I picked up “Peak” by Anders Ericsson & Robert Poll a few months ago while listening to some podcast about developing skills effectively where this book was mentioned. “Peak” dives deep into what makes the expert performers be the best in their fields and taps into the myths about endowment and talent. The book is written in a slightly more scientific language than most of the popular science – nevertheless, I found there interesting insights about becoming an expert in a field you like.
The adaptability of the human brain
The first part of the book is focusing on the adaptability of the human brain. As the authors state, “brain [is] so flexible and adaptable that it could, with the right sort of training, develop a capability that seems quite magical to those of us who do not possess it”.
One of the examples that they bring up is “perfect pitch” – the ability to identify the notes when hearing sounds and produce those notes. It was earlier believed that only a few children are born with this talent and that it can not be trained. For example, Mozart was believed to have a perfect pitch. However, recent research shows that with the right training and exposure, anyone can train to develop a perfect pitch:
Not the perfect pitch is a gift but the ability to develop it as the ability to develop pretty much any skill with the right training.
And this can be applied to any skills that we would like to develop – we can harness the adaptability of our brain and create skills that were not previously possible: “..the clear message from decades of research is that no matter what role innate genetic endowment may plan in the achievement of “gifted” people, the main gift that these people have is the same as we all have – the adaptability of the human brain and body, which they have taken advantage of more than the rest of us.” And how will this change happen? Through intense training in response to which our brain growth and changes.
Sidenote: Fun homeostasis
As I am preparing now for my first half-marathon and do a lot of intense physical training, I found the chapter about homeostasis especially interesting in terms of understanding why sometimes pushing myself further feels extremely challenging.
In general, human bodies prefer stability. “The technical term for this is “homeostasis”, which simply refers to the tendency of a system – any sort of system, but most often a living creature or some part of a living creature – to act in a way that maintains its own stability”. In a way, the state of homeostasis is our comfort zone and once we try to expand that zone, for example in running when you start feeling out of breath, our brain signals to us that we are in danger and we should stop. This is a normal reaction of our system as it wants us to be safe but it is also crucial to keep on going as at that moment, we are starting to establish the new boundaries for our homeostasis.
“When a body system – certain muscles, the cardiovascular system, or something else – is stressed out to the point that homeostasis can no longer be maintained, the body responds with changes intended to reestablish homeostasis”.
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.
As I mentioned before, the authors emphasize that since our brains are extremely adaptable, we can shape, improve and build our skills through intense training. The form of training that Ericsson & Pool deem to be the most effective is deliberate practice. According to the authors, the key concept on which the deliberate practice is based on the mental representations which are the “mental structures that correspond to an object, an idea, a collection of information, or anything else, concrete or abstract, that the brain is thinking about”. For example, when someone says dog, you would usually have an image of a dog in your head and how it would look like. This is the mental representation of a dog in your head. In the professional environment, the mental representations, for example, for radiologists would be the ability and the techniques to effectively recognize how to distinguish between different types of tumors.
In terms of skill development, mental representations:
- can be used to respond quickly and effectively in certain types of situations;
- help you to process the large amounts of information quickly, despite the limitations of the short-term develop the ability to see patterns in the collection of things.
As for the deliberate practice, its main principles will be taking you out of your comfort zone to practice the skills that are just beyond your current capabilities. Also, deliberate practice requires you to focus on specific aspects of a skill that you want to improve and modify your efforts in response to the feedback that you get for improving those aspects: “Generally speaking, deliberate practice and related types of practice that are designed to achieve a certain goal consist of individualized training activities – usually done alone – that are devised specifically to improve aspects of performance”.
I tried applying this technique while working on improving my badminton skills. Before I would play but mostly absent-mindedly hit the birdie and hopefully get some points. After learning about deliberate practice, I identified what parts of my game are the weakest points for me t e.g. my serves were not great and I lost many points on those so I deliberately started working on them. Just after a few sessions of concentrated play like this, my partner sarcastically said: “When did you learn to play badminton?” For me, this was the sign that deliberate practice is working.
I can not say that I found some striking information in the “Peak” but it definitely made me more aware of my practice and what I can do to improve it.