Sunday, March 04, 2018

Thoughts on Ericsson's Peak: Good self-help advice (practice deliberately!), framed in terms of brain science

We read Anders Ericsson’s Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise with great interest. On one hand, this is a practical self-help book that provides concrete ways to get better at things. On the other hand, it burnishes a lot of these suggestions with good scientific vignettes. In terms of the useful advice the book is all about the importance of practice -- but not simply the mindless, repetitive practice implied by the famous 10,000 hour rule -- but rather what the author calls, ‘deliberate practice’ where you push yourself to the limit of your ability, get feedback and attempt to form better mental representations of the task at hand. This method applies to everything, from memorizing chess positions to swinging a golf club.

The book provides lots of good case stories on this, from the famous digit-memorizer Steve Faloon to studies on how radiologists with deliberate practice and feedback did much better identifying tumors than those without. It also provides some scientific grounding to the importance of deliberate practice, such as the studies on brain volume and London taxi cab drivers and how those who practice more literally had a physiological change and also how implementing a different time of teaching physics demonstrably improved student performance.

This work dovetails with the idea of self-help through coaching, recently championed by Atul Gwande and others [], and more generally the goal of finding the best way to improve oneself. We think the challenge is two-fold – first, objectively monitoring your performance so that you can best identify which of your weaknesses to target; and second, developing a deliberate practice in which you can receive the feedback needed to improve. Ericsson describes Ben Franklin teaching himself to frame an argument by writing each sentence of a position piece on a separate slip of paper, and then trying to correctly arrange the slips. What is the analog for becoming a better scientist? Can you do it yourself, or do you need a coach?

Altogether, we found it a good read and it will definitely have some pointers that we will keep in mind and continue to practice.

Review written with Daniel Spakowicz (
Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise
by Anders Ericsson