What “Peak”ed My Curiosity and Is Making Me Strive for More

I just finished reading Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise by Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool. I read a lot of books, but there are few that I include in the category I call life enhancing. I’ll be adding this one to the list.

I first heard about the book on episode #244 of the Freakonomics Radio podcast titled How to Become Great at Just About Anything  this past April. Stephen Dubner was interviewing Anders Ericsson about the book and its main concept: deliberate practice. The short of it is that if you practice the right way and with the right support, you can get better at just about anything; no matter your age and no matter your skill level or inate abilities.

In thirty years of looking, I have never found an ability that could not be explained by answering these two questions: What is the nature of the ability? and What sorts of training made it possible?
— Anders Ericsson, Peak (2016), p. 211.
In the long run it is the ones who practice more who prevail, not the ones who had some initial advantage in intelligence or some other talent.
— Anders Ericsson, Peak (2016), p. 233.

In the book, Ericsson also invites us to revisit our beliefs in natural talent and prodigies. He argues that in every case, what appears to be natural talent is the result of exposure to an environment and to practice habits that are not the norm. That's a powerful statement that puts many pursuits back in the realm of the possible for most of us.

In order to improve in any area, Ericsson makes it clear that individuals need to meet the following conditions:

  • Have a plan
  • Follow a schedule (including a good night’s sleep)
  • Have measurable goals
  • Engage in deliberate practice (often with the help of a coach or teacher)
  • Showcasing your skills at some point as this fuels your practice - it’s the payoff 

The book has lead me to look a number of things I do/aspire to do and to question personal beliefs regarding my abilities and limitations. It’s lead me to consider my potential in these areas quite differently.

Motivation is more like a skill, akin to reading or writing, that can be learned and honed. Scientists have found that people can get better at self-motivation if they practice the right way. The trick, researchers say, is realizing that a prerequisite to motivation is believing we have authority over our actions and surroundings.
— Charles Duhigg, Smarter Faster Better (2016)

It’s both thrilling and terrifying at the same time. I guess these feelings always follow a realization of the burden/opportunity of taking personal responsibility. *Sigh.*

It’s been the most powerful vehicle thus far to enable me to challenge my self-limiting beliefs. I either have to:

  • decide not to get better at something because I don’t want to (not a priority), not because I can’t or 
  • decide to get better and make a thoughtful plan to get there. 

My Plan for Deliberate Practice

I’ve reviewed my wish list and discarded many activities as things I don’t want to get better at and have honed in on four skills/abilities that I want to work on because I know I’m likely to stick with the process and reap the benefits of the improvement:

  1. Writing
  2. Speaking
  3. Strength Training
  4. Archery
Research has shown that, generally speaking, once a person reaches that level of “acceptable” performance and automaticity, the additional years of ‘practice’ don’t lead to improvement. If anything, the doctor or the teacher or the driver who’s been at it for twenty years is likely to be a bit worse than the one who’s been doing it for only five, and the reason is that these automated abilities gradually deteriorate in the absence of deliberate efforts to improve.
— Anders Ericsson, Peak (2016), p. 13.

I already do all of these things, but I haven’t focused on getting better, and that’s the key. The power is in the word “deliberate”. Just going through the motions doesn’t make us better. There’s nothing particularly wrong with doing something we enjoy, but expecting improvement just by going through the motions is a fallacy most of us believe. I certainly thought it at least helped. I was wrong. In fact, it can make us worse.

Good planning can help you avoid many of the things that might lead you to spend less time on practice than you wanted.
— Anders Ericsson, Peak (2016), p. 170.

To illustrate the tenets of deliberate practice, I’ve elaborated on my plan for each of these activities below and expect to keep at these throughout the year, assuming I don’t choose to “hang up my skates” on any of them.

1. Writing (5 days a week, 2,300 word minimum)

With deliberate practice…the goal is not just to reach your potential but to build it, to make things possible that were not possible before. This requires challenging homeostasis—getting out of your comfort zone—and forcing your brain or you body to adapt. But once you do this, learning is no longer just a way of fulfilling some genetic destiny; it becomes a way of taking control of your destiny and shaping your potential in ways that you choose.
— Anders Ericsson, Peak (2016), p. 48.
Authors and poets have usually been writing for more than a decade before they produce their best work, and it is generally a decade or more between a scientist’s first publication and his or her most important publication—and this is in addition to the years of study before that first published research.
— Anders Ericsson, Peak (2016), p. 112.

I write on most days, but I’ve been avoiding a challenging project in favour of other writing because it's pushing me out of my comfort zone. What’s the challenge? Writing chapters as opposed to blog posts. I’ve set a 50,000-word goal for the month of June to work on this challenging project and I’ll be measuring my daily output. Why 50,000? Because it will enable me to finish the project and to likely write far more than I need to (I've reached 18,700 so far). The more I push myself to write, the easier it should become and the closer I’ll get to my goal of finishing the project.

Here’s how I’ll make time for this endeavour: if I’m not at least on track toward 50,000, I don’t get to write or read anything else. Now that’s incentive to really get into the groove and get over this mental block/fear of success that’s holding me back.

How will I measure quality? I’ll be working with an editor as soon as I’m done and that will help me improve the first draft, and the second, and the third…knowing there will be eyes on this work at the end of this period is a great way of staying honest with myself. Plus, she sounds brutal. Perfect.

2. Speaking (1 hr, 2 days a week, plus speech preparation)

I do a fair amount of speaking. I always have, but what I find doesn’t happen often is receiving constructive feedback from co-workers, superiors, clients and audience members. Only the ones who like what I do will tell me face to face and very few people leave constructive comments on evaluation sheets.

Perhaps the most important factor…is the social environment itself. Deliberate practice can be a lonely pursuit, but if you have a group of friends who are in the same positions…you have a built-in support system.
— Anders Ericsson, Peak (2016), p. 174.
In the professional world, and especially in the corporate world, there’s no shortage of people who make a living by offering advice on how to improve. They call themselves consultants or counselors or coaches, and they write books, give speeches, and lead seminars. They feed a seemingly insatiable appetite among their customers for anything that might provide a competitive edge. Of all the myriad approaches out there, the ones most likely to succeed are the ones that most resemble deliberate practice.
— Anders Ericsson, Peak (2016), p. 120.

That’s why I decided to join Toastmasters after being away for nearly ten years. I’ve shopped around for Toastmasters clubs and I’ve found one that suits my needs: it’s close to home, the meeting time fits my schedule, and more importantly I know that some of the members I’ve met will help me stretch my speaking/presentation skills. Ironically, it’s called “Peak Performers”— I can’t make this up! 

I’ll be working through the Advanced Communication Library and my goal is to complete 2 of the booklets this year, a total of 10 speeches, documenting and paying attention to incorporating the feedback I receive as I move along. Given the audience, I know I’ll push myself and then be able to bring best practices into my external speaking engagements.

3. Strength Training (1 hr, 4 days a week)

Make an agreement with yourself that you will do what it takes to get back to where you were or to get beyond the plateau, and then you can quit. You probably won’t.
— Anders Ericsson, Peak (2016), p. 173.

As I’ve mentioned in this post, back in March my appendix decided it didn’t like me anymore. That’s lead to time away from my training. I’ve been active but there’s a difference between being active and lifting really heavy things :). I want to at least get back to what I used to lift. I’ll be measuring my progress based on whether or not I’ve reached or exceeded my previous personal bests.

I’ll be tracking my progress toward the following: 135 lb bench press, 245 lb deadlift, 160 lb back squat, 103 lb overhead squat,100 lb snatch, and 125 lb clean & jerk. I’m currenly at about 60-75% of each of these, in part due to my need to be cautious. I’ll be touching on each of these lifts regularly, with four gym sessions per week, focusing on the weaknesses in each lift and taking care to be careful not to hurt myself in the process, given it takes up to six months to be fully recovered from surgery.

4. Archery (1 hr, 3 days a week)

Generally speaking, deliberate practice and related types of practice that are designed to achieve a certain goal consist of individualized training activities—usually done alone—that are devised specifically to improve particular aspects of performance.
— Anders Ericsson, Peak (2016), p. 111.
 Here's a sample of my better shooting from yesterday. I have a ways to go.

Here's a sample of my better shooting from yesterday. I have a ways to go.

Before my unexpected time off, I was quite enjoying my time at the archery range. But, I wasn’t progressing and, if anything, I was likely getting sloppier. I’ve been back since, but I know I need some guidance to improve and I want to prepare for a competition. Though I’m late in the game for a competition this year, I’ve signed up for coaching at Heartland Archery (my second lesson is today) and want to learn about proper scoring to track my progress. My goal is to improve by practicing weaknesses identified at each of my (at least) monthly coaching sessions and using my scoring to track that progress.

[I]f your mind is wandering or you’re relaxed and just having fun, you probably won’t improve.
— Anders Ericsson, Peak (2016), p. 151.

Note: As a taste of what’s to come, I was at the range yesterday and was shocked at how tired I was after spending one hour paying close attention to what I was doing. I used to spend two or more hours at a time but it’s the level of focus that makes the difference. Quality over quantity matters.

Tracking and Reporting Is Key

I’ve started a booklet or spreadsheet for each of these four activities to track my personal progress and I’ll document it here to share how my application of Ericsson’s principles helps me get further along than I likely would have with the status quo. 

I’m looking forward to learning more about deliberate practice and what I can accomplish through its use.

What about you? Have you applied any principles of deliberate practice? How has this improved your performance?


Image credit/copyright: artur84/freedigitalphotos.net

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