the good become great. It was his research that Malcolm Gladwell used in his popular (and not quite right) “10,000 hour rule” in the book Outliers. Now, Anders Ericsson is not as good a writer as Gladwell, but he paired up with an experienced science author to produce something much better than Gladwell: The distillation of a lifetime of fascinating research. It’s first person, first rate. Smooth clear English. Logically arranged, a complete whole with no odd dangling bits, and an effortless glide of a read. I’ve studied his tome The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance, which for psychology students is awesome, but it’s hard to get the big picture and real perspective that Anders and Pool now give us in this book.

The overriding theme is great performance is not talent. It’s work. Anybody can be great.

Citibank thinks likes lots of people. But there really isn't something we can measure called talent. (picture D. English)
Citibank thinks like lots of people. But there really isn’t something we can measure called talent. (picture D. English)

“No one has ever managed to figure out how to identify people with ‘innate talent.’ No one has ever found a gene variant that predicts superior performance in one area of another, and no one has ever come up with a way to, say, test young children and identify which among them will become the best athletes or the best mathematicians or the best doctors or the best musicians.”

He goes on to explain exactly how they do get great. It’s ‘deliberate practice’, and he carefully explains what that entails. Along the way we explore chess, tone deaf bad singers, memorizing long strings of numbers, Top Gun fighter weapons school, scrabble, ballet, Olympic swimmers, surgical procedures, savants, child prodigies, the Beatles, the Dan Plan, high jumper Donald Thomas, and Dogbert. It’s very cool. And it’s all fully referenced to academic research papers.

“Doing the same thing over and over again in exactly the same way is not a recipe for improvement; it is a recipe for stagnation and gradual decline.”

“I can report with confidence that I have never found a convincing case for anyone developing extraordinary abilities without intense, extended practice.”

Now, the ‘all deliberative practice no talent’ idea has received some blow back. Including serious papers in leading psychology journals. This book is better for the academic push back, this is a great time for Anders to write this guide, as it has helped clearly define what deliberative practice is, and isn’t. It’s all in the book. With no filler about his personal life, or ego trips, or strange side avenues. The book is tight. Clear. Smooth.

“The most important lesson they gleaned from their teachers is the ability to improve on their own. As part of their training, their teachers helped them develop mental representations that they could use to monitor their own performances, figure out what needs improving, and come up with ways to realize that improvement.”

Dilbert cartoon, 2/7/2013. Scott Adams Inc.
Dilbert cartoon, 2/7/2013. Scott Adams Inc.

“One of the hallmarks of expert performers is that even once they become one of the best at what they do, they still constantly strive to improve their practice techniques and to get better.”

The conclusions are powerful. We really can do (most) anything. If we know how to practice. But it requires disciplined practice. Lots of disciplined practice. And it might not be enjoyable.

“At it’s core, deliberate practice is a lonely pursuit.”

Still. If you want to be really good at something you can. And being really good at something can be very rewarding. I just need to browse books on motivation now!

“Doing the same thing over and over again in exactly the same way is not a recipe for improvement; it is a recipe for stagnation and gradual decline.”

“To date, we have found no limitations to the improvements that can be made with particular types of practice. As training techniques are improved and new heights of achievement are discovered, people in every area of human endeavor are constantly finding ways to get better, the raise the bar on what was thought to be possible, and there is no sign that this will stop. The horizons of human potential are expanding with each new generation.”

I heartily recommend this book for anyone serious about becoming a great pilot.

(All quotes from Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, by Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool . To be published by Eamon Dolan/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on 5 April, 2016)


2 thoughts on “Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise

  1. Hi, Dave. I’m very glad you liked our book. We wrote it in the hopes that it would give people a different way of thinking about human potential and about what it takes to excel, so it’s always gratifying to see that the message is being heard and appreciated. So thanks very much for spreading the word. However, I would very much appreciate it if you could mention my name in the review and describe the book as “by Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool” rather than simply “by Anders Ericsson.” As we said in the book, although the book is about Anders’ research and is written in the first person as if he were telling the story, it was a collaboration in the fullest sense, and most of the words are actually mine. I hope I’m not sounding too peevish, but I’ve unfortunately discovered that because it is Anders’s work we talk about, people talking and writing about the book tend to frame it as his book, while it is very much ours together. Regardless, you have written a wonderful description of the book, and I thank you very much. One other thing: I thought I should point out what appears to be a small error in your review. In the paragraph beginning “He goes on to explain …,” you mention “Dogcart,” but I believe you mean “Dogbert,” Dilbert’s dog friend. Sincerely, Robert Pool

    1. Corrected! Sorry about that, was a sloppy mistake. And thanks for catching the Dogbert autocorrect error. You’ve created a truly good book, and I wish you have the success it deserves.

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