gcLibrary Book Review: Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise

Mia FranzgcLi Book Review

Mia Franz, English Teacher, Tampa Preparatory School

In Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise (Mariner Press, 2016), Drs. Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool make a convincing case against the traditional belief that truly groundbreaking performances are inspired by innate talent. I can remember my own father, an educator himself and an incredibly patient and supportive man, acknowledging the limits of his own musical ability when compared to a seventeen-year-old student who possessed a truly staggering aptitude for classical piano.

For a long time, we have told ourselves, sometimes in despair and sometimes with an echo of relief, that we can only achieve as far as we, ourselves, are able, based on the skills granted us genetically or, more mystically, “from birth.” Ericsson would answer, “Nonsense.” Early in the book, he debunks one of our most famous cultural prodigy myths by arguing that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was not born a brilliant composer and inspired musician, but that his environment, particularly his upbringing by a versatile musician father, directly created his genius.

While much of the book is dedicated to examples such as this, designed to convince his readers of the truth of the argument, a large portion also examines the specifics of “deliberate practice,” which is Ericsson’s answer to how experts truly become experts. There may be environmental factors that predispose someone to learn faster or be exposed at a younger age to certain bodies of knowledge, such as Mozart’s musical household, and there may be genetic gifts that help certain athletes, for example, achieve at a superior level to others. But for Ericsson, the true story behind any truly great achievement is practice, practice, and then, even more practice. For students who hope to master skills, and for the educators who hope to inspire them, this may be the greatest takeaway.

Merely putting in the hours, however, is not enough. To truly improve to a level of excellence (and then beyond), a person must seek out other experts in the form of teachers and coaches who truly stand at the top of their field, and he or she must also continually push beyond the comfort zone to prevent the brain “muscles” (and sometimes the physical ones as well) from getting complacent. He continually makes this very important distinction, driving home the point that if you are merely doing the same thing over and over in the exact same way, you aren’t gaining any knowledge or any brain power, and your movement towards expertise will stagnant. Again, even if you aren’t attempting to dominate a certain field, this idea has definite application in the classroom.

To truly become the best, you must never stop pushing yourself to become better, even when you become a innovator—“look[ing] for ways to move forward, to do things that others have not” (206). This is, Ericsson argues, why, in the fields of athletics, chess, even Scrabble, the level of competition continues to grow. If everyone begins to train like the elitist of the elite, then the elite becomes the norm.

Many people will come to this book familiar with Ericsson’s work as referenced by Malcolm Gladwell, who discusses the “10,000 rule” in his influential Outliers. Ericsson notes that while this rule isn’t really a rule, it does give people an idea of just how much actual work is required if you truly want to become exceptional in what you do. The thing is, for many of us (maybe even most of us?), while we may enjoy watching and learning about experts in a field, and we may even dream about what we would do if we had their skills and knowledge, we don’t have what it takes—the passion, the time, or the obsessive nature—to truly become an expert.

Ericsson gives an example from a recent study completed at the University of British Columbia. He acknowledges that “there are a number of ways that deliberate practice could revolutionize how people learn” (250). For the educators in the audience, then, there are some practical suggestions. The fact that the book ends with a focus on education suggests that the practices examined therein may have a more universal relevance. After all, Ericsson acknowledges that “Education touches everyone” (250). He also points out that “progress is made by those who are working on the frontiers of what is known and what is possible to do” (206).

This book celebrates the progress not only of individual experts or even individual fields, but also our progress as a human race.  For teachers of leadership, and for the future leaders they guide, the reminder that we learn and grow through continual challenge may inspire deeper commitment to hard work, knowing that the rewards may change our lives–or even the world.

Mia Franz is the gcLibrary Editor for the gcLi Leadership Blog and teaches Upper School English at Tampa Preparatory School in Florida. She is an experienced educator and accomplished writer who will be contributing to each edition of our new quarterly newsletter. Mia is the wife of gcLi Faculty member Robert Franz, and has a Master’s in Fine Arts from Indiana University.