I can’t help but think that Ericsson was motivated to write this book, in part, to correct misconceptions. Several briskly selling books on expertise have appeared in the last few years, and while they vary in their accuracy, the big-picture conclusions readers draw tend to be: (1) talent is not everything; (2) you have to practice (3) If you practice 10,000 hours, you’ll be great. Two of these are right but incomplete, and the third is wrong.
Happily, Ericsson (and his able co-author, science writer Robert Pool) don’t dwell on what other books have gotten wrong. There are a couple of pages on the errors in Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, but it’s about the kindest, most gentlemanly takedown imaginable. (Regarding scientific accuracy, some psychologists will doubtless sniff that Ericsson underestimates the contributions of innate talent to skill. Ericsson reckons it counts for nothing, which is definitely a minority view. There’s so much right in this book I can’t get worked up about one thing that most researchers would disagree with.)
No, the sensibility of the book is not “here, at long last, is accurate science.” That’s just a bonus. The sensibility of the book is “here’s how to become at great something.”
As you might expect, the front half of the book explains principles of deliberate practice, and how it differs from other kinds of practice:
- It’s for skills that other people have already figured out how to do and for which effective training techniques exist.
- You are out of your comfort zone most the time.
- The goal of a practice session is quite specific; it’s not “improve.”
- You typically work on one small aspect of the skill when you practice.
- It requires full attention; it’s not enough to just do what the coach said.
- It requires meaningful feedback, and meaningful response to the feedback.
Good science well told would be enough to make me like the book. What made me love it is the care and thought Ericsson puts into helping you apply the principles of deliberate practice to your own life.
He starts with the working world. What it would take to build a better doctor, say? Practicing medicine in the usual sense is not practicing medicine, it’s doing medicine. What’s needed is deliberate practice. For that to happen, the medical field needs to identify experts in each field, figure out what underlies their superior performance, and develop the logical steps to build those mental representations in novices. If that sounds hard, well sure. But Ericsson also describes interim steps that can be taken in medicine--or in any workplace--to boost improvement.
Okay, maybe deliberate practice can help doctors improve, help society, whatever…what about the reader who just wants to improve his short game on the golf course? Or what if you just want to be awesome?
The recommendations for the field of medicine won’t do for the individual. The medical field has significant money and infrastructure to support a change in training. You likely have a little time, less cash, and fragile willpower. Ericsson has been working with individuals trying to improve various skills for decades, and he has practical advice to share on practical matters:
- What to do if you find you can’t focus.
- What to do if you don’t have a teacher.
- What to do when you hit the inevitable plateau.
- How to maintain motivation.
Peak is among the best popular works of psychology I have ever read. It does exactly what this sort of book is supposed to do: intrigue you, educate you, make your life better.