Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise

This is the book to read if you want to learn how to become extraordinary at any skill.

8 min read


  • Deliberate practice is the key to improving at any skill.
  • No such thing as 'predefined ability'. Ability is not fixed.
  • Hard work alone is not enough. The right practice over a long enough period of time will lead to improvement. Not just 'working hard'.
  • All fields generally use the same principles for learning. This is deliberate practice.
  • Gaining expertise = improving mental processes (can also be the mental processes that control your movements).

The Power of Purposeful Practice

  • If you want to become effective at practicing, your method has to take into account what works and what doesn't for driving changes in the mind and body. That's why all fields generally use the same principles for learning.
  • Usually, what happens is that we start something. And we practice until we've learned that thing at an acceptable level, where everything is automatic. You can relax and just do it. But this is when you stagnate. You will never get better if you don't challenge yourself.
  • If you want to become good, you have to challenge yourself in order to not stagnate. Practice the parts you are bad at. Especially those.
  • Your skill deteriorates over time when it's not developed. If you aren't building, you're tearing down. This is why someone who has been driving for 20+ years can be worse than someone who just took their driver's license a few years ago.
  • Purposeful practice (part of deliberate practice) has "well-defined, specific goals". Without those, there is no way to judge if you failed or succeeded.
    • Break down your goals and make a plan to achieve it. How exactly will you do it?
  • Take your general goal of "getting better" and turn it into something that you can actually work on. Something that you, realistically, can improve.
  • Purposeful practice is focused.
  • Purposeful practice involves feedback. If you don't know what you're doing right or wrong, you can't improve.
    • You can reach a point where you can give yourself feedback. When you're good enough, you generally know what looks right or wrong.
  • Purposeful practice requires you to get out of your comfort zone. To challenge yourself. You don't have to go 150%, but you have to go above 100% sometimes. In terms of bodybuilding, you might push yourself to do a few more reps.
    • Doing the same things over and over again will not lead to improvement. It leads to stagnation. Don't try harder. Try differently.
  • Improve → Get stuck → Find a way to overcome the barrier (usually; trying something different) → Repeat
    • You can also ask a coach/teacher how to overcome the barrier.
  • Very few obstacles cannot be overcome. But most people quit when they reach them, thinking they cannot do it.
  • Purposeful practice is a great start, but it's not all there is. So read on...

Harnessing Adaptability

  • When training mental skills, you usually can't 'see' any changes. So it's easy to assume that not much is happening. That's usually a mistake.
  • We, as humans, have improved quite a lot over time. We're always breaking new records. When viewed over time, it's quite incredible.
  • Your mental skills are not fixed.
  • The body wants to maintain homeostasis (balance). When pushed such that it cannot, it does what is has to maintain homeostasis. This is why you build muscle when weight training.
    • The body's desire for homeostasis can be used to drive changes. Push it hard enough for long enough, and it'll have to change such that it becomes easier. It can now do what previously stressed it. So you have to keep pushing if you want continual growth.
  • Push hard — but not too hard. Pushing beyond your limits is effective. Pushing so hard that you burn out or start learning ineffectively (fatigue, etc.) is not. More tangibly, pushing a personal record for a 150 kg squat is great — if that's just outside your usual range. But if your previous PR was 145 kg, and you load 200 kg on the bar, you're going to have a bad time. So push hard, but not too hard.
  • Most people lead lives that aren't very physically challenging. It's not that they don't possess extraordinary physical capabilities. They have the capacity for them. But they're leading comfortable lives and do not do the work to get out of them. They live in a world of "good enough". We rarely push beyond "good enough". But remember. The option exists. You can go beyond "good enough".

Mental Representations

  • We remember things better if it has meaning to us
  • Mental representation = mental structure that "corresponds to an object, an idea, a collection of information, or anything else, concrete or abstract, that the brain is thinking about".
  • Mental representations matter — even for physical skills.
  • No such thing as a general skill. It's all specific skills.
  • We need mental representations for complex activities — and we build them without even being aware of it.
  • The expert has more, and better, mental representations than the novice. This is the distinction.
  • Expert performance is seeing patterns in a collection of things that would seem random to people with less well developed mental representations. "Experts see the forest when everyone else sees only trees".
    • Reminds me of the Arthur Schopenhauer quote: "Talent can hit a target no one else can hit. Genius can hit a target no one else can see".
  • Better mental representations = better performance.
  • Mental representations help us deal with information: "understanding and interpreting it, holding it in memory, organizing it, analyzing it, and making decisions with it".
  • The more you study something, the more detailed your mental representations become, and the better you get at assimilating new information.
  • The main purpose of deliberate practice is to develop effective mental representations.
    • And mental representations play a key role in deliberate practice.
    • The better you become at something, the better your mental representations are. And the better they are, the more effectively you can practice your skill.

The Gold Standard

  • Earlier, I stated that purposeful practice is not enough. So what is needed?
  • You need feedback. You'd usually also want competition (provides strong incentives to get better). Your skill should be a well established one. And having a coach / teacher is very good.
  • Nobody becomes great without putting in huge amounts of (good) practice.
  • Deliberate practice is different for other sorts of purposeful practice for two reasons. 1. Because it requires a field that is reasonably well developed (the best performers are clearly better than those who are just entering it). And 2. It requires a teacher who can help a student improve. And before there can be teachers, there has to be some people who've reached certain levels of performance.
  • Deliberate practice is purposeful practice that is informed. Meaning that you know exactly how to get where you want to go.
    • You learn from those who have done it.
    • You go outside your comfort zone. This is uncomfortable. But that's the price you have to pay.
    • It requires specific goals with a plan to achieve them.
    • It is a very focused practice. It requires your full attention and conscious actions.
    • Get feedback and learn from it. Later you can even give yourself feedback. But this requires good mental representations.
    • Improve skill → Improves mental representations → Further improve skill (and so on...)
    • Start with the fundamentals and build from there. You have to have a base to build upon.
  • Don't have access to a teacher? Learn from them anyway using books and interviews.
  • To get better at anything, you want to get as close to deliberate practice as possible.
  • Deliberate practice is (usually) just purposeful practice with extra steps. 1. Identify expert performers, 2. Figure out what makes them so good, 3. Come up with training techniques that allow you to do it too.
  • Bee careful of bias when finding expert performers to emulate. The judgment of peers can be a good place to start.
  • Some people work alone, so it's hard to know their work. Seek people in teems, that way you can compare them to each other (or in fields in which you can compare, generally).
  • Seek the one the expert seeks out when they need help. Then ask them who is the best — but take it with some salt.
  • If you already know a field, look for those who are good at the metrics you believe are key.
  • Once you've found an expert, identify what they did to become great.
  • The main issue is mental representations. They are not directly observable. So what you do is, find out how the expert performer trains (what sets their training apart). There are likely many things they do differently that does not lead to superior performance, but it's still a place to start.
  • If you find something that works, keep doing it; if it doesn't work, stop. The better you get at mirroring the experts' training, the better yours will be.
  • When you can, work with a good teacher. That's almost always the best way to improve.
  • Gladwell generally got the 10.000 hour rule wrong. But it's right that you have to put in a lot of effort over many years to become good at something. 10.000 hours is not a magic number. It was the average practice time of violinists at the age of twenty. They weren't elite or anything; just good. Also, practice, — or, 'time spent doing something', — alone is not enough. Deliberate practice is the way you become good.
  • The 10.000 hour 'rule' also discourages a lot of people. But you don't have to spend that much time. You decide how much time you want to spend. You can improve quite a lot in just a few hundred hours.

Principles of Deliberate Practice in Everyday Life

  • If your mind is wandering or you are relaxed and just having fun, you probably won't improve.
  • Whatever you're doing, focus on it.
  • Our jobs, our schooling, and our hobbies rarely give us the opportunity to do the focused repetition that deliberate practice requires. So we have to make our own opportunities.
  • To effectively practice a skill without a teacher, keep the three F's in mind: Focus. Feedback. Fix it. Break down skills into parts that you can repeatedly do and analyze the effectiveness of. You determine your weaknesses and find a way to fix them.
  • Copy masters to learn their mental representations. These are tied to actions, not just thoughts. It's the "extended practice aimed at reproducing the original product that will produce the mental representations we seek."
  • People often stop trying to improve because they think they've hit an implacable plateau. Don't stop, if you want to move forward. Fix your specific weak points.
  • "One of the best bits of advice is to set up things so that you are constantly seeing concrete signs of improvement, even if it's not always major improvements". Break down your long term goal into manageable goals and focus on them one at a time. Maybe even give yourself a reward every time you reach one.

The Road to Extraordinary

  • The adult brain might not be as adaptable in certain ways as the brain of the child or adolescent. But it's still more than capable of learning and changing.
  • Learning as an adult takes place through different mechanisms than younger people. But if we try enough, our brains will find a way.

But What About Natural Talent?

  • No such thing as natural talent — it's just unseen practice.
  • Those who are great at something from the start are not guaranteed to keep that lead.

Where Do We Go From Here?

  • You pick up the necessary knowledge in order to develop the skills. Knowledge should never be an end in itself. But you'll still learn quite a lot along the way.
  • "You don't build mental representations by thinking about something; you build them by trying to do something, failing, revising, and trying again, over and over. When you're done, not only have you developed an effective mental representation for the skill you were developing, but you also absorbed a great deal of information connected with that skill"
  • Clear understanding = good mental representations.

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