Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise: Summary and Notes

Peak: Secrets From the New Science of Expertise by Anderson is one of the few books that can change your life. It was, after all, the book that introduced the concept of deliberate practice. A learning, and training program with the potential to turn anyone into a pro. What's more, it provides a convincing answer to a question all societies grapple with: Why are some people amazingly good at what they do?

As it turns out, the secret to greatness has been hiding in plain sight, and it is neither 10,000 hours of practice nor incredible talent — although talent does count — it all comes down to something that the authors call deliberate practice.

In this summary, I will help you understand the main tenets of this revolutionary learning method so that even without reading the actual book, you will be able to apply the techniques of deliberate practice and improve the areas of your life that matter the most to you.
#1 The human brain is far more adaptable than anyone imagined
“Since the 1990s brain researchers have come to realize that the brain—even the adult brain—is far more adaptable than anyone ever imagined, and this gives us a tremendous amount of control over what our brains are able to do. In particular, the brain responds to the right sorts of triggers by rewiring itself in various ways. New connections are made between neurons, while existing connections can be strengthened or weakened, and in some parts of the brain it is even possible for new neurons to grow.“

The book starts by breaking a longstanding myth that implies that some people are special and only they can develop certain abilities. To drive the point, the authors tell the story of the prodigious Mozart.

By the age of six, Mozart had demonstrated a very rare musical talent called perfect pitch. It is a talent that gives anyone with it the ability to identify the musical note(s) in any sound including the wheeze of a sneeze, the horn of a car, the meow of a cat, and so on. This special talent was so rare and admirable that it was long thought that only people with special genes could master it. That all changed after a study by Japanese professor Ayoko Sakakibara who recruited 24 children and successfully demonstrated that anyone of us — because all the 24 children developed the ability under his guidance — can develop perfect pitch as long as we start early enough.

That study brought down a big chunk of the Mozart myth, but it did more than that. It also showed that with proper training and exposure, anyone can be labeled prodigious, and the case of Mozart is just proof of this and not an exception to the rule. Mozart was born in a musical family. His father was the first to develop a manual for teaching music to children. No wonder his children, including his daughter, were so incredible at a young age.

What does this mean for you and me? First, it shows that we are all capable of fantastic feats, and secondly that there is rarely a case of exceptional talent. This second part would be proved by a story that has perhaps been retold too many times.

Judit Polgar's father wanted to show the world that geniuses are made, not born, and so after rigorous thinking, he decided his daughters would grow up to be unrivaled chess masters. Like Richard William — Serena and Venus's father — he created a manual and set his daughters on the incredible career path we know of today. Judit Polgar is hailed as the greatest female chess player of all time just because her father believed in the radical idea of self-made over born-made.
#2 There is great power in purposeful practice

“The answer is that the most effective and most powerful types of practice in any field work by harnessing the adaptability of the human body and brain to create, step by step, the ability to do things that were previously not possible.”

In 1908, Jonny Hayes ran the marathon in 2 hours, 55 minutes, and 18 seconds. Newspapers called it the ‘greatest race of the century’, but we now know that marathon elites like Eliud Kipchoge can even run a sub-two hours marathon. This remarkable feat begs the question, how is that possible?

The secret lies not in the better genetics of today’s humans but in the gradual improvement of training methods and techniques. Today’s sportsmen and women can do things that were thought impossible by earlier generations.

Anderson says that the methods that have made these incredible improvements in performance possible cut across disciplines. It doesn't matter whether they are applied to running, performing surgery, or memorizing the digits of pi. They work the same because they all harness the adaptability of the human mind and body.

The adaptability that Anderson talks about is twofold: the brain develops new neural pathways which make the behavior easy to repeat and the body rises to a new homeostasis. For instance, if you are training for a marathon, it might be hard to break certain barriers but as you continue the training program, your body will adjust to the increased strain and see it as the new normal. In other words, your body and mind will change to accommodate the new behaviors.
But purposeful practice also implies setting well-defined and specific goals. As Anderson puts it; “Purposeful practice is all about putting a bunch of baby steps together to reach a longer-term goal.”
#3 Deliberate practice is about getting out of your comfort zone
While purposeful practice is about setting specific goals, deliberate practice is about moving past your comfort zone. As Anderson points out, the goal is not just to reach your potential but also to build it by elevating your body's homeostasis. Deliberate practice also helps create mental representations.

These are mental structures that correspond to objects, ideas, information, etc. As Anderson points out, what separates experts from novices is that experts take time to develop their mental structures. For instance, a chess grandmaster can play blindfold chess because they have incredibly well-developed representations of chess patterns that allow them to engage different players simultaneously.

The goal of deliberate practice is to help the trainee develop these elaborate mental representations.

Anderson puts it best when he says:

“What sets expert performers apart from everyone else is the quality and quantity of their mental representations. Through years of practice, they develop highly complex and sophisticated representations of the various situations they are likely to encounter in their fields—such as the vast number of arrangements of chess pieces that can appear during games. These representations allow them to make faster, more accurate decisions and respond more quickly and effectively in a given situation. This, more than anything else, explains the difference in performance between novices and experts.”
#4 Nobody develops extraordinary abilities without putting in tremendous amounts of practice
After studying violin students at the Berlin University of the Arts, Anderson found that labor-intensive activities were vital to improvement, but they were not much fun. Students didn't like them, but they nonetheless recognized their importance. In other words, there were hardly any students who were more motivated than the rest, and excellence came down to grit.

Anderson also made another interesting observation: no student reached expert level without a set number of years of practice, no matter how talented they were. There were no geniuses, and even if they existed, years of practice made up for the difference. Anderson would make the same observation again and again in areas such as chess, basketball, etc.

What does this mean if you want to be an expert? You have to be willing to do the boring stuff and do the necessary work.
#5 Principles of deliberate practice
Deliberate practice differs from purposeful practice in several ways. Here are the key differences:

  1. Deliberate practice helps you develop a skill that others have already figured out, such as playing the violin, chess, or basketball.
  2. Deliberate practice requires you to go outside of your comfort zone and try things outside your current abilities. It is not enjoyable but will raise the level of your homeostasis and create detailed mental representations.
  3. Deliberate practice is not aimed at some vague overall improvement. Instead, it involves well-defined and specific goals.
  4. Deliberate practice requires a person’s full attention and conscious action. In other words, you can’t be absent-minded during a practice session.
  5. Deliberate practice takes advantage of feedback by modifying efforts in response to that feedback.
  6. Deliberate practice depends on mental representations. Training helps you develop effective mental representations, and they help you increase your pace of learning.
  7. Deliberate practice involves building on previously acquired skills by focusing on particular aspects of those skills. It is a step-by-step improvement that eventually leads to expert performance.

Before we conclude, here are five actionable tips on how to apply the principles of deliberate practice in your everyday life:

Step #1: Identify an area of weakness.
The first step is to find an area of weakness and the courage to improve. Perform some self-analysis and commit to making lasting change.

Step #2: Split up the weakness
As Anderson writes, “deliberate practice involves well-defined, specific goals that involve improving some aspect of target performance.” This means you should focus on a single aspect of your performance when you practice. For example, if you want to improve your typing speed, you should focus on specific keys instead of the entire keyboard.

Step #3: Set challenging goals
According to Anderson, if you are not pushing yourself outside of your comfort zone, you are not learning. Yes, it will be boring and painful, but the more you push yourself, the more your body adjusts to a new normal.

Step #4: Seek honest feedback
It is incredibly hard to know where you went wrong without a feedback loop, and without making adjustments, you will not improve.

Step #5: Rinse and repeat
The process of deliberate practice is made complete by continuously applying the above principles to the areas in your life that need improvement.
Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise by Erick Anderson and Robert Pool is a fantastic book with the potential to transform the world. When I read it for the first time, I was blown away by its amazing insight into performance science. If you are going to read this book, I suggest you complement it with Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol S. Dweck.