Peak | Book Review

Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool add the terms deliberate practice and mental representations to our leadership vocabulary in their aptly subtitled Secrets From the New Science of Expertise. A central finding: Expert performers develop their extraordinary abilities through years and years of dedicated practice, improving step by step in a long, laborious process (p. 207). Further, Ericsson has investigated stories of prodigies, and reports with confidence that [he has] never found a convincing case for anyone developing extraordinary abilities without intense, extended practice (p. 211).

The implications for leaders, especially for learning and coaching, cannot be overstated. Even the adult brain -- is far more adaptable than anyone ever imagined, and this gives us a tremendous amount of control over what our brains are able to do (p. xvi). Consider the ability to create, through the right sort of training and practice, abilities that they would not otherwise possess by taking advantage of the incredible adaptability of the human brain and body (p. xix).

Peak extensively develops the term deliberate practice, culminating in the application-oriented Chapter Six, Principles of Deliberate Practice in Everyday Life; and forward-looking Chapter Nine, Where Do We Go from Here?

Getting Started | Purposeful Practice

Initially studying how strings of numbers can be memorized, Ericsson found the brain has strict limits on how many items it can hold in short-term memory at once (p. 2). Since his first studies in the 1970s, he has found that no matter what field you study, music or sports or chess or something else, the most effective types of practice all follow the same set of general principles (p. 9). Think of all the things we do routinely, day after day, at work or at home, without improvement. A vital takeaway from Peak is that generally speaking, once a person reaches that level of "acceptable" performance and automaticity, the additional years of "practice" don't lead to improvement (p. 13).

Purposeful practice (pp. 13-22), a step toward deliberate practice:

• Has well-defined, specific goals
• Is focused
• Involves feedback
• Requires getting out of one's comfort zone

Keep in mind, this is just a start, using tools we're pretty used to such as SMART goals, and if we are fortunate enough, real coaching. Ericsson cautions us that while it is generally possible to improve to a certain degree with focused practice and staying out of your comfort zone, that's not all there is to it (p. 25).

Toolbox | Adaptability and Mental Representations

Chapter two, Harnessing Adaptability illustrates the formidable London Taxi Driver licensing process. This offers appealing comparisons.  Like the taxi drivers, the bus drivers spent their days driving around London; the difference between them was that the bus drivers repeated the same routes over and over and thus never had to figure out the best way to get from point A to point B (p. 31).

Through additional studies, the authors concluded that learning a new skill is much more effective at triggering structural changes in the brain than simply continuing to practice a skill that one has already learned (p. 41). This is our first clue to extending beyond purposeful practice. With deliberate practice, however, the goal is not just to reach your potential but to build it, to make things possible that were not possible before (p. 48). As leaders, we may harness adaptable human nature in pursuit of breakthrough performance.

Ericsson also wondered about how chess grandmasters could play multiple games; simultaneously, and blindfolded. Are chess experts recalling the position of each piece, or are they actually remembering patterns, where the individual pieces are seen as part of a larger whole? (p. 55). Rather than a supernatural use of short-term memory, the masters are recalling mental representations. These are preexisting patterns of information - facts, images, rules, relationships, and so on - that are held in long-term memory and that can be used to respond quickly and effectively in certain types of situations (p. 61).

Quite different than routine practice, the experts figure out what they missed when rehearsing. Research has shown that the amount of time spent in this sort of analysis -- not the amount of time spent playing chess with others -- is the single most important predictor of a chess player's ability (p. 56). The importance of After Action Review types of activities, or more generally, daily journaling, cannot be overstated if we genuinely seek continuous growth as leaders.

Moreover, what sets expert performers apart from everyone else is the quality and quantity of their mental representations (p. 62). How do we improve them? The more you [we] study a subject, the more detailed your [our] mental representations of it become, and the better you [we] get at assimilating new information (p. 67). Having a coach greatly greatly helps. For in order to identify subtle mistakes and weaknesses (p. 77), they [we] must rely on feedback from their [our] teachers.

The Next Step | Deliberate Practice

So let's add our two new tools to purposeful practice, creating deliberate practice. It's different from other sorts of practice in two important ways: First, it requires a field that is already reasonably well developed and second; deliberate practice requires a teacher who can provide practice activities designed to help a student improve his or her performance (p. 98). More specifically, deliberate practice (pp. 99-100):

• Develops skills that other people have already figured out how to do and for which effective training techniques have been established
• Takes place outside one's comfort zone and requires a student to constantly try things that are just beyond his or her abilities
• Involves well-defined, specific goals and often involves improving some aspect of the target performance
• Requires a person's full attention and conscious action
• Involves feedback and modifications of efforts in response to that feedback
• Both produces and depends on effective mental representations
• Nearly always involves building or modifying previously acquired skills by focusing on particular aspects of those skills and working to improve them specifically

Picking a good coach matters. Once you have identified an expert, identify what this person does differently from others that could explain the superior performance (p. 108).

Application of Deliberate Practice | Work | Daily Life

Ericsson cites that Art Turock, when working with clients, requires recognizing and rejecting three myths:

• The belief that one's abilities are limited by one's genetically prescribed characteristics
• If you do something long enough, you're bound to get better at it
• All it takes to improve is effort

It's not difficult to see how these misperceptions could inhibit formation of mental representations. He also finds a knowledge - skills gap, similar to the Knowing-Doing Gap:

When you look at how people are trained in the professional and business worlds, you find a tendency to focus on knowledge at the expense of skills. (p.131)

The hallmark of purposeful or deliberate practice is that you try to do something you cannot do -- that takes you out of your comfort zone -- and that you practice it over and over again, focusing on exactly how you are doing it, where you are falling short, and how you can get better (p. 157). Many of us, for practical or personal reasons, do not have a coach. To effectively practice a skill without a teacher, it helps to keep in mind three Fs: Focus. Feedback. Fix it (p 159).

Application | What's Next

Ericsson shares a terrific story of a deliberate practice experiment in a physics class. The goal was to get the students to practice thinking like physicists, rather than feeding information to them (pp. 243-247). The results: The difference between the two classes was an amazing 2.5 standard deviations!

According to an article in Science magazine (p. 254), in the years after the experiment deliberate-practice methods were adopted in nearly one hundred science and math classes there with a total enrollment of more than thirty thousand students.

When examining much of the training that athletes do, Ericsson found it is usually carried out in groups with no attempt to figure out what each individual should be focusing on (p. 248). Likewise, very little has been done to learn about the mental representations that successful athletes use.


But it is the coming generations who have the most to gain. The most important gifts we can give our children are the confidence in their ability to remake themselves again and again and the tools with which to do that job (p. 259). We should consider Ericsson's wisdom in our roles as leaders, coaches, and as continuously learning students.

A truly breakthrough work.

Note: Anders Ericsson generously provided a copy of their book for review

JE | December 2016