Book Notes: Peak

by Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool

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

Purposeful Practice

Get outside your comfort zone but do it in a focused way, with clear goals, a plan for reaching those goals, and a way to monitor your progress. Also figure out a way to maintain your motivation.

Mental Representations

A mental representation is a 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.

These models are preexisting patterns of information—facts, images, rules, relations, etc—that are held in long-term memory and that can be used to respond quickly and effectively in certain types of situations. They make it possible to process large amounts of information quickly, despite the limitations of short-term memory.

The better your mental representation of the skill at hand the more quickly you can learn it.

Experts have higher quality and quantity of mental models than others.

Ex. baseball players able to hit balls coming from 100 mph pitchers.

Years of practice have changed the neural circuitry in their brains to produce highly specialized mental representations, which in turn make possible the incredible memory, pattern recognition, problem solving, and other sorts of advanced abilities needed to excel in their particular specialties.

The main purpose of deliberate practice is to develop effective mental representations, and, thees models in turn play a key role in deliberate practice.

Mental models aren’t just the result of learning a skill; they can also help us learn.

When practicing a new piece, beginning musicians lack a good, clear idea of how the music should sound, while advanced musicians have a very detailed mental model of the music they use to guide their practice and performance of a piece.

Higher skilled music students were better able to determine when they’d made mistakes and better able to identify difficult sections they needed to focus their efforts on. They had more effective mental models.

Virtuous cycle: the more skilled you become, the better your mental representations are, and the better your mental representations are, the more effectively you can practice to hone your skill.

Deliberate Practice

Deliberate practice is purposeful practice that knows where it is going and how to get there.

Characterized by:

  1. develops skill that other people have already figured out
  2. takes place outside of comfort zone and requires constantly try things that are just beyond current abilities
  3. involves well-defined, specific goals and target performance
  4. requires full attention and conscious actions
  5. involves feedback and modification of efforts in response to feedback
  6. depends on effective mental representations. Improving performance goes hand in hand with improving mental representations; as one’s performance improves, the representations become more detailed and effective, in turn making it possible to improve even more
  7. involves building or modifying previously acquired skills by focusing on particular aspects of those skills and working to improve them specifically

Most effective learning: role-play, discussion groups, case solving, hands-on training. Least effective: lectures.

Steps in Everyday Life

  1. Hire a teacher that can give you feedback. Must be accomplished and have history of improving other students. You will outgrow a teacher at some point. Keep moving forward.
  2. Focus! Maintain close attention to every detail of performance.
  3. Better to train at 100% effort for less time than 70% effort for longer period. Once can no longer focus effectively, end the session.

How to break through Plateaus

p. 165

  1. Figure out exactly what is holding you back. What mistakes are you making, and when? Push yourself well outside of your comfort zone and see what breaks down first.
  2. Design a practice technique aimed at improving that particular weakness. Once you’ve figured out what the problem is, you may be able to fix it yourself, or you may need to go to an experienced coach or teacher for suggestions.
  3. Either way, pay attention to what happens when you practice; if you are not improving, you will need to try something else.

Three Steps to Starting Out – teaching children to want to learn a skill

p. 184
(using chess as example)

STAGE ONE – starting out

Children are introduced in a playful way to what will eventually become their field of interest. (Finding chess pieces and liking their shapes). Nothing more than toys to play with.

In the beginning, the parents play with their child at the child’s level, but gradually they turn the play toward the real purpose of the "toy." They explain the special moves of the chess pieces. Parents give the child a great deal of time, attention, and encouragement. They teach the child such values as self-discipline, hard work, responsibility, and spending one’s time constructively.

Many children will find some initial motivation to explore or to try something because of their natural curiosity or playfulness, and parents have an opportunity to use this initial interest as a springboard to an activity, but that initial curiosity-drive motivation needs to be supplemented. One excellent supplement, particularly with smaller children, is praise. Another motivvation is the satisfaction of having developed a certain skill, particularly if that achievement is acknowledged by a parent.

Often the children picks up particular interests of their parents. Parents who were involved with music often found their children developing an interest in music, as it was a way they could spend time with the parents and share the interest.

The children don’t practice per se, but many children do manage to come up with activities that are part play, part training. Competition with sibling may be motivation as well.

There’s a slightly different pattern in the early days of the children who would grow up to be mathematicians and neurologists than in the athletes, musicians, and artists. In this case the parents didn’t introduce the children to the particular subject matter but rather to the appeal of intellectual pursuits in general. They encouraged their children’s curiosity, and reading was a major pastime, with the parents reading to the children early on, and the children reading books themselves later.

At some point they become very interested in a particular area and show more promise than other children of similar age. The child is then ready to move on to the second stage.

STAGE TWO – becoming serious

Next step is to take lessons from a coach or a teacher. This is first exposure to deliberate practice. Teachers don’t need to be experts at the skill but need to be good at working with children and motivate to move forward through deliberate practice.

Parents help establish routines and prioritize their practice.

Motivation must ultimately be something that comes from within the child, or else it won’t endure.

STAGE THREE – commitment

By early or mid-teens they make major commitment

Often seek out best teachers or schools for training.

STAGE FOUR – pathbreakers

Some move beyond the existing knowledge in their field and make unique creative contributions.

The most successful creative people in various fields find that creativity goes hand in hand with the ability to work hard and maintain focus over long stretches of time—exactly the ingredients of deliberate practice that produced their expert abilities in the first place.

Innate Talent

IQ only gives slight edge at the beginning of learning a new skill. But once skill is established there is no correlation between IQ and skill performance. Amount of practice was the deciding factor in skill.

Early noticed "innate talent" has no correlation with how good they’ll be at higher levels.


Some people might be naturally able to focus more intently and for longer periods of time than others; since deliberate practice depends on being able to focus in this way, these people might be naturally able to practice more effectively than others and thus benefit more from their practice.

It makes sense that if genes do play a role, their role would play out through shaping how likely a person is to engage in deliberate practice or how effective that practice is likely to be.

Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

Children who are almost one year older do better because they are a little bit more formed intellectually. They are seen as "smarter" and so they are the one’s that encouraged and supported as the "talented" ones. This is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

It is human nature to want to put effort—time, money, teaching, encouragement, support—where it will do the most good and also to try to protect kids from disappointment. The best way to avoid this is to recognize the potential in all of us—and work to find ways to develop it.

Another example of this is with children with slightly higher IQs. They learn just a little quicker and so they are the ones who are labeled "gifted" and extra attention and training is put on them. This advantage propagates through the school years.

This is the dark side of believing in innate talent. It can beget a tendency to assume that some people have a talent for something and others don’t and that you can tell the difference early on. If you believe that, you encourage and support the "talented" ones and discourage the rest, creating the self-fulfilling prophecy.

Piecing It Together


If you teach a student facts, concepts, and rules, those things go into long-term memory as individual pieces. But if a student then wishes to do something with them (i.e., solve a problem, reason with them to answer a question) the limitations of attention and short-term memory kick in. The student must keep all of those different, unconnected pieces in mind while working with them toward a solution. However, if this information is assimilated as part of building mental representations aimed at doing something, the individual pieces become part of an interconnected pattern that provides context and meaning to the information, making it easier to work with.

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 have also absorbed a great deal of information connected with that skill.

When preparing a lesson plan, determining what a student should be able to do is far more effective than determining what the student should know. It then turns out that the knowing part comes along for the ride.

From the Physics class teaching experiment: put together a list of what the students should be able to do, then transform it into a collection of specific learning objectives. This is a classic deliberate-practice approach: when teaching a skill, break the lesson into a series of steps that the student can master one at a time, building from one to the next to reach the ultimate objective. While this sounds like like scaffolding approach used in traditional education, it differs crucially in its focus on understanding the necessary mental representations at each step of the way and making sure that the student has developed the appropriate representations before moving to the next step.

Physics students and experts do equally well on solving equations and quantitative problems, but students are far behind the experts in their ability to solve qualitative problems, i.e., why is it hot in summer and cold in the winter? Those questions require understanding of concepts that underlie particular events—that is, good mental representations. Understand the fundamentals deeply.

A major benefit for someone who develops a mental representation is the freedom to begin exploring that skill on his own. In music, having clear representations of what musical pieces sound like, how pieces fit together allows ability to improvise and explore on their instruments. They no longer need a teacher to lead them down every path; they can head down some paths on their own.

Creating a mental representation in one area helps to understand exactly what it takes to be successful not only in that area but in others as well.

Book Notes: Peak

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