Putting “Peak” Into Practice: A Book Review

And I would argue that we humans are the most human when we’re improving ourselves. We, unlike any other animal, can consciously change ourselves, improve ourselves in ways we choose. This distinguishes us from every other species alive today and, as far as we know, from every other species that has ever lived…..We call ourselves ‘knowing man’ [Homo sapiens] because we see ourselves as distinguished from our ancestors by our vast amount of knowledge. But perhaps a better way to see ourselves would be as Homo exercens, or ‘practicing man’, the species that takes control of its life through practice and makes of itself what it will. “ – Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool, Peak

Peak was one of the best and most actionable books I have read this year with wide ranging applications from parenting, to martial arts, to music, to on-the-job performance. Let’s dive in. 

Generally, there are three types of practice that the author’s outline:

  1. Naive practice (OK)
  2. Purposeful practice (better)
  3. Deliberate practice (best)

Naïve practice is how most people approach development: an accumulation of reps with the vague goal of “getting better”. This typically levels off once a person reaches the level of “acceptable”. 

Purposeful practice includes well defined specific goals that will push you out of your comfort zone when approaching a task, AND (this is important) you need to be focused on the task at hand while you are practicing. It typically involves putting a bunch of baby steps together to reach a long term goal with feedback along the way (from yourself or others). By having a goal when approaching a task you are better equipped with how to judge the practice session a success. Implementing a performance journal is one of the easiest ways to begin purposefully practicing. In a nutshell: 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 progress. 

For most people performing most tasks, applying the framework for purposeful practice will yield tremendous results. Already I am seeing an improvement in my jiu-jitsu and public speaking since implementing these rules and will look to apply it to my day-job & writing in the future as well. One of my favorite sections of the book was learning about how the brain & body adapt to purposeful practice, literally rewiring itself as you build mental representations that will make performing just a little bit easier.

For those who want to move closer to reaching the “peak” deploying deliberate practice (the gold standard) is key. 

Deliberate practice is characterized by the following traits:

  • DP develops skills that other people have already figured out how to do and for which effective training techniques have been established. The practice regiment 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. 
  • DP takes place outside one’s comfort one 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. 
  • DP involves well defined, specific goals and often involves improving some aspect of the target performance; it is not aimed at some vague overall improvement. Once an overall goal has been set, a teacher or coach will develop a plan for making a series of small changes that will add up to the desired larger change. Improving some aspect of the target performance allows a performer to see that his or her performances have been improved by the training.
  • DP is deliberate, that is, it requires a person’s full attention and conscious actions. It is not enough to simply follow a teacher’s or coach’s directions. The student must concentrate on the specific goal for his or her practice activity so that adjustments can be made to control practice. 
  • DP involves feedback and modification of efforts in response to that feedback. Early in the training process much of the feedback will come from the teacher or coach, who will monitor progress, point out problems, and offer ways to address those problems. With time and experience students must learn to monitor themselves, spot mistakes, and adjust accordingly. Such self-monitoring requires effective mental representations. 
  • DP both produces and depends on effective mental representations. Improving performance goes hand in hand with improving mental representations; as one’s performance improves, the representations become more detailed and effective, in turn making it possible to improve even more. Mental representations make it possible to monitor how one is doing, both in practice and in actual performance. They show the right way to do something and allow one to notice when doing something wrong and to correct it. 
  • DP nearly always involves building or modifying previously acquired skills by focusing on particular aspects of those skills and working to improve them specifically; over time this step-by-step improvement will eventually lead to expert performance. 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.”

If meeting all the criteria for deliberate practice isn’t achievable, getting as close as you can is the next best thing. This typically involved deploying purposeful practice with a couple extra steps: identifying the expert performers, figuring out what they do that makes them so good, and coming up with training techniques that allow you to do it too.

For example, Ben Franklin, when trying to improve his writing started by identifying a publication, The Spectator, which he found to have persuasive and descriptive writing. He started by studying a piece, and writing down the general points they were trying to get across. Then after a few days he would come back to the general points and try to write his own essay that would be just as descriptive or persuasive; following completion he would compare the two essay’s and make notes on how he can improve for the next one. 

I will leave you with a series of questions Ander’s offers the reader who is trying to implement deliberate practice into their profession:

  • “Does it push people to get outside their comfort zones?
  • Does it offer immediate feedback on the performance and what can be done to improve it? 
  • Have those who developed the approach identified the best performers in that particular area and determined what sets them apart from everyone else? 
  • Is the practice designed to develop the particular skills that experts in the field possess?

A yes to all those questions may not guarantee that an approach will be effective, but it will certainly make that much more likely.”

4 Comments

  1. Love this one Kevin. Super practical, I might have to pick up the book. It reminds me a lot of a quote I have been pondering lately. Depending on how bad you want it you have to decide if you are willing to put in the time for the proper level of practice.

    “Decide what you want, decide what you are willing to exchange for it. Establish your priorities and go to work.”

    — H. L. Hunt

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply

    1. Definitely pick up a copy, it’s one of the better books I’ve read. Thanks for sharing the quote, you and I are on the same page!

      Like

      Reply

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