jml's notebook

Notes: Peak

Itamar An earlier version of this post also said "David", but that's not true, I think, has been recommending Peak by Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool for some time now. It's very much worth the read.

The book is largely about deliberate practice, something that Cal Newport goes on about in his book So Good They Can't Ignore You. The rough thesis is that spending time doing something generally won't make you better at it. If you want to get better at something, you need to practice deliberately.

This is set against several myths:

  1. There's such a thing as "natural talent"
  2. There is a hard, intrinsic limit to your potential
  3. If you do something long enough, you are bound to get better at it
  4. If you try hard enough, you'll get better
  5. If you learn the right facts, you'll get better

All of these are bunk. Instead, if you want to get better at something, you need to practice (more) in the right way. This is true of pretty much everything you can think of.

The authors distinguish between two types of good practice: purposeful (good) and deliberate (best).

Purposeful practice

The goals are supposed to be micro-goals aimed at addressing specific weaknesses you are trying to improve. So, if you want to get better at sight singing, you might aim to sing descending fourth intervals correctly three times in a row, or something like that.

Because you need to focus and push past your comfort boundaries, practice should rarely go longer than an hour. Get plenty of sleep, too.

It's also not fun. One of the wonderful insights in the book is that approximately no one enjoys practice. Sir Simon Keenlyside enjoys singing practice just as much as I do.

Deliberate practice is purposeful practice that is also informed. This means,

This means you can do deliberate practice for things like chess, singing, powerlifting, or rote memorization, but probably not for things like management, software engineering But you probably could for whiteboard programming challenges or writing fast code, or gardening. Taskmaster challenges in the Spider-Man PS4 game can probably be deliberately practiced, as there is surely enough advice on the internet to act as a teacher.

The reason for the distinction comes down to mental representations. Simplistically, what makes experts expert are their superior mental representations of the field. It's the almost limitless adaptability of the brain that allows humans to acquire amazing abilities.

If you have the "highly developed, broadly accepted training methods" that generally accompany fields with objective criteria and teachers, then you can build your mental representations brick by brick, avoiding dead ends or relearning things. Essentially, there's a known skill tree for violin, but not for management.

One thing that struck me is the ratio between practice and performance. A professional cellist or quarterback spends vastly more time practicing than performing. On the other hand, at work, I'm more or less expected to spend my entire time performing. The evidence for doctors is that this only blunts their skills. There's a little advice on this in Peak, but I think I'll save it for another post.

Practice is hard, unenjoyable, and expensive. This means motivation matters. Peak reminds us that we don't suffer from an innate lack of willpower, but instead that motivation is something we can manage. Remove distractions, create incentives, find rewards in the thing itself, rig the game so you can see concrete signs of improvement.

And because it's hard, unenjoyable, and expensive, you need to be very choosy about what you practice. This is also because time spent practicing is usually time not spent performing.

Oh, and "ten thousand hours" is rubbbish.

I highly recommend this book. I'm intending to seriously apply its principles to my endeavours in 2019.