Book Reviews

Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise by Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool

ISBN-13: 978-0544456235
Publisher: Eamon Dolan/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Pages: 336

I've been doing technical interviews with software developers for a decade now. While I do look at their CV I don't care much about past experience as measured in years. Instead, the thing I put most value on is if the candidate has shown the ability to learn. To me, that's the skill that makes a real difference. It doesn't matter how many years of a specific technology you have under your belt; If you don't have a habit of learning new stuff, much of your skills will become obsolete. Worse, you'll miss a lot of opportunities in a fast moving field like ours. That's the reason I'm obsessed with learning and try to learn continuously myself, often by diving into different subjects/technologies/research that I don't really understand in an attempt to broaden my horizon (one example is my book Lisp for the Web that I wrote as a way to understand Common Lisp). I talked about this as a guest on Developer on Fire and I studied expert learning in my psychology courses. As such I was quite familiar with the research of Anders Ericsson. When I found out that he's been writing a whole book on the subject of learning, I jumped at the opportunity to read it.

The Deliberate Practice of Mozart

Anders Ericsson is well-known for his research on deliberate practice. Deliberate practice is a structured process to acquire expert skills in a specific domain such a chess, music or, well, programming. The book starts out with several chapters that debunk the myth of the prodigy genius. Anders leads with Mozart as an example. It's an interesting choice because Mozart is often referred to as the naturally gifted archetypal genius. However, Anders convinces us otherwise without necessary taking anything away from Mozart. For example, Anders tells the story of how the young Mozart impressed people with his perfect pitch. Perfect pitch, it turns out, is an acquired skill. It's something you can learn by deliberate practice. That is, if you're younger than six years. After that the necessary adaptability in the brain seems to disappear for this specific domain.

But that's not the case for most skills; The human brain remains remarkably adaptable, which is one of the big scientific findings in the past decades and the principle that deliberate practice builds upon. Anders exemplifies this by presenting his early research where he had a subject memorize long, random strings as digits. It's a truly fascinating piece of research since it shouldn't be possible given what we believed to be true earlier about our working memory (see Miller's Law).

The initial chapters of the book are interesting. They set the scene for what to come, without necessarily telling us much about deliberate practice itself. That parts kicks-off later and this is where the book takes-off.

There's a Difference between Practice and Practice

Deliberate practice is about building efficient mental representations of the domain you want to excel in. It's a slow and often unpleasant process where you constantly work at the boundaries of your current capacity. Deliberate practice isn't fun. It requires your full attention and it's draining (on a side note, I remember an old interview with Sebastian Coe who claimed that if you have time to listen to music while you run you ain't practicing as hard as you should - that's the spirit of deliberate practice).

Anders also investigates how we typically learn. He uses examples from research on medical practitioners. This part is a scary read. In the presented research, doctors' and nurses' performances grew worse over time even though their experience increased! Studies like that are a hard blow to the idea of experience as a proxy for expertise. It's also the reason I'm quite skeptical to a lot of “knowledge building” activities in the software profession (code katas, for example, seems to be an idea that's frequently terribly misunderstood and turns-out as a good time with friends at best or a waste of time at worst). Doing the same thing over and over again won't improve your skills.

In addition, you won't improve much if you don't give the task your full attention. Traditional education don't value this since most of it focuses on knowledge at the expense of skill.

The Curse of Natural Talent

As I read along I got the feeling that Anders downplays the role of natural talent too much. It's something all of us have seen in school. Some people were just naturally better at sports and some grasped the theoretical subjects way faster than others. I really tried to push away those thoughts - after all, Anders has the data and I don't - but I was relieved when I found out that there's a whole chapter dedicated to the subject. To summarize, there is of course such a thing as natural talent. And it does matter, but not in the way we'd expect. Anders illustrates this by presenting research that correlates IQ measurements with chess-playing abilities. Children with a higher IQ do learn faster. This gives them an early advantage. However, over time that initial advantage vanishes compared to the effects of deliberate practice and efficient mental representations. And here's the key: the initially less gifted chess players had to grow a habit of practicing more. That habit of practice paid off over time and that's the somewhat surprising reason that expert chess players score pretty average on IQ tests.

Towards Creativity and Practice

Peak is an amazing book. It packs a lot of interesting research in an accessible and easy to read format. Trust me, this review has really just scratched the surface. There's so many other great chapters covering everything from the link between creativity and practice, a brilliant critique of Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers that seem to have misinterpreted a lot of Anders' research, studies on applying deliberate practice to school courses, and of course a chapter that introduces you to the steps of deliberate practice. My only negative critique is that the book started out too slow, but it's something I can live with. This is a book you want to read!

Reviewed November 2016