“Learning isn’t a way of reaching one’s potential but rather a way of developing it.”
Did you hear about the 10,000 hour rule? This principle, closely associated with pop psychology writer Malcolm Gladwell, explains that 10,000 hours of deliberate practice are needed to become world-class in any field. While Gladwell made this rule popular, Anders Ericsson, a professor of psychology at Florida State University, researched this field all his life and the rule is an important outcome of his academic work.
Peak, co-written with Robert Pool, a science writer, is a collection of findings from decades of psychology studies. The main thrust of the book is that expertise in almost all fields is the results of “deliberate practice”, which is distinguished from other kinds of practice in various ways. It requires a good teacher/mentor throughout the process, constant feedback, a deep focus, and a constant push to be better.
At the heart of Mr. Ericsson’s thesis is that there is no such thing as natural ability. Not for Beethoven, not for Bobby Fisher or Roger Federer. Traits favorable to a task, such as physical advantages or drive to create, help at the start but have no impact at higher levels. In the end, it all comes down to effort. While all of us practice certain skills, we tend to hit a plateau when we don’t apply the needed analytical rigor, are too focused on memorizing facts or repeat the same behavior again and again.
“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.”
Golf players won’t improve beyond a certain point without carefully analyzing their swings and constantly making adjustments. Photographers won’t improve by just taking more pictures or looking at the masters; they must consistently review their image structures, framing and composition.
The key ingredient to pushing further is mental representation: the ability to perform a task excellently without deliberate thought because the action is so well practiced that it seems second nature.
According to both authors, there’s no innate talent or genetic hardwiring needed to become an expert, with the exception of sports that match up with certain body height and composition requirements. And when it comes to child prodigies, pop culture might have lead us astray: “As it happens,” Ericsson writes, “I have made it a hobby to investigate the stories of such prodigies, and I can report with confidence that I have never found a convincing case for anyone developing extraordinary abilities without intense, extended practice.”
Peak offers an optimistic anti-determinism that might influence how people educate children, manage employees and spend their time. It focuses on developing mental models of activities, aspiring to an ideal form of the task at hand. As we learn, there’s nothing special about reaching our 10,000 hours. To become an expert does require many hours of practice, but just as important is the kind of practice employed during those hours. The best news of this insightful book? Becoming excellent is a matter of your own doing.