Reaching the peak – Reviewing Anders Ericsson’s “Peak”

Just finished an amazing book that I would like to share with everyone here. This is written by K Anders Ericsson, perhaps the foremost expert on the science of expertise. Basically, Ericsson is answering a question that most of us have had before: what is it that separates expert performers, those who are at the forefront of their fields, from the rest? It’s not the first engagement I’ve had on this topic, but the depth of his research on this brings my understanding to a whole new level.

With extensive scientific research, his findings suggest that individuals reach the peak of achievement not due to the magic of innate talent, but a long process of hard work, and quality practice. This is not simply blindly doing something over and over, and not merely reaching 10,000 hours. Quality practice follows what he calls “deliberate practice”, the gold standard of practice, which is focused, purposeful, with a clear plan of action. It also requires constant feedback under the tutelage of an effective coach and role model. The key ingredient is mental representations: the ability to perform a task excellently without needing deliberate thought because similar situations have been so well practiced that they seem second nature.

Ericsson looks into experts from all fields, from top athletes of various types, chess grandmasters like the three famous “Polgár sisters”, music prodigies like Mozart, writers, mathematicians, and shows that these “expert performers develop their extraordinary abilities through years and years of dedicated practice, improving step by step in a long, laborious process.” Natural talent may help at the outset, but confer no advantage in the long run or at higher levels. 

I particularly liked Chapter 7, “Road to Extraordinary”, where he explored the sequential process of how experts came to be, from childhood, to early adolescence, all the way till expert level is reached. The first “start out”, and often parents play a big role in introducing an activity to them with fun attached to it. They soon “become serious”, displaying more intrinsic motivation and require good coaches. Some go on to “commitment” stage, where they tell themselves they want to be the best that they can be. Here, they push themselves hard, and it could be a long, lonely, expensive slog. However, “the student who makes it to the end of this arduous road will have joined an elite cadre of people who can say..that they reached the pinnacle of human achievement”. Of course, a few then go on to the very highest stage “pathbreakers”; this is the level of Beethoven, Tiger Woods, Newton, Einstein, etc.

Ericsson argues that the tremendous adaptability of the human mind means that anyone can leverage the principles of deliberate practice to reach the peak of achievement. “There’s no such thing as a predefined ability”, and “learning isn’t a way of reaching one’s fixed potential but rather a way of developing it, we can create our own potential”.

We fail, or don’t reach the top, not because we’re not talented enough, but because we are content with living “in the world of ‘good enough’. “We learn enough to get by in our day-to-day lives, but once we reach that point, we seldom push to go beyond good enough”. Or, we got convinced that we can’t get going, and are locked into a self-fulling prophecy. But once we get out of the comfort zone, force our brain to adapt and apply the principles of deliberate practice, very few human achievements are beyond our reach.

For those “who want to take control of their lives and create their own potential and not buy into the idea that this right here, is as good as it gets”, then this book is made for you. This book “will show you the path to the peak, how far you travel along that path is up to you”.


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