Thoughts: Peak by Anders Ericsson

You’ve heard of Malcolm Gladwell and his 10,000 hour rule, right?

If you practice the right way for 10,000 hours you’ll become world class at pretty much anything.  Well, the 10,000 hour idea originated from research by Anders Ericsson (the author of Peak).  The 10,000 hour rule is also bullshit.

More on that later.

Peak: How to Master Almost Anything is Anders’ attempt to write a popular account of his research into peak performance.  I’ve been waiting for a book by Anders (other than The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance) ever since reading Geoff Colvin’s Talent is Overrated.

Which is my biggest criticism of this book: most of what Anders writes about has been discussed extensively by other authors like Colvin and Dan Coyle.  If you’ve been following the “peak performance” world for even a couple of years many of the examples and ideas will be redundant.

That’s not a major criticism – it doesn’t change the quality of the ideas and takeaways (and Anders’ own research).  When Dr. Ericsson speaks, its worth listening.

A key point from Dr. Ericsson before going forward:

If you’re not improving you’re getting worse.  Why? Your body/mind is always seeking efficiencies, as you reach a certain skill threshold your body automates responses.  These are “habits” and allow us to function.

But they also mean at a certain threshold – without a deliberate attempt to improve – your skills will deteriorate. That’s why someone with 30 years driving experience is no better than someone with 10 (and often worse).  That’s why doctors with 20 years experience are no better than those with 5 (on average).

“Automated abilities gradually deteriorate in the absence of deliberate efforts to improve.”


Takeaways from Peak:

  1. If you’re not improving you’re getting worse.
  2. The most effective way to increase skill/ability is through deliberate practice.
  3. Mental representations are key (and undervalued) component of peak performance.
  4. Natural/innate talent is largely bullshit.

Mental Representations?

Before we dive into Deliberate Practice I wanted to discuss Mental Representations.

This is actually the part of the book I’m wrestling with and where it most differs from similar books on Deliberate Practice.

Mental representations are mental “habits” that let you act without thinking (and may be related to myelin).

Let’s use walking as an example: you don’t have to think about moving every piece of your body because your brain has a mental representation of what walking looks and is able to carry this out.  You do not have to consciously think about swinging your left leg forward, planting it, swinging your right leg forward, etc.

At the same time, you’re able to identify when something doesn’t feel right when you’re walking. Maybe your left ankle is sore.  This is because as you’re walking it doesn’t fit with your mental representation.

A great example is with football.  When a defensive back is covering a wide receiver on a route, the more effective his mental representation the more quickly he will be able to identify the receivers route and when the receiver is breaking in his route.  Often what we identify as “reaction speed” is actually a finely tuned mental representations at work.

Another example is tennis players.  There is an upper limit on how fast our bodies can physically react to stimuli.  But elite tennis players find a way around this problem: when receiving a serve they aren’t looking at the ball but the hips, shoulders, and arms of their opponent.  This is compared to their mental representation and it tells them where the ball is going – before it is hit!

What is Deliberate Practice?

Deliberate practice is a form of practicing that is not fun but also produces the greatest gains in performance. It is defined by:

  • You (or a coach) have figured out specific skills/abilities for elite performance and effective training techniques (in your field) 
  • Being outside your comfort zone
  • Having very specific, measurable goals in practice 
  • Involving feedback and modifications of practice in response to that feedback
  • Being deliberate – that is requiring a very strong focus/concentration
  • Involving the use of mental representations
  • Building on previous skills to improve overall performance

An example to analyse can be found here [https://youtu.be/rEDsgfkLFh8?t=7] from LeCharles Bentley of O-LineWorld.

In working on hip explosion LeCharles has broken down a specific skill in blocking.  The player is outside his comfort zone as he’s being pushed. It is building on previous skills and involves feedback from a coach (LeCharles).

This makes sense because much of what we know about Deliberate Practice comes from the athletic (and music) world.  Significant pieces of Deliberate Practice are present in much of athletic training.

What differentiates normal athletic training from deliberate practice is the need for specific goals, an intense focus, and the use of mental representations.

The intense focus and use of mental representations are largely up to the player although must be taught by the coach/teacher. Visualisation is an important part of developing mental representations – the more accurate and thorough your visualisation the more refined your mental representation. I plan on writing an essay on visualisation and performance soon.

Having specific goals is also important.  They may not be specific to every drill but should be present for that training session.

It is not always possible to incorporate these requirements into every session, especially if you coach a team sport.  But the more you are able to find ways to incorporate deliberate practice into your training the greater gains you will see.

And these techniques apply to almost every domain: long-distance running, music, your job, relationships, etc.  That of course does not mean you want to incorporate deliberate practice into every domain.  I am a decent typist and good driver – I am satisfied and do not wish to expend the mental & psychic energy to improve in these specific areas.

10,000 Hours is WRONG

Ander is very critical of Malcolm Gladwell’s use of 10,000 hours.  Essentially, he says that Gladwell did not understand his research.  The errors he raises:

  1. There is nothing special or magical about 10,000 hours.  These students were nowhere near masters of their field.  Gladwell looked at their practice time until they were 20 but you could just as easily pick 18 or 22 or any other time. We know that world-class pianists accumulate 20,000-25,000 hours.
  2. The number of practice hours varies from field to field.  To become a top performer in memorization takes different time than in violin which is different than in sprinting, etc. etc. etc. 
  3. The number 10,000 hour was only an average. Half the violinists hadn’t accumulated 10,000 hours & Gladwell misunderstood this.
  4. Gladwell didn’t distinguish between “deliberate practice” and any activity that might be labelled “practice”.  For example, he used the Beatles performances as an example but performing does not meet all the requirements for deliberate practice. 
  5. There are many skills that go into success – and it’s not always easy to identify them.  Returning to the Beatles, there skills weren’t only playing their instruments but live performances and their songwriting.  In many domains success is due to a diverse skill set that can’t match up with 10,000 hours. 
  6. Nothing in the study demonstrated that anyone could become an expert with ~10,000 hours of practice.  All Ericsson’s study demonstrated was that the top students spent more time in solitary practice than the better students, and the top/better students spent more time in solitary practice than the average students.

In summary, 10,000 hours is not a useful heuristic for achieving success in a field.  That being said, you do need to accumulate huge numbers of hours of deliberate practice to achieve peak performance.  If 10,000 hours works as a target – use it!

Hard Work Trumps Talent

“Hard work beats talent when talent fails to work hard.”

Except the evidence may be more in favor of hard work than we’d like to believe.  That’s certainly Dr. Ericsson’s argument.

His reasoning is simple: In his lifetime of study of elite performers he can explain every one through hard work.

In the book, he uses Mozart, Niccolo Paganini, and Donald Thomas (referenced in The Sports Gene) as examples of “innate” talent that wasn’t. He meticulously demonstrates how each performer spent significant amounts of time practicing allowing them to achieve their success.

Aside: It’s also worth remembering that many top performers wish to appear effortless, hiding their work so their success appears that much more mysterious and unbelievable. Here’s looking at you Sam.

Ericsson also has two useful questions he uses to find where any successful performer achieves their ability:

  1. What is the exact nature of the ability?
  2. What sorts of training made it possible?

He also states that in his lifetime of study of elite performers he has never once been able to find  an ability that wasn’t explained by hard work.

It’s of course worth mentioning the usual caveat that there are physical size and height restrictions.  At 6’5″, I am too tall to ever be a jockey or fighter pilot. There are also age restrictions – if you do not begin ballet or violin early enough you will never achieve world class ability.  But that’s obvious – at 50 you’re not starting an NFL career.

And aside from height and size we have no scientific evidence for any restrictions on human ability.

If innate ability were so important we’d have much more success in predicting careers for athletes and musicians.  The fact that 50% of all NFL 1st round picks bust tells us this isn’t so.

Conclusion

So that’s Peak.  There’s a lot more in the book.  On how our brain adapts, the disadvantage of peak performance, on motivation, examples of elite performers practicing, etc. You can grab it here [link].

If you’ve been in the peak performance space for a while it’s obviously worth a read.  And if not, it’s where I would start as it gives the best structure for deliberate practice.

My key takeaways again:

  1. If you’re not improving you’re getting worse.
  2. The most effective way to increase skill/ability is through deliberate practice.
  3. Mental representations are key (and undervalued) component of peak performance.
  4. Natural/innate talent is largely bullshit.

As a coach/teacher, I’d immediately incorporate mental representations into my coaching as they are the most undervalued aspect of peak performance at this moment.