Peak: Brief Book Review

“Expert performers develop their extraordinary abilities through years and years of dedicated practice, improving step by step in a long laborious process. There are no shortcuts.”

The debate around talent vs practise is fervent enough to warrant its own genre. Spearheaded by Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers and the ‘10,000 hour rule’, authors everywhere have had their shot at challenging the insidious notion of talent: innate abilities we are (or are not) born with.

Upon first glance, Peak seems like just another Outliers clone, promising to unlock the ‘secrets of expertise’ and help us ‘achieve extraordinary things’. In fact K. Anders Ericsson’s research is what inspired the 10,000 hour rule in the first place, having studied the nature of expertise and human performance since the 1980s. Ericsson is the OG of the ‘talent’ genre, and it’s refreshing to finally get his resounding take on the debate.

Anders’ doesn’t disagree with much of the narrative around his research. Talent is indeed a myth, with practice being a much more reliable indicator of success, whether it be playing chess, learning the violin or hitting home runs. However, Ericsson does take time to clarify his research, removing the Gladwellian filter and drawing conclusions that are clear and concise. For one, different methods of practice have different outcomes. Spending 10,000 hours playing darts with your mates at the pub won’t automatically make you a darts champion. Peak argues that if you’re not improving, it’s not because you lack innate talent, it’s because you’re not practising in the right way. You’re not practising deliberately.

Peak defines this as practice that pushes you outside of your comfort zone. Practice that offers immediate feedback and ways to improve, emulating the habits and routines of the best in the field. Ericsson also highlights age as a determiner of future performance. Studies show that it’s possible to reliably develop perfect pitch in a child using deliberate practice, but very difficult to do so in an adult. Similarly professional tennis players who start young have thicker bone density in their dominant arm when compared to similarly skills tennis players who started later. Ericsson is quick to add that adults still have the potential to adapt, just not to the same degree as a child.

I also liked the book’s distinction between knowledge and skill when it comes to teaching. Often we teach on the assumption that once students have knowledge, they can go away and apply it themselves. An eye-opening study exploring the effectiveness of continuing education for registered doctors found that “passive listening to lectures has no significant effect at all on doctors’ performance or on how well their patients fared”. Instead educational approaches with some interactive component are much more effective. Peak makes the case that we should teach for skill, testing students on what they can do, not on what they know.

The reason we rely on writers like Malcolm Gladwell to interpret academic research is because the researchers themselves often cannot write for a mass-market audience. I was pleasantly surprised to find Peak a perfect mix of authority and accessibility. One can only hope it closes the door on the talent genre for good.