Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise

Peak Secret from the New Science of Expertise

My goal in reading this book is to answer four questions (see below) that I had with regards to skills mastery. The author, Anders Ericsson, is the leading researcher in the field of human performance. He has performed numerous studies on the subject, one of which is his work with Steve Faloon, a graduate student at Carnegie Mellon at the time of the experiment, who was able to increase his memory span from 7 to 79 digits in 230 hours of practice.

  1. Is skill innate? No.
  2. Is skill developed? Yes because the brain is very adaptable.
  3. How many hours does it take to be a master at a skill? It depends. Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule is arbitrary. Galdwell perhaps came up with 10,000 hours because it is easier to remember. Nevertheless, the fact is it takes thousands of hours of practice to become a master at a skill.
  4. How do you become a master? Purposeful practice, deliberate practice, and good mental representations.


Mental representations

A mental representation is a mental structure that corresponds to an object, an idea, a collection of information, or anything else, concrete or abstract, that the brain is thinking about. Example: mention the Mona Lisa, and you will see people have different mental representations of the painting (some can mention the painting with vivid details, some only focus on Mona Lisa’s lack of eyebrows, etc.).

What sets expert performers apart from everyone else is the quality and quantity of their mental representations.

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.

Recognizing and responding to patterns

In pretty much every area, 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.

How to build mental representations?

You build mental representations by trying to do something, failing, revising, and trying again, over and over.

When you’re done, not only have you developed an effective mental representation for the skill you were developing, but you have also absorbed a great deal of information connected with that skill.

You don’t build mental representations by merely thinking about something.

Purposeful practice:

  1. Purposeful practice has well-defined, specific goals. It is all about putting a bunch of baby steps together to reach a longer-term goal.
  2. Purposeful practice is focused.
  3. Purposeful practice involves feedback. You have to know whether you are doing something right and, if not, how you are going wrong.
  4. Purposeful practice requires getting out of one’s comfort zone. If you never push yourself beyond your comfort zone, you will never improve. 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. When one gets stuck during purposeful practice, generally the solution is not “try harder” but rather “try differently.” The best way to get past any barrier is to come at it from a different direction, which is one reason it is useful to work with a teacher or coach.

Maintaining the focus and effort required by purposeful practice is hard work, and it is generally not fun.

The effects of training on the brain can vary with age in several ways. The most important way is that younger brains – those of children and adolescents – are more adaptable than adult brains are, so training can have larger effects in younger people. Because the young brain is developing in various ways, training at early ages can actually shape the course of later development, leading to significant changes. This is “the bent-twig effect.” If you push a small twig slightly away from its normal pattern of growth, you can cause a major change in the ultimate location of the branch that grows from that twig; pushing on a branch that is already developed has much less effect.

How does the brain cope when pushed outside the comfort zone?

In most parts of the brain, the changes that occur in response to a mental challenge won’t include the development of new neurons. Instead, the brain rewires those networks in various ways – by strengthening or weakening the various connections between neurons and also by adding new connections or getting rid of old ones. There can also be an increase in the amount of myelin, the insulating sheath that forms around nerve cells and allows nerve signals to travel more quickly; myelination can increase the speed of nerve impulses by as much as ten times.

Purposeful practice vs. traditional practice

Research has shown that once a person reaches that level of “acceptable” performance and automaticity, additional years of “regular practice” don’t lead to improvement. If anything, the doctor or reacher or the driver 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 deterioriate in the absence of purposeful/deliberate efforts to improve.

Warning on pushing too hard

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.

Developing certain parts of the brain through prolonged training can come at a cost: in many cases, people who have developed one skill or ability to an extraordinary degree seem to have regressed in another area.

Cognitive and physical changes caused by training require upkeep. Astronauts who spend months in space come back to Earth and find it difficult to walk. Athletes who stop training due to injury lose strength, speed, and endurance.


Deliberate practice

Deliberate practice is different from purposeful practice is that deliberate practice is applied in well-established fields where there is an objective qualification on what a high performer should do or should be (e.g. sports, music).

The main purpose of deliberate practice is to develop effective mental representations. For example, to write well, develop a mental representation ahead of time to guide your efforts, then monitor and evaluate and be ready to modify that representation as necessary.

The researchers found, among other things, that the more accomplished music students were better able to determine when they’d made mistakes and better able to identify difficult sections they needed to focus their efforts on. Furthermore, the more advanced music students also had more effective practice techniques.

The virtuous circle: honing the skill improves mental representation, and mental representation helps hone the skill.

Principles of Deliberate Practice

First, 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.

  1. Deliberate practice develops skills that other people have already figured out how to do and for which effective training techniques have been established. The practice regimen should be designed and overseen by a teacher or coach who is familiar with the abilities of expert performers and with how those abilities can best be developed.
  2. Deliberate practice takes place outside one’s comfort zone and 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.
  3. Deliberate practice involves well-defined, specific goals and often involves improve some aspect of the target performance; it is not aimed at some vague overall performance.
  4. Deliberate practice requires a person’s full attention and conscious actions.
  5. Deliberate practice involves feedback and modification of efforts in response to that feedback.
  6. Deliberate practice both produces and depends on effective mental representations.

Because of the way that new skills are built on top of existing skills, it is important for teachers to provide beginners with the correct fundamental skills in order to minimize the chances that the student will have to relearn those fundamental skills later when at a more advanced level.

Remember that whenever possible, the best approach to learning effectively is to work with a good coach or teacher.

For example, in learning the piano, for instance, a student must have proper finger placement from the start, for while it may be possible to play simpler pieces with the fingers, not in their ideal positions, more complicated pieces will demand that the student has developed proper habits. An experienced teacher will understand this; no student, no matter how motivated, can expect to figure out such things on his or her own.

Effective feedback is about more than whether you did something right or wrong. A good math teacher, for instance, will look at more than the answer to a problem; he’ll look into exactly how the student got the answer as a way of understanding the mental representations the student was using.

Deliberate practice is expensive

In 2014, Money magazine estimated how much it cost a family to train a child who was an elite tennis player. Private lessons will cost $4,500 to $5,000 plus another $7,000 to $8,000 for group lessons. Court time is $50 to $100 an hour. Entrance fee for national tournaments is $150 plus transportation costs. Bringing a coach is $300 a day plus transportation, lodging, and meals. Add all that up, it’s easy to spend $30,000 a year. Many elite students also enroll in tennis academies which are expensive (IMG Academy in Florida, for instance, is $71,400 a year).

How to Improve Education through Deliberate Practice

A major difference between deliberate-practice approach and the traditional approach to learning lies with the emphasis placed on skills versus knowledge – what you can do versus what you know.

If you teach students facts, concepts, and rules, those things go into memory as individual pieces – which is harder to retrieve because of the limitations of short-term memory. On the other hand, if the information is assimilated as part of building mental representations aimed at doing something, the individual pieces become part of an interconnected pattern that provides context and meaning to the information.

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.

When teaching a skill, break the lesson into a series of steps that the student can master one at a time, building from one to the next to reach the ultimate objective. There should be a focus on understanding the mental representations of each step.

In almost any area of education, the most useful learning objectives will be those that help students develop effective mental representations.

Deliberate-approach to education steps:

  1. Begin by identifying what students should learn how to do. The objectives should be skills, not knowledge.
  2. In figuring out the particular way students should learn a skill, examine how the experts do it. Understand as much as possible about the mental representations that experts use, and teach the skill to help students develop similar mental representations.
  3. Teach the skill step by step, with each step designed to keep students out of their comfort zones, but not so far out that they cannot master that step.
  4. Give plenty of repetition and feedback (the regular cycle of try, fail, get feedback, try again).

It is possible that the practice itself may lead to physiological adaptations that produce more enjoyment and more motivation to do that particular activity. It is a speculation….but a reasonable one.