Derek Sivers

Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise - by Anders Ericsson

Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise - by Anders Ericsson

Go to the Amazon page for details and reviews.

After being quoted in many books, the guy who coined “deliberate practice”, and spent his career studying just that, finally writes his own take on it. But I've already loved “The Talent Code”, “The Little Book of Talent”, “Moonwalking with Einstein”, “Talent is Overrated”, and “Little Bets”, which are all about this same field. So I didn't get much new out of it, but if you haven't already read those, maybe start here at the horse's mouth.

my notes

Perfect pitch: adaptability in the brain disappears by the time a child passes about six years old.

There’s no such thing as a predefined ability.

Books leave the impression that heartfelt desire and hard work alone will lead to improved performance - “Just keep working at it, and you’ll get there” - and this is wrong. The right sort of practice carried out over a sufficient period of time leads to improvement. Nothing else.

Gaining expertise is largely a matter of improving one’s mental processes.

The usual approach: We start off with a general idea of what we want to do, get some instruction from a teacher or a coach or a book or a website, practice until we reach an acceptable level, and then let it become automatic.

Once you have reached this satisfactory skill level and automated your performance, you have stopped improving.

A person who’s been at it for twenty years is likely to be a bit worse than the one who’s been doing it for only five, and the reason is that these automated abilities gradually deteriorate in the absence of deliberate efforts to improve.

Purposeful practice has well-defined, specific goals. “Play the piece all the way through at the proper speed without a mistake three times in a row.” Without such a goal, there was no way to judge whether the practice session had been a success.

Break it down and make a plan: What exactly do you need to do. Putting a bunch of baby steps together to reach a longer-term goal.

You seldom improve much without giving the task your full attention.

Purposeful practice involves feedback. You have to know whether you are doing something right and, if not, how you’re going wrong.

Purposeful practice requires getting out of one’s comfort zone. This is perhaps the most important part.

I would challenge him with longer and longer strings of digits so that he was always close to his capacity.

If you never push yourself beyond your comfort zone, you will never improve.

The best way to get past any barrier is to come at it from a different direction.

Maintaining the focus and the effort required by purposeful practice is hard work, and it is generally not fun. So the issue of motivation inevitably comes up.

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.

Presbyopia: American and Israeli neuroscientists and vision researchers, was reported in 2012.

Training exercises taught the subjects’ brains to do a better job of processing, which in turn allowed the subjects to discern smaller details without any improvement in the signal from the eyes.

When you engage in a sustained, vigorous physical activity that pushes the body beyond the point where the homeostatic mechanisms can compensate.

Newly activated genes will switch on or ramp up various biochemical systems within the cell, which will change its behavior in ways that are intended to respond to the fact that the cells and surrounding systems have been pushed out of their comfort zone.

This is the general pattern for how physical activity creates changes in the body: when a body system - certain muscles, the cardiovascular system, or something else - is stressed to the point that homeostasis can no longer be maintained, the body responds with changes that are intended to reestablish homeostasis. You have to keep upping the ante: run farther, run faster, run uphill. If you don’t keep pushing and pushing and pushing some more, the body will settle into homeostasis, albeit at a different level than before, and you will stop improving.

On the other hand, pushing too hard for too long can lead to burnout and ineffective learning.

The brain, like the body, changes most quickly in that sweet spot where it is pushed outside - but not too far outside - its comfort zone.

Training can have larger effects in younger people.

Training at early ages can actually shape the course of later development, leading to significant changes.

Suppose you’ve never heard of a dog: it is just a label for this collection of disconnected knowledge. Dogs are furry, they have four legs. However, as you spend time around dogs and start to understand them, all this information becomes integrated into one holistic concept that is represented by the word dog. Now when you hear that word, you don’t have to search your memory banks to remember all the various details about dogs; instead, all that information is immediately accessible. You have added dog not only to your vocabulary but to your set of mental representations.

Much of deliberate practice involves developing ever more efficient mental representations that you can use in whatever activity you are practicing.

There is no such thing as developing a general skill. You don’t train your memory; you train your memory for strings of digits or for collections of words or for people’s faces. You don’t train to become an athlete; you train to become a gymnast or a sprinter or a marathoner or a swimmer.

The main thing that sets experts apart from the rest of us is that their years of practice have changed the neural circuitry in their brains to produce highly specialized mental representations, which in turn make possible the incredible memory, pattern recognition, problem solving, and other sorts of advanced abilities needed to excel in their particular specialties.

A hallmark of expert performance is the ability to see patterns in a collection of things that would seem random or confusing to people with less well developed mental representations.

Expert writers do it very differently.

Consider how my coauthor and I put this book together. First we had to figure out what we wanted the book to do. What did we want readers to learn about expertise? What concepts and ideas were important to introduce? How should a reader’s ideas about training and potential be changed by reading this book? Answering questions like these gave us our first rough mental representation of the book - our goals for it, what we wanted it to accomplish. Next we started sketching out how we would accomplish our goals for the book. What general topics did we need to cover? Obviously we needed to explain what deliberate practice is. How would we do that? Well, first we would need to explain how people normally practice and the limitations of that approach, and then we would discuss purposeful practice, and so on. At that point we were envisioning various approaches we could use to reach our goals for the book and weighing them, seeing which options seemed best. As we made our choices, we gradually honed our mental representation of the book until we had something that seemed to meet all of our goals. The simplest way to imagine our mental representation at this stage is to think back to the old outlining technique you learned back in junior high English class. We prepared an outline of chapters, each focused on a particular topic and covering various aspects of that topic. But the representation of the book that we had created was far richer and more complex than a simple outline. We knew, for instance, why each piece was there and what we wanted to accomplish with it. And we had a clear idea of the book’s structure and logic - why one topic followed another - and the interconnections among the various pieces.

To write well, develop a mental representation ahead of time to guide your efforts, then monitor and evaluate your efforts and be ready to modify that representation as necessary.

How well the students were able to detect their mistakes.

The relationship between skill and mental representations is a virtuous circle: the more skilled you become, the better your mental representations are, and the better your mental representations are, the more effectively you can practice to hone your skill. Honing the skill improves mental representation, and mental representation helps hone the skill. There is a bit of a chicken-and-egg component to this. Take figure skating: it’s hard to have a clear mental representation of what a double axel feels like until you’ve done it, and, likewise, it is difficult to do a clean double axel without a good mental representation of one. That sounds paradoxical, but it isn’t really. You work up to a double axel bit by bit, assembling the mental representations as you go. It’s like a staircase that you climb as you build it. Each step of your ascent puts you in a position to build the next step.

Some activities, such as playing music in pop music groups, solving crossword puzzles, and folk dancing, have no standard training approaches. Whatever methods there are seem slapdash and produce unpredictable results. Other activities, like classical music performance, mathematics, and ballet, are blessed with highly developed, broadly accepted training methods. If one follows these methods carefully and diligently, one will almost surely become an expert.

These fields have several characteristics in common. First, there are always objective ways - such as the win/loss of a chess competition or a head-to-head race - or at least semiobjective ways - such as evaluation by expert judges - to measure performance.

If there is no agreement on what good performance is and no way to tell what changes would improve performance, then it is very difficult - often impossible - to develop effective training methods.

These fields tend to be competitive enough that performers have strong incentive to practice and improve.

The time they had spent practicing before the age of eighteen - an average of 7,336 hours - was almost identical to what the best violin students in the music academy had reported.

Deliberate practice is different from other sorts of purposeful practice in two important ways: First, it requires a field that is already reasonably well developed.

What areas don’t qualify? Pretty much anything in which there is little or no direct competition, such as manager, teacher, electrician, engineer, consultant, because there are no objective criteria for superior performance.

Deliberate practice requires a teacher who can provide practice activities.

A clear distinction between purposeful practice - in which a person tries very hard to push himself or herself to improve - and practice that is both purposeful and informed.

Deliberate practice requires a student to constantly try things that are just beyond his or her current abilities. Thus it demands near-maximal effort, which is generally not enjoyable.

Well-defined, specific goals, improving some aspect of the target performance.

Small changes will add up to the desired larger change.

Once you have identified an expert, identify what this person does differently from others that could explain the superior performance.

Art Turock from Kirkland, Washington, worked to understand the principles of deliberate practice and incorporate them into his training and coaching of corporate leaders.

Normal business activities can be transformed into practice activities.

Benefit from practicing something over and over again “offline” - that is, away from their real job, where mistakes have real consequences, using simulators.

This distinction between knowledge and skills lies at the heart of the difference between traditional paths toward expertise and the deliberate-practice approach.

The traditional approach has been to provide information about the right way to proceed and then mostly rely on the student to apply that knowledge. Deliberate practice, by contrast, focuses solely on performance and how to improve it.

The main reasons are tradition and convenience: it is much easier to present knowledge to a large group of people than it is to set up conditions under which individuals can develop skills through practice.

Doctors’ performance grew worse over time. Older doctors knew less and did worse in terms of providing appropriate care than doctors with far fewer years of experience.

The right question is, How do we improve the relevant skills? rather than, How do we teach the relevant knowledge?

Get some personal sessions with a coach who could give advice tailored to your performance. An experienced teacher watching you and providing feedback. Someone who knows the best order in which to learn things.

If you want to improve in chess, you don’t do it by playing chess; you do it with solitary study of the grandmasters’ games. If you want to improve in darts, you don’t do it by going to the bar. You do it by spending some time alone working on reproducing your throwing motion exactly from one throw to the next.

If your mind is wandering or you’re relaxed and just having fun, you probably won’t improve.

The difference lay in how the two groups had approached the lesson. For the amateurs it was a time to express themselves, to sing away their cares, and to feel the pure joy of singing. For the professionals, the lesson was a time to concentrate on such things as vocal technique and breath control in an effort to improve their singing. There was focus but no joy.

Long-distance runners: amateurs tend to daydream or think about more pleasant subjects to take their minds off the pain and strain of their running, while elite long-distance runners remain attuned to their bodies so that they can find the optimal pace and make adjustments to maintain the best pace throughout the whole race.

Shorter training sessions with clearer goals are the best way to develop new skills faster. It is better to train at 100 percent effort for less time than at 70 percent effort for a longer period.

Benjamin Franklin: teaching himself how to write as well as the writers of The Spectator. He'd see how closely he could reproduce the sentences in an article once he had forgotten their exact wording. He wrote down short descriptions of the content of each sentence. After several days he tried to reproduce the articles from the hints, to create his own articles that were as detailed and well written. He went back to the original articles, compared them with his own efforts, and corrected his versions where necessary. This taught him to express ideas clearly and cogently. He wrote the hints on separate pieces of paper and then jumbled them so that they were completely out of order. Then he waited long enough that not only had he forgotten the wording of the sentences in the original articles, but he had also forgotten their order, and he tried once again to reproduce the articles. The exercise forced him to think carefully about how to order the thoughts.

Students who were trying to improve their English would watch the same English movies with subtitles over and over again, covering the subtitles and trying to understand what was being said. By listening to the same dialogue over and over, they improved their ability to understand English much more quickly than if they’d simply watched a number of different movies.

Focus. Feedback. Fix it. Break the skill down into components that you can do repeatedly and analyze effectively, determine your weaknesses, and figure out ways to address them.

A plateau: the best way to move beyond it is to challenge your brain or your body in a new way.

Cross-training of any sort is based on the same principle - switch off between different types of exercise so that you are constantly challenging yourself in different ways.

When you reach a point at which you are having difficulty getting better, it will be just one or two of the components of that skill, not all of them, that are holding you back. The question is, Which ones? To figure that out, you need to find a way to push yourself a little - not a lot - harder than usual. This will often help you figure out where your sticking points are.

Push yourself well outside of your comfort zone and see what breaks down first. Then design a practice technique aimed at improving that particular weakness.

Both willpower and natural talent are traits that people assign to someone after the fact. It is much more useful, I believe, to talk about motivation.

The ones who are successful in losing weight over the long run are those who have successfully redesigned their lives, building new habits that allow them to maintain the behaviors that keep them losing weight in spite of all of the temptations that threaten their success. A similar thing is true for those who maintain purposeful or deliberate practice over the long run. They have generally developed various habits that help them keep going.

Strengthen the reasons to keep going or weaken the reasons to quit.

Set aside a fixed time to practice that has been cleared of all other obligations and distractions.

When these future experts were young, their parents would use various strategies to keep them from quitting. They realized that they could indeed keep getting better and that their setback was just temporary. Belief is important.

The only way that a child of that age (she was three at the time) could become interested: she saw the chess pieces as fun. As toys. As something to play with. Young children are very curious and playful. Like puppies or kittens, they interact with the world mostly through play. This desire to play serves as a child’s initial motivation to try out one thing or another, to see what is interesting and what is not, and to engage in various activities that will help them build their skills. At this point they’re developing simple skills, of course, but for future experts, this playful interaction with whatever has caught their interest is their first step toward what will eventually become their passion.

In the beginning, a child’s parents play with their child at the child’s level, but gradually they turn the play toward the real purpose of the “toy.” They explain the special moves of the chess pieces. They show how the golf club is used to hit the ball. They reveal the piano’s ability to produce a tune rather than just a racket.

Parents give their children a great deal of time, attention, and encouragement. Parents tend to be very achievement-oriented and teach their children such values as self-discipline, hard work, responsibility, and spending one’s time constructively. Once a child becomes interested in a particular field, he or she is expected to approach it with those same attributes.

Use this initial interest as a springboard to an activity, but that initial curiosity-driven motivation needs to be supplemented.

Picked up the particular interests of their parents: a way they could spend time with the parents and share the interest.

Parents of children destined for more intellectual pursuits - such as the future mathematicians and future neurologists - were more likely to discuss intellectual topics with their kids.

The best teachers didn’t focus on the rules for solving particular problems but rather encouraged their students to think about general patterns and processes - the why more than the how.

Brady spent a half hour each day training with the tone generator, and at the end of two months he could identify every one of the twelve notes being played.