/ Book review

Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise

Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise


The main idea of book is how to achieve expert level in almost any field by applying deliberate or purposeful practice. Deliberate practice 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 your progress. And, also - figure out a way to maintain your motivation.

Let's split this definition out, based on author's insights.

Comfort zone: Deliberate practice takes place outside one’s comfort zone and requires to constantly try things that are just beyond one's person current abilities. Thus it demands near-maximal effort, which is generally not enjoyable. Here is an example from programming world (link is not from book). One of most significant findings was that most factors the students had identified as being important to improvement were also seen as labor-intensive and not much fun.

Focus: You seldom improve much without giving the task your full attention. This is a key to getting the maximum benefit out of any sort of practice, from private or group lessons to solitary practice and even to games or competitions: whatever you are doing, focus on it. Focus and concentration are crucial, so shorter training sessions with clearer goals are the best way to develop new skills faster

Clear goals: Deliberate practice involves well-defined, specific goals and often involves improving some aspect of the performance; it is not aimed at some vague overall improvement.

Plan: 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.
How not to practice — just doing the same thing over and over again without any focused step-by-step plan for improvement.

Progress monitoring: Deliberate practice 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.

Motivation: How do you keep going? That is perhaps the biggest question that anyone engaged in purposeful or deliberate practice will eventually face.
What factors shape motivation?
Experts have generally developed various habits that help them keep going. As a rule of thumb, author thinks that anyone who hopes to improve skill in a particular area should devote an hour or more each day to practice that can be done with full concentration.

Another concept which author emphasize is mental representation, which he describes as being 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. Indication 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. In other words: experts see the forest when everyone else sees only trees.
Deliberate practice 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.
Here is more detailed definition of mental representation.

Some advices from author:

  • 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, too.
  • Talk to the expert performers and try to get a sense of how they approach tasks and why.
  • In a field you’re already familiar with—like your own job—think carefully about what characterizes good performance and try to come up with ways to measure that, even if there must be a certain amount of subjectivity in your measurement.
  • If you find that something works, keep doing it; if it doesn’t work, stop.
  • Remember: if your mind is wandering or you’re relaxed and just having fun, you probably won’t improve.
  • To effectively practice a skill without a teacher, it helps to keep in mind three Fs: Focus. Feedback. Fix it. Break the skill down into components that you can do repeatedly and analyze effectively, determine your weaknesses, and figure out ways to address them.

I liked this book a lot because it's statements are based on research evidence, rather than on some self-proclaimed "expert" belief. Based on acquired knowledge, next book will be this.