Book Review: Peak by Anders Ericsson

Book Review: Peak by Anders Ericsson

Ever wondered where the 10,000 hour rule that Gladwell popularized came from?  It was a study that Ericsson did of violinists at an elite school in Germany.  Not surprisingly, Ericsson doesn’t think it’s quite that easy and finally he’s published his book to explain how we can all learn how to play concert level violin.

If you think I meant that last line as a joke, I didn’t.  Ericsson’s central thesis is that, except for height, we’re all about the same at about everything.  It’s quite a jarring statement.  He’s implying that my gift for math likely wasn’t a gift and then my excuse for not dancing (I claim I’m rhythmically handicapped) are figments of my imagination.  What got Ericsson hooked on the topic was teaching a CMU undergraduate to recite back 80+ digits!!!  It had always been believed that people had a memory of 7ish digits, but this kid was able to hear 80+ digits one right after the other and then recite them back.  This wasn’t someone with any particular skill in memory, just a volunteer selected to participate in the study.

The more Ericsson looked at the world, the more he could distill every expert performance down to deliberate practice.  The key word there is deliberate, you don’t just spend 10,000 hours doing something and become an expert.  You need a coach who can show you how to go from one level to the next, you need to break down larger outcomes in to individual improvements, and you need to target those improvements in your practice.

I’d really recommend this book for people with children that they are trying to teach a skill or for people whose work (or very serious hobby) is skill based (performers, athletes, etc…).  Even though this isn’t true for me, I still found the book fascinating because of my interest in how the mind works.  I think I will be able to apply parts of Ericsson’s message to my work and my hobbies, but mostly I enjoyed learning a little more about how we learn.  If you share that interest, I’d pick it up.