Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise by Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool, 4/5
This book gave me a feeling of déjà vu since it is the third I’ve read on the same general topic, preceded by Coyle’s The Talent Code and Gladwell’s Outliers. On paper, Peak should have been my favorite of the three. Ericsson, a respected professor of psychology, is able to provide the academic backbone that was missing from Coyle’s otherwise very enjoyable take on the subject. And, as one of the researchers responsible for the original study that Gladwell later contorted into the “10,000-hour rule,” Ericsson is both qualified and motivated to debunk that incorrect (yet annoyingly memorable) interpretation of his work.
That said, I felt that Peak was rather a latecomer to the party and the authors’ efforts to transcend the genre of pop psychology relaxed in the book’s later chapters. Their painstaking attempt to distinguish between “deep practice” and mere “purposeful practice” felt contrived, and the concept of “mental representations,” so vital to Ericsson’s psychology-based perspective on the topic, was discussed in a consistently wishy-washy way. I couldn’t resist an eye roll upon encountering the section about London taxi drivers and their overdeveloped hippocampi, a study that has already been beaten to death (à la the Stanford Prison Experiment). Overall, I didn’t enjoy this book as much as I remember enjoying Coyle’s more biology-based perspective and discussion of the topic in terms of deep practice, ignition and master coaching in The Talent Code.
While it might not have lived up to my six-year-old memory of a similar book, Peak still has a lot to offer. I was very interested in the application of the science of expertise to the field of medicine, specifically surgery. No one wants their medical practitioner to be just “average,” but the old joke that goes “What do you call the medical student who graduated last in his class? … Doctor” is unsettlingly accurate. Ericsson poses a real “moneyball” moment for the medical industry by showing how studying the highest performing outliers and applying science-based teaching techniques can raise the success rates of “average” surgeons.
Why I read it: my brother piqued my interest by telling me interesting stories from it.
Exploring the manifestations of talent in diverse subjects that range from Brazilian footballers to the Brontë sisters, Coyle proposes three factors that give rise to all the athletic, musical and mental skills that seem so innate and unattainable to us otherly-gifted: deep practice, ignition, and master coaching. Of these three elements, I found the first to be most interesting because it provides a description of the physical effects of concentrated practice. Now, I have logged numerous hours of piano practice (though, admittedly, somewhat fewer hours of “deep practice”), but never understood that this kind of focused skill-development was actually wrapping nerve fibers in my brain in layers of an insulating substance called myelin. This magical myelin affects the timing with which neurons fire electrical impulses and the speed with which these impulses travel, resulting in an increase in whatever skill is being practiced, regardless of the nature of the skill or the “natural talent” of the person involved. The implications are immense: suddenly it seems that real genius is the drive to perform thousands of hours of deep practice, not to have a high IQ, innate ability, or access to top coaching from the beginning. Also, it definitively establishes the value and efficiency of that painfully-focused, mentally-exhausting style of practicing that might otherwise cause discouragement when it does not generate immediately-impressive improvement.
Coyle’s writing style is entertaining and easy to read, but is somewhat lacking from a scholarly point of view; he is, after all, no neurologist or scientific researcher. Some of the studies he references and examples he uses seem questionable, and his sources are rather casually collected in sparse end notes. All in all, this book’s value is more in its descriptive powers than its prescriptive ones: lacking any of the three elements of talent (deep practice, ignition or master coaching), you are unlikely to become a world-class anything, whether you read it or not. However, lots of Coyle’s observations and claims resonated with me because I am fascinated by the learning process and hunger for accomplishment in a variety of areas.
[Why I read it: a friend, Joy, mentioned that she was reading it and got me interested.]