“Expert performers develop their extraordinary abilities through years and years of dedicated practice, improving step by step in a long, laborious process.”
Peak: How to Master Almost Anything by Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool is a ‘good news-bad news’ kind of book. The good news is that we all have what it takes to achieve amazing things—there’s no such thing as ‘natural talent’. The bad news is there is no such thing as natural talent! We all have to develop our abilities the hard way—through regular, intensive and deliberate practice.
Once you accept that there’s no magic pill, no Jedi mind trick, no shortcut to success and you commit wholeheartedly to becoming an expert in a chosen activity, Ericsson and Pool will show you how to develop your expertise more efficiently and effectively. Hint: there’s a lot more to the 10,000 hour rule than simply logging time. The key to developing expertise and taking your ‘game’ to the next level is doing things differently.
Growth Requires Change, so Change Things Up!
"The first step toward enhancing performance in an organization is realizing that improvement is only possible if participants abandon business-as-usual practices."
Uh-oh. More bad news. If we want to improve at something—personally or organizationally—we need to change our approach. Most of us don’t embrace change; we are content to settle into comfortable routines and practices. In fact, our bodies and brains are programmed to seek and maintain homeostasis, which is why so many of us hit achievement plateaus or eventually fall back into old habits. We unconsciously choose to live in a world of ‘good enough’.
However, complacency is the enemy of high performance. As executive coach and author Marshall Goldsmith cautions, What Got You Here Won’t Get You There. High performing individuals and organizations recognize the importance of pursuing continuous improvement strategies—building on their strengths while pushing themselves beyond their current abilities and outside their comfort zones. This holds true for physical skills (weightlifting, running, and playing a musical instrument, for example), as well as mental skills, like improving one’s memory, becoming a chess grandmaster or mastering quantum physics. So, if you really want to make observable gains, you need to shake things up.
The good news is that the changes needed to move from good enough to extraordinary are not big ones—they are small, incremental adjustments made purposefully over time. And the way to tackle those incremental shifts is by embracing deliberate practice.
No Pain, No Gain
"The hallmark of purposeful or deliberate practice is that you try to do something you cannot do – that takes you out of your comfort zone – and that you practice over and over again, focusing on exactly how you are doing it, where you are falling short, and how you can get better."
Ok, pay attention. Practicing, in and of itself, will not improve your performance. Hitting 100 balls at the driving range twice a week will not improve your tee shots. Playing the violin for two hours each day will not make you a violin virtuoso. Repetition, though important, is overrated as a learning strategy. While you will see some initial improvement in your performance as a result of dedicated practice time, you will not move beyond ’good enough’ unless you alter your approach and constantly adjust your practice activities based on performance feedback.
Deliberate practice differs from traditional practice (i.e. repetition) because it requires you to systematically focus on one small performance issue that is holding you back so you can develop an effective strategy for eliminating that weakness. Isolating the reason you hook your tee shots to the left (is it your grip, your stance, your backswing?) and then designing and practicing activities specifically designed to correct that particular weakness is how you will make better tee shots. To improve your overall golf game, you need to repeat this process for each element of the game—focusing on a specific skill and purposefully changing your practice strategy.
Deliberate practice requires a high level of concentration so you can execute the new technique consistently until it becomes a self-sustaining habit. This leads us to our second gem—the importance of focusing on quality not quantity.
Focus on Quality not Quantity
"It is better to train at 100 percent effort for less time than at 70 percent effort for a longer period."
Research has demonstrated time and time again that quality over quantity produces better results. Athletes develop muscle strength more quickly when they do fewer reps of an exercise at close to their maximum level of ability, and focus intently on their form. Olympic swimmers who focus deliberately on executing their strokes and turns perfectly during practice, instead of daydreaming while they swim, see a marked improvement in their race times. No matter the skill you want to develop, shorter training sessions with clear goals are the best way to develop skills faster.
This is because maintaining a high level of focus and concentration is hard work. Any activity done at the limits of your ability – and that is exactly what deliberate practice requires – will deplete your mental and physical reserves quickly. Ericsson and Pool suggest that once you find you cannot focus effectively you should end your practice session or at least take a decent break before re-engaging in the activity. Aim to maximize the quality of your practice instead of fooling yourself with the length of time you practice. That said, you do need to commit to a regular practice routine. The authors note that anyone who hopes to improve skill in a particular area should devote an hour or more each day to practice that can be done with full concentration. You need to act on your commitment to excellence if you want to see results.
Peak is an easy to read exploration of the research into what makes geniuses, musical prodigies, elite athletes and world champions successful. Ericsson and Pool debunk the widely held belief that high performing individuals are endowed with natural, innate talent and clearly describe the practice strategies that help ordinary people accomplish seemingly extraordinary things. These strategies are grounded in a concept called deliberate practice and a willingness to push yourself out of your comfort zone in the pursuit of excellence.
Even if you don’t want to take your place in the Guinness Book of World Records, understanding and applying the principles of deliberate practice will help you improve in your chosen area(s) of interest. Keep your practice sessions short and focus on one specific thing to improve. Think differently about how you might improve that deficient skill and execute relentlessly until it becomes smooth and automatic. Push yourself to stretch beyond what you consider to be your best efforts and unlock capabilities you didn’t think you had!
I can think of no better way to close this summary than with a final shot of inspiration courtesy of Ericsson and Pool: Deliberate practice can open the door to a world of possibilities that you may have been convinced were out of reach. Open that door!