Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise

by Robert Pool, Anders Ericsson, HarperCollins Paperback Edition

Categories: [books]


This book is an inspiration. I wish I had read it long ago. That can't be said for every book, but this one uses evidence to change the mind. I have searched for books about studies in the past, and tend to think the research literature is a gold mine. This one is so powerful because it speaks to human ability and growth. You can learn anything and there are no limits except time and energy spent on improving and pushing the state of the art. I'm tempted after reading this book to take on another hobby and attack it with deliberate practice.


Automated abilities gradually deteriorate in the absence of deliberate efforts to improve (p. 13)

Time spent playing an instrument doesn't always yield gains. You'll only improve if you push out of your comfort zone. Deliberate efforts to get out of the comfort zone are necessary for improvement.

You seldom improve much without giving the task your full attention. (p. 16)

Recently I started solving the Rubik's cube. I'd toyed with it in the past and solved it with the help of one of the many downloadable guides but never memorized it. This time I decided to memorize the steps and work on my time. I found that as I memorized it I was able to do it a little faster but that any distraction at all led to unrecoverable mistakes. So yes, good lighting is important, as is silence, or at least nothing that takes your attention away from the task of training.

Anyone who is serious about developing skills on the chessboard will do it by spending hours studying games played by the masters. (p. 56)

In watching some recent Player Unknown Battlegrounds (PUBG) tournaments I was struck by the consistent performance of one team over the others and heard that their training and coaching were very important to them. Reading here about the game analysis in chess sparked interest about tactical analysis in other games, like PUBG.

the insights that the column offers into the diagnostic thought process (p. 68)

For me the books that seem to read themselves are about psychology, determination, and thought processes. Our world is largely viewed through and designed around psychology.

to write well, develop a mental representation ahead of time to guide your efforts, then monitor and evaluate your efforts and be read to modify that representation as necessary. (p. 76)

There are insights to be gained by looking into the mental representations related to our interests.

Identify the expert performers, then figure out what they do that makes them so good, then come up with training techniques that allow you to do it too.... use some objective measure to separate the best from the rest. (p. 103)

Using PUBG as an example, finding skilled individuals isn't hard but determining what makes them good is a challenge. This first part of deliberate practice is about learning what to focus on and how to practice. Key opportunities exist where instrumentation and training have lagged.

the real action occurred once the pilots landed, in what the navy called "after-action reports." ... trainers would grill students relentlessly: What did you notice when you were up there? What actions did you take? Why? What were your mistakes? What could you have done differently? (p. 117)

Where training methods are less well-defined, the techniques for improvement require more reflection. Any insights can become the basis for future training programs. This has me excited to build a training program as a way of applying this.

unless you are using practice techniques specifically designed to improve those particular skills, trying hard will not get you very far. (p. 122)

In the beginning of endeavor, trying hard + reflecting is all we have, but later once component skills and training techniques for those skills have been identified, it becomes more about focus. The trying is mainly about staying outside the comfort zone.

use videos of actual surgeries, run them up to a certain decision point, then stop them and ask, "What do you do next?" or "What are you looking at here?" (p. 129)

In PUBG, there's a lot of wasted time in a game, so experience could likely be built much faster through sessions made of this kind of video Q&A session. This feels so powerful I wonder if it could be used to help people spot fake news or improve government.

they could probably improve performance much more effectively if their design took into account what is known - or what can be learned - about the mental representations (p. 130)

This is in the context of simulators and how they are built on existing mental representations. I noted this because I'm interested in simulators for reproducibility and scenario-based learning.

the best approach will be to develop new skills-based training programs that will supplement or completely replace the knowledge-based approaches that are the norm. (p. 137)

I find the line between skills and knowledge to be somewhat blurry so wanted to think about this more. When I was studying certain for certifications and learning new programming languages, I often focused on knowledge (reading and taking notes) and but might have benefited from more attention to skills development.

look for specific descriptions of progress the students have made and obstacles they have overcome (p. 149)

In reference to online teachers and reading their reviews. This is pertinent especially if you're interviewing candidates.

Once you find you can no longer focus effectively, end the session (p. 154)

Quality over quantity in practice as you build up your stamina to focus.

Break the skill down into components that you can do repeatedly and analyze effectively, determine your weaknesses, and figure out ways to address them. (p. 159)

This was in the section about practicing without a teacher and sums up the iterative improvement loop of deliberate practice.

[if you reach a plateau and can't figure it out] Push yourself well outside of your comfort zone and see what breaks down first. (p. 165)

It's sort of beautiful that any plateau can be overcome, even if there isn't a well-defined training path.

In the first stage, children are introduced in a playful way to what will eventually become their field of interest. (p. 185)

Seems a good thing to share with parents of young children.

Once a future expert performer becomes interested and shows some promise in an area, the typical next step is to take lessons from a coach or teacher. At this point, most of these students encounter deliberate practice for the first time. ... their practice is about to become work. (p. 188)

Deliberate practice should be a top tier educational topic.

As the students continued to improve, they started to seek out better-qualified teachers and coaches who would take them to the next level. (p. 191)

It's important notice when returns from instruction are diminishing.

Generally when they're in their early or mid teens, the future experts make a major commitment to becoming the best that they can be. This commitment is the third stage. (p. 192)

The tipping point.

Much of what expert performers do to move the boundary of their fields and create new things is very similar to what they were doing to reach that boundary in the first place. (p. 204)

This feels like common sense, but is better explained here than by the idea that being good means you'll get better. This book drives home the point that constant improvement is a valuable focus.

In the long run it is the ones who practice more who prevail, not the ones who had some initial advantage in intelligence or some other talent. (p. 233)

Just for emphasis and because this is is closest to a bumper sticker. Intelligence (IQ) may help at the early figuring out stage but it takes a back seat once significant mental representations are created in the future expert.

The ideal approach to fixing this would be to have athletes verbally report their thinking while they are performing, which would make it possible for researchers, coaches, or perhaps even the athletes themselves to design training tasks to improve their representations of game situations. (p. 248)

It's rare to be able to listen to this kind of reporting but probably worthwhile to seek out.

Deliberate practice is all about the skills. You pick up the necessary knowledge in order to develop the skills; knowledge should never be an end in itself. (p. 250)

An inconvenient truth for knowledge seekers, but then again this is all it the context of skill-building.

When preparing a lesson plan, determining what a student should be able to do is far more effective than determining what the student should know. (p. 251)

This helps build a procedure. Start with what the student should be able to do, then teach that. A duplicate of the previous quote in a way but I like that this is advice.

They gave these students the questions and the learning tasks and then had them think aloud as they reasoned their way toward the answers. Based on what the researchers heard during the think-aloud sessions, they modified the questions and tasks, with a specific emphasis on avoiding misunderstandings and questions that were too difficult for the students to deal with. Then they went through a second round of testing with another volunteer, sharpening the questions and learning tasks even more. (p. 253)

It's striking that it only required a few volunteers to hone the process. Perhaps this says something about how similar students are in general.

Then give plenty of repetition and feedback; the regular cycle of try, fail, get feedback, try again, and so on is how the students will build their mental representations. p253

In a class setting repetition can get boring, but by keeping students a little out of their comfort zone, repetition can help build mental representations faster than parroting back knowledge alone.