Peak: Secrets From the New Science of Expertise explores how humans develop skills and the process by which peak performers in music, athletics, and countless other fields develop their abilities. While it may seem as though figures like Chopin, Beethoven, or Roger Federer rely solely on an innate talent that makes their extraordinary feats seem effortless, what they do actually requires a great deal of effort. Indeed, the secret to their success was practice. They practiced a lot and they practiced the right way.
Most of us think of “practice” as the simple repetition of a task. And, to be sure, this kind of practice will yield some results. If you’re learning how to play tennis, for example, you’ll probably be able to iron out your most embarrassing mistakes and figure out how to serve the ball somewhat competently. But this approach actually stunts your learning. Once you reach your accepted level of performance, you’ll plateau and stop improving. To truly improve, you need to change how you practice.
Purposeful practice is distinct from merely repetitive practice in a few specific ways.
For example, research has shown that doctors who have been practicing for 30 years actually do worse on certain measures of performance than their colleagues who are only a few years out of medical school. This is because the senior doctors aren’t engaging in purposeful practice. Most of their day-to-day activities keep them squarely in their comfort zone: they aren’t being challenged at all.
Purposeful practice can be remarkably effective. Anders Ericsson, author of Peak, once conducted an experiment to see how many digits a test subject, named Steve, would be able to memorize and recite in a numerical string. At first, Steve couldn’t memorize strings longer than nine digits. It seemed that he had reached some sort of natural plateau.
The author decided to try purposeful practice to help Steve push through this barrier. He would present Steve with five-digit strings: if Steve repeated it back correctly, the author would add one more digit to the string to make it six digits. If Steve got it wrong, the author would drop the length of the string by two digits. And it worked: in a few days, Steve managed to memorize an 11-digit sequence, two better than his previous record. After hundreds of sessions, Steve was able to successfully recite back 82 digits!
Truly effective practice goes a step beyond purposeful practice, to deliberate practice. Working hard and pushing yourself beyond your comfort zone, by themselves, are not enough. Deliberate practice builds on the principles of purposeful practice, but it applies them in a systematic, rigorous framework that leads to the kind of performances we see from acknowledged experts. Unlike purposeful practice, deliberate practice isn’t about fulfilling your potential—it’s about building it, making possible what was once impossible.
With deliberate practice, you are working with highly developed and well-accepted training methods that have been proven effective in getting results. These methods have been honed and perfected by those who came before you into a near-science. With purposeful practice, if you push yourself, you might see improvement. With deliberate practice, you’ll become an expert.
There are a few key features of deliberate practice.
Deliberate practice is how experts become experts. In a study of violin students at the Berlin University of the Arts, a team of researchers set out to determine whether the best performances were the product of deliberate practice or innate talent. Given the extreme difficulty of playing the violin, it requires a great deal...
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We are in awe of the world’s peak performers in music, athletics, and countless other fields. People like tennis star Roger Federer, Olympic vaulter McKayla Maroney, or history’s brilliant composers like Beethoven, Chopin, and Rachmaninoff seem to us to be otherworldly figures, overflowing with an almost divine talent. Surely these individuals must be in possession of some rare gift, some innate spark that the rest of us simply don’t have.
But that isn’t the case at all. How did these people become so good at what they do? The answer may seem banal, but it’s true: they practiced. They practiced the right way, they practiced with the right people, and they practiced a lot. Moreover, across all these fields, the principles of effective practice are the same, because they involve the same mental processes. The specific techniques may differ, but the basic process of challenge and improvement is the same: ballerinas and laparoscopic surgeons both become great using the same basic process. And because we can look to the great achievers of the past and present and study their success, we have a blueprint: we, too, can achieve new heights of performance.
We’ve all heard the...
Think about how to improve your performance with better practice.
Have you ever trained for a long period of time to achieve a particular milestone? Describe the situation in a few sentences.
Human beings are meaning-making creatures. We strive to find order, coherence, and narrative amid the jumble of information we are confronted with every day. By giving the world meaning, we are able to process and make sense of what would otherwise be a baffling barrage of inputs and sensations. We know what flowers or blades of grass are when we encounter them because we have set ideas of what those things are. It is through harnessing the power of these mental representations that you can begin to unlock the vast, untapped potential of your mind.
We see this with verbal memory. It is very difficult to memorize a random jumble of words. But when these same words are arranged into a grammatical and logically coherent sentence, most people are able to easily recite it back. This is because the sentence gives us a mental representation of the content within it: it provides context and meaning, which aids in memory. This ability to recognize meaningful patterns underlies the success of some of the world’s peak performers.
**What are mental representations? At their most basic, mental representations are templates that correspond to objects,...
In the first chapter, we talked about purposeful practice: reaching new levels of performance by pushing yourself just beyond your comfort zone. But truly effective practice is more complicated than that. You need to go a step beyond even purposeful practice. You need to embrace deliberate practice.
Truly effective practice goes a step beyond purposeful practice, to deliberate practice. Working hard and pushing yourself beyond your comfort zone, by themselves, are not enough. Deliberate practice builds on the principles of purposeful practice, but it applies them in a systematic, rigorous framework that leads to the level of performance we see from experts. Unlike purposeful practice, deliberate practice isn’t about fulfilling your potential—it’s about building it, making possible what was once impossible.
With deliberate practice, you are working with highly developed and well-accepted training methods that have been proven effective in getting results. These methods have been honed and perfected by those who came before you into a near-science. With purposeful practice, if you push yourself, you might see improvement. With...
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So far, we’ve been analyzing the performances of individuals in elite or esoteric fields—classical music, blindfold chess, digit memorization. Obviously, most of us aren’t trying to be orchestra musicians, chess masters, or digit memorization champions. But you can apply the principles of deliberate practice and mental representations to many everyday fields to improve your performance. In time, you can improve to the point where you can train others and bring them up to your level of performance—strengthening your entire organization.
Improvement is only possible if you and your organization let go of some popular myths about practice and human importance.
The first is the highly deterministic idea that your abilities are limited by your genetic characteristics. This is the old idea about “natural” talent: some people simply have it, and others don’t. It shows up in the defeatist statements people make when they don’t immediately achieve what they set out to: “I can’t manage people,” “I’m just not that creative,” or “I’m just not a math person.” We know this isn’t true: outside of people who suffer from severe physical or mental limitations,...
Most of us have dreams. Some people would like to become experts in golf and make the PGA Tour. Others want to master the Japanese martial art of karate and attain black belt status. And most of us are dissuaded from pursuing those dreams because we have bought into the idea that we just aren’t good enough or don’t have the natural talent to perform at these levels.
But this notion is false. Through deliberate practice, you can take control of your life and fulfill your untapped potential.
The first step is to find a good teacher. Deliberate practice requires structure and feedback—you need someone who is well-versed in your field who can point out when you’re making mistakes and devise a practice regimen that will push and challenge you. And remember, the best teachers are not always themselves the best performers. Indeed, many experts make terrible teachers.
(Shortform note: We see this in sports all the time, with great players who prove to be utter flops as coaches. Wayne Gretzky, for example, is widely regarded as the greatest player ever to play in the National Hockey League. But he was a disappointment as a coach, posting a decidedly...
Think about how you can more effectively use the principles of deliberate practice.
What are your biggest sources of distraction when you’re trying to practice?
How do the world’s top performers do what they do? In this chapter, we’re going to examine what is required to fully tap into the potential of the human mind and body. This is usually a process that people begin when they’re still children, continuing through adolescence and into early adulthood until true mastery is attained. But expert performers don’t just stop when they reach a certain level of skill. They keep going, constantly striving to improve their practice routines in the quest to get better and better.
In a study at the University of Chicago, one researcher looked at top achievers in music, swimming, tennis, mathematics, neurology, and sculpture. He found that they had common childhood experiences which exerted a meaningful impact on their subsequent records of achievement.
As children, they had all been introduced to their field of interest in a fun, playful way. Their parents provided them the time, attention, and encouragement to engage with it further. Indeed, the study found that the parents themselves were likely to be highly achievement-oriented. Crucially, the parents supplemented the child’s initial curiosity-driven motivation with...
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One of the most enduring beliefs is the idea that some people are born with natural talent that enables them to excel in a particular field with comparatively little effort. In fact, innate characteristics play a much smaller role in determining performance than most people believe. Great performers and great performances are the product of long, careful, and deliberate practice. The idea of prodigies is revealed as being largely a myth, now that we have an understanding of how deliberate practice works.
There is usually a wide variability in the performance level of beginners in most fields. Some seem to excel easily, while others struggle at the outset. This also contributes to the idea that some people are just born with innate talent. But this is false. One study of young chess players, for example, showed that the amount of chess practice performed by a student was far more correlated with high scores than raw intelligence (as measured by IQ scores).
In fact, among the best-performing players, high IQ was negatively correlated with high scores in chess. The researchers found that the lower-IQ members of this elite group within the study were more likely to...
Think about the main takeaways from Peak.
Briefly explain why the belief in “natural talent” can be destructive and harmful.