Everyone wants to be at the top of their profession and field, but how do we get there? The main premise of Peak, by Anders Ericsson, is that you need to not only practice, but also practice the right way–i.e., deliberate practice.
Thus, people don’t just get better with ordinary practice or through working in a typical, unimpressive fashion. Even many years of experience one has accumulated performing a skill or practicing a profession does not guarantee expertise. Eriscson provides numerous examples of disciplines where professionals, over many years of workmanship, not only remain stagnant in their professional growth, but actually regress. The book advances the notion that you must take purposeful action to become an “expert” or to reach your peak. And this book provides, in theoretical and empirical fashion, the method one must accomplish to become an expert: deliberate practice.
For the average professional or hobbyist in any skill, this book is a goldmine of tips and recommendations on how to improve your craft. The book is incredibly encouraging for those who take a “growth mind-set approach”; that is, those who believe our abilities are not fixed but subject to indeterminable growth, which is dependent on various factors. One important factor is explicated in Peak, and that is deliberate practice. Although hearing about the elements of deliberate practice at this point may be tiresome —as the concept has been popularized by Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, and more accurately explained by others such as Cal Newport in So Good They Can’t Ignore You—I’ll restate them once again:
- Deliberate practice takes place outside of one’s comfort zone; that is, it shouldn’t be enjoyable, you should strain yourself when practicing;
- Deliberate practice involves well-defined goals, not just a desire to effectuate vague overall improvement, such as becoming a better tennis player. Instead, you should focus on a narrowed goal, like improve my down-the-line backhand by trying to guide the ball to the upper portion of the opposite court;
- Deliberate practice requires full conscious and attention (One could characterize this as Deep Work—a theory set forth in Cal Newport’s book of the same name). You can’t merely practice with a Facebook tab open and while checking your Iphone every 5 minutes; and
- Deliberate practice involves feedback and modification of efforts in response to that feedback. In other words, do not go about deliberate practice alone; have a mentor or teacher that can critique your performance.
This post wouldn’t be complete without a reference to the law. However, many of the elements of deliberate practice don’t directly apply to Law practice, like they do to practicing the piano, playing chess, and flying a plane. Fortunately, there are areas within Law, primarily writing, that allow you to implement the elements. Ericsson details Ben Franklin’s attempt to become a better writer to explain how one can apply the elements.
Franklin simply found various articles he thought exemplified adept writing abilities and copied them. But he didn’t just transcribe the articles after reading them, simplistically looking at the words he tried to emulate; he would read the article and then only note what was necessary to help him remember the ideas and main points of the article. He would then put the article away, and try to emulate the article’s prose and logical structure based on what he had read and the sparse reminders he provided. The result: Ben Franklin became one of the most prolific writers of his time. Erickson believes many of the principles Ben Franklin implemented to become a better writer are part-and-parcel with his elements of deliberate practice.
While I haven’t directly applied the elements to my legal practice (notwithstanding a haphazard attempt during bar studies), I realized I have been unknowingly applying another principle in the book—mental representations. Mental representations are defined by Erickson as: “a mental structure that corresponds to an object, an idea, a collection of information, or anything else, concrete or abstract, that the brain is thinking about.” Erickson proclaims that it is these mental structures that allow performers to outclass their competition because they improve your ability to assimilate new information.
Throughout the last year or so, I have made it a concerted effort to have an eclectic understanding of the law. To do so, I try and read a wide range of legal materials, ranging from traditional legal opinions, to philosophy that provides the underpinnings of argument, and to literature regarding the constitution. What I’ve learned is that in a single area of practice you see many of the same concepts—or parallel concepts—and similar applications of those concepts over and over again. So, my intent in reading this diverse literature is to create effective mental representations so that when I see a concept I’ve been informed upon in the past, I can hone in on it and assimilate the new information effectively. For example, say I’m reading a legal opinion in the area of Employment law and I come across a distinct form of statutory construction that court is discussing, let’s say Expressio unius est exclusio alterius (“the express mention of one thing excludes all others”). Because I’ve read about this concept, or least seen it before in a law review article on something totally unrelated, I can now assimilate the new information with a greater sense of familiarity. I can compare this new situation where the concept appears to the previous ones, and all of this, I posit, increases my comprehension and understanding of whatever I’m presently learning.
Erickson also does a tremendous job of dispelling the notion that some individuals have natural talent, which explains why they’re expert performers. While some people are more physically predisposed to certain activities—think Shaq—the real reason the vast majority of experts have been able to excel is because they have all engaged in Deliberate Practice. Erickson supports this with empirical data and I found his argument pretty convincing. But this doesn’t presuppose that it’s easy to become an expert. Deliberate practice is incredibly rigorous and not enjoyable. You must strain through your practice and when developing your mental representations. Only then, will you reach your peak.
All in all, this book was a treasure trove of encouraging information and was written in a breezy fashion that made it an easy read. My biggest critique is the citations weren’t organized in the clearest way, but this could be due to me purchasing the book on kindle.
I’m attaching my outline with notes from each chapter—8 pages—below. Please download if you liked this post because a lot of ideas I didn’t include here are developed on that document. But, obviously, read the book for yourself if you truly want to understand how to become an expert in your field.
Outline for Peak