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

deliberate practice peak anders ericsson

Click here for my Personal Outline for Peak

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:

  1. Deliberate practice takes place outside of one’s comfort zone; that is, it shouldn’t be enjoyable, you should strain yourself when practicing;
  2. 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;
  3. 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
  4. 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

Check out the book on Amazon here:



The Gluten-Free Label and Gluten Sensitivty

A Gluten-Free Product that has been processed to removal Gluten
A Gluten-Free Label

The Gluten-Free Label

In 2013, the FDA created a regulation defining “gluten-free” as it pertains to food labeling. This regulation is the primary source of legal authority governing manufacturers who label their food products as gluten-free. While this rule has undoubtedly helped those with celiac disease select food unlikely to cause much maligned health consequences, the rule is still imperfect, if not complete.  This is because research and published material continue to highlight the adverse health consequences gluten consumption has on those without celiac—i.e., those with gluten sensitivity or gluten intolerance.  Thus, the gluten-free label as it stands today is not the be-all-end-all, and consumers should remain scrupulous when buying gluten-free products containing trace amounts of gluten.

To further explain this, lets look at the wording of the FDA’s regulation.

The Regulation: 21 CFR 21. Part 101. Section 101.91—Gluten-free labeling of food

Gluten (meaning glue in Latin) is a protein composite that acts as an adhesive material to hold flour together to make a variety of bread-like products.  This protein tends to cause many issues for those with celiac disease—a chronic inflammatory disorder of the small intestine—and the FDA proposed and adopted a rule clarifying which products manufacturers could label as gluten-free to help those with celiac.

The rule is found in Title 21 of the Code of Federal Regulations, Part 101, Section 101.91.  After a brief statement of definitions, the rule explains what is meant by gluten-free. Unsurprisingly, any food bearing the label cannot contain an ingredient that is either a gluten-containing grain (e.g., spelt wheat) or and ingredient that is derived from a gluten-containing grain and that has not been processed to eliminate the gluten (e.g., wheat flour).  The final clause, however, is the one of interest.  It states that Gluten free means a food that does not contain the following: “An ingredient that is derived from a gluten-containing grain and that has been processed to remove gluten . . . if the use of that ingredient results in the presence of 20 parts per million (ppm) or more of gluten in the food.” In other words, a gluten containing food can still bear the gluten-free label as long as the presence of gluten is below 20 ppm gluten.

The FDA chose 20 ppm as the cut-off because this level has been shown to be safe for people with celiac—as established in a 2007 study.  This is also the standard adopted adopted in the European Union.  While limiting gluten to this threshold does not cause inflammation in the small intestine that affects people with celiac, it may still pose a problem for those who have a gluten-sensitivity.

Gluten Sensitivity is Different than Celiac Disease and Regulatory Interpretation

A food sensitivity is a response from the immune system and someone is “gluten-sensitive” if they react to gluten with a perceptive inflammatory response.  This category of individuals is much larger than the celiac population, and this group should be skeptical of a gluten-free label because the FDA’s regulation is only concerned with gluten as it relates to those with celiac.

This can be gleaned by taking a textual approach (relying on the regulation’s text alone) in interpreting the regulation[1] and looking at how the FDA defines the term gluten: “[T]he proteins that naturally occur in a gluten-containing grain and that may cause adverse health effects in persons with celiac disease.  There is no mention of gluten as it pertains to those without celiac.

Additionally, interpreting the text in light of the regulation’s statement of basis and purpose confirms the FDA was only concerned with gluten vis-à-vis celiac disease.[2]  In the “purpose of the rule” section, the FDA states that this rule is necessary “to ensure that individuals with celiac disease are not misled and are provided with truthful and accurate information. . . .”  Again, there is no mention of gluten-sensitive individuals in the FDA’s purpose of the rule statement; only a preoccupation with Celiac-inflicted consumers.

As this analysis illustrates, the FDA was not concerned with non-celiac consumers, so that label shouldn’t confer a health halo upon gluten-free foods that have been processed to remove gluten.[3]  As one commentator states, we know “very little about non-celiac gluten sensitivity, [so] we can’t yet determine what a safe level for that population is for that population without further studies.”[4]  While we may know very little about gluten sensitivity compared to celiac disease, there is still enough evidence to suggest many of us are gluten-sensitive, and so, need to be cautious when buying gluten-free products.  The remainder of this article is devoted to explaining some common issues with consuming gluten for the non-celiac.  My goal is to inform the most conscientious consumer to think twice before buying a product once tainted with gluten, but subsequently removed through processing, so that they may either stay away from that product completely or at the very least make a fully informed decision when buying.           

Why Should We Avoid Gluten

            The book Grain Brain, David Perlmutter’s New York Times bestseller, concisely summarizes the research looking at gluten and its effect on our body and brain.  The biggest concern is the potential for neurological decline and inflammation in places other than the small intestine—the type of inflammation that occurs in those with celiac.  Researchers have drawn the following conclusions:

  • “Gluten sensitivity is common in patients with neurological diseases of unknown cause and may have etiological significance.”[5]
  • Gluten interferes with the body’s neural networks and is linked to neurological harm in patients with and without evidence of celiac disease.[6]
  • “People with celiac have significantly increased production of free radicals, and they exhibit free radical damage to their fat, protein, and even DNA.”[7]
  • “[T]he immune system’s reaction to gluten leads to activation of signaling molecules that basically turn on inflammation and induce what’s called the COX-2 enzyme, which leads to increased production of inflammatory chemicals.”[8]
  • “Gluten sensitivity—with or without the presence of celiac—increases the production of inflammatory cytokines, and these inflammatory cytokines are pivotal players in neurodegenerative conditions.”[9]

As these bullet points illustrate, non-celiac consumers need to be wary of eating gluten.  With such grave consequences documented in the scientific literature, relying on an FDA regulation that only addresses gluten in the context of celiac disorder is unadvisable.

I hope this post draws attention to the mono-focused FDA rule and allows the consumer to tread carefully when deciding to buy a gluten-free product, which may still contain trace amounts of gluten.[10]




[1] While courts have not developed a consistent approach to regulatory interpretation, decisions sometimes rely on the regulations text. See e.g., Chase Bank USA, N.A. v. McCoy, 131 S. Ct. 871, 880 (2011) (concluding a phrase in a regulation was ambiguous because the “text alone does not permit a more definitive reading.”).

[2] See Generally, Kevin M. Stack, Interpreting Regulations, 111 Mich. L. Rev. 355 (arguing that courts should take a purposive approach when interpreting agency regulations, which consists of looking at the regulation’s statement of basis and purpose or preamble); See also Secretary of Labor, Mine Safety & Health Administration ex rel. Bushnell v. Cannelton Industries, Inc., 867 F.2d 1432, 1438 (D.C. Cir. 1989) (J. Ginsberg) (agreeing with agency interpretation because, in part, it was “fully consonant [with the] administrative history and purposes.”

[3] A health halo causes consumers to overestimate the healthfulness of the Natural food item See John Tierney, Health Halo Can Hide the Calories, N.Y. Times, Dec. 2, 2008, at D1; 5 Most Confusing Health Halo Food Terms, Health, (last visited May 13, 2016).


[5] Perlmutter, Grain Brain, 52 (citing Marios Hadjivassiliou, et al., “Does Cryptic Gluten Sensitivity Play apart in Neurological Illness?” Lancet 347, no. 8998 (February 10, 1996): 369-371.

[6] Perlmutter, 60 (citing Rodney P. Gord, “The Gluten Syndrome: A Neurological Disease,” Medical Hypotheses 73, no. 3 (September 2009): 438-40.

[7] Perlmutter, 60 (b citing Gianna Feretti, et al., “Celiac Disease, Inflammation and Oxidative Damage: A Nutrigenetic Approach,” Nutrients 4, no. 4 (April 2012): 243-257.

[8] Perlmutter, 62 (citing Gianna Feretti, Ibid).

[9] Id.

[10] There may also be issues with gluten-free products because of the fillers and additives used to supplement the absence of gluten. These fillers can spike your blood sugar enormously, which can cause a host of other medical issues.