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Peak | Ericsson, Pool | Summary
Mozart had perfect pitch. When he heard a note played on a musical instrument - any note - he could immediately identify which note it was. He could do this even if he was in another room and could not see the instrument being played. He could even identify the notes produced by anything sufficiently musical - chime of clock, toll of a bell and even the ah-choo of a sneeze.
Mozart was 1 in 10,000.
In normal circumstances only 1 in every 10,000 people develops perfect pitch. However, in the Ichionkai Music School in Tokyo in 2014 Prof Ayako Sakakibara worked with 24 children - with no known special abilities - and with systematic deliberate practice - Each one of them developed perfect pitch.
In humans, perfect pitch is not the gift. The ability to develop perfect pitch, is the gift. This is based on dedicated training, that drives changes in the brain.
This book is about taking the advantage of this gift to build abilities in our area of choice. It is the science of expertise.
We will offer specific advise on putting deliberate practice to work in professional organisations to help individuals get better in their areas of interest. These can be learnt from studying the principles of effective practice.
Chapter 1 - The power of purposeful practice
Most effective types of practice all follow the same set of general principles. The method needs to take into account what works and what does not, in driving changes in the body and the brain.
More experience is not automatically better. Research has shown that once a person reaches a level of ‘acceptable performance’, automatic addition of years of more practice don’t lead to improvement. This is as true for doctors as for teachers and racing car drivers. The difference is in purposeful practice.
#doableAction - Recognise these are building blocks of Purposeful practice -
has well defined specific goals
puts a bunch of baby steps together, especially in the beginning with more emphasis on form and process than immediate results (more important to get the right grip, do it right way)
requires getting out of one’s comfort zone - trying to do something you couldn’t do before.
recognises plateau’s as barriers to progress. best way to get past any barrier is not by brute force but to come at it from a different direction - barrier is more psychological than any thing else.
If you have trained purposefully in any other area - atheletes, JEE entrance, musician, singer, dancer - they have an advantage because they understand purposeful practice.
#doableAction: Get outside your comfort zone but do it in a focussed way, with clear goals, a plan for reaching those goals and a way to monitor your progress and maintain your motivation!
Chapter 2 - Harnessing Adaptability
The brain changes in response to extended training. This is also referred as plasticity or neuro-plasticity. if you practice something enough, your brain will repurpose neurons to help with the task even if they have another job to do.
Cognitive and physical changes caused by training require upkeep. Stop training and they begin to go away. This may seem negative and sad.
But remember that - with deliberate practice - the goal is not just to reach your potential, but to make things possible that were not possible before. The way forward - for individuals and for the human race both - is to keep pushing against the status-quo.
Look at how far we have come!
#doableAction - Rest of book is about smart and proven ways to do so. Please read through the summary.
Chapter 3 - Mental Representations
A digression - what is the secret to winning chess?
Chess experts remember patterns. It is easy for brain to store complex visual imagery that can be recalled, but it is difficult to remember more than 6-7 things with short term recall.
To cope - You build up mental representations - richer images that have become better as expertise has built up.
Try recalling this after reading once - ‘was smelled front that his the peanuts he good hunger eating barely woman of so in could him that contain’.
Average person will remember only first six of those words.
Now try remembering - ’The woman in front of him was eating peanuts that smelled so good that he could barely contain his hunger’. You can recall it not only now but later too.
The key to expertise is to build up better and more effectively usable mental representations as quickly as possible - perhaps by standing on shoulder of giants (what other experts already know, provided they and you can have a meaningful conversation about the needed mental constructs).
It takes years of practice for chess players to recognise that patterns. It helps if they study games played by masters. You analyse a position in depth, predicting the next move and if you go wrong you go back and guide out what you missed.
Research has shown that the time spent in this type of analysis - not the time spent in playing chess with others - is the single most important predictor of chess player’s ability. It generally takes about 10 years of this sort of practice, to reach the level of the Grandmaster. Chasing visual patterns and sharpening them. The way grandmasters ’see’ the board is quite different from the way novices do.
Upto recently we did not know how to talk to each other about mental representations explicitly. We did not even think, it was important to talk like this, in the journey to becoming an expert.
#doableAction - Reflect on what are Mental Representations, using a skill where you are already good at, as basis. Driving. Cooking. A Video game perhaps!
#doableAction - If you represent an organisational and your job is to Enable Expertise, what type of retrospectives you do, for your expertise building work? What gets discussed apart from what went wrong? In light of mental representations, what needs to change?
Two more things are important about these visual patterns in addition to efficient encoding.
One - The connections between this visual image and the possible next ones. It is more like a movie than a photograph. These means that experts can evaluate consequences and evaluate possibility of different outcomes.
Two - The connections between the forest and trees. Between the micro and macro. How an individual chess piece will affect the board’s strengths.
Consequence - experts can do much better ‘what if’ analysis and arrive at best outcomes by not looking at current board but thinking a certain number of moves ahead.
The ability to envision more possible outcomes and quickly sift through them and come up with the most promising action is a key trait common to all experts.
It is impossible to assimilate all the information as random facts. The limitations of short term memory will not allow it.
Mental representations aren’t just for chess masters. We all use them constantly. Much of deliberate practice involves developing ever more efficient mental representations.
#doableAction - How do you figure out, how to play a video game better? How do you figure out, how to drive better, in a crowded city?
#doableAction - What difficulty would you face in explaining to someone else, how to do the same? (play video game better | drive in city better)
The act of explaining clarifies our own thinking and sharpens our own mental representation. In turn, making us better.
A key fact about mental representations is that they are very domain specific. There is no such thing as developing a general skill. Though - when you have played enough video games and excelled at each of them | when you have driven well in enough diverse situations - you automatically become a better player | driver. Mostly because you have a more evolved set of mental representations!
Any relatively complicated activity requires holding more information in our heads.
The thing that all mental representations have in common is that they allow you to process large amounts of information quickly, despite the limitations of short term memory.
A major advantage of highly developed mental representations is that you can assimilate and consider a great deal more information at once - pertaining to that skill | activity. The second major advantage - you can do better and faster ‘if .. then’ with them. A ‘what if’ or an a sensitivity analysis - if you will!
#doableAction - Develop a good mental representation of the concept of mental representation. Hint: use a specific skill in which you are particularly good and look at how you ’think’ about it ‘visually’
Before concluding - a better mental representation also gives you better insight to not only spot your mistakes but also clues to the most effective practice techniques. A good cricket player can give you better advise on how to improve your game, because he has already travelled this path of what it takes to go past ’this’ hurdle.
This forms a virtuous cycle. More skilled you become, better your mental representations. Better your mental representations, more effectively you can practice to hone your skills.
Chapter 4 - The Gold Standard
Some approaches to training are more effective that others. Here we will explore the gold standard for it.
Anders and Robert (authors) looked a violin playing in top school in Germany and found that students who excelled -
Spent large amounts of time in solitary practice and
Applied good techniques of practice, rather than just blindly spending time.
Malcolm Gladwell who famously wrote about 10000 hours to expertise did so based on the research of these authors. He got the practice part broadly right but - according to them - did not highlight enough that practice has to be to a particular skill and not open ended general practice.
#doableAction - Expertise requires deliberate practice. Commit to it. Plan for it. Set yourself up for it.
Activities like classical music and dance, maths have over time, developed broadly accepted training methods. They have objective ways to measure performance. They are competitive enough with incentives to compete and excel. They have a well established progression path, with a body of teachers and coaches. New training techniques keep coming up leading to new levels of accomplishment (virtuous circle again).
Deliberate practice is easier when the field is already well developed and has teachers who can provide good practice activities.
It is not easy to find the best teachers because perceptions can manipulated. People get swayed easily and are vulnerable to biases.
In a new area - #doableAction - Broadly, look for those who have done well enough themselves enough to understand the importance of good mental representations and the range of activities they can prescribe, for the student’s solitary practice.
Also - #doableAction Experts hang out with other experts. Look for connections there. Find out who is the doctor’s doctor and ask him!
Coming back - the keys are - sufficient and large amounts of solitary practice time and purpose and informed practice, not just time spent.
These are the traits of Deliberate Practice -
The practice regimen should be designed and overseen by a coach who is familiar with abilities of expert performers and with how these abilities can be best developed. #doableAction - Reflect on how we expect people to become experts on their own, without putting enablers in place for them. We expect potential experts not only to devote themselves to practice but to also figure out magically the best process for doing so. This is simply wrong!
The student has to constantly try things are just beyond current abilities. Neither mindlessly repeat nor attempt the impossible. It may not always be fun!
Deliberate practice creates specific interim goals based on a plan for making small changes that will add up to the larger change. They are not open ended.
The student practices with full attention and conscious actions. He has ownership. #doableAction - Reflect that expertise needs student’s ownership and Ownership can NOT be created by merely putting people into training programs.
In early stages, a coach is essential to impart the correct fundamental skills. Subsequently, Deliberate practice builds or modifies previously acquired skills by focussing on particular aspects of skill.
Deliberate practices is explicitly based on appropriate Mental Representations. Recognising them. Having a vocabulary to talk about them and regularly investing the effort to review them.
Chapter 5 - Principles of Deliberate Practice on the Job
#doableAction - Study the TopGun initiative of US Navy on how to enable experts on-the-job (read on).
This is the ‘how to’ chapter if you want to enable Peak Initiatives in your organization - as it describes the Top Gun Initiative created by the US Navy during the Vietnam War. The results speak for themselves.
Student pilots - without getting into dangerous skies - got a chance to try out different things in different situations, get feedback on their performance and then apply what they had learnt.
In the training academy - the Navy formed a ‘Red Force’ comprising of their best pilots. These would be the trainers, in the guise of the enemy. Attending students, coming in from the best nominations of each squadron formed the ‘Blue Force’.
Every day they would have dog fights. In the beginning Red Force almost always won. But it was about getting the Blue Force to get to winning.
Experience in other wars had shown that pilots who won their 1st dog fight, were much more likely to survive their second. If a pilot had won 20 dog fights, he had a almost 100% chance of winning the next one.
The real action occurred, once the pilots landed. The trainers would grill the students endlessly. What did you notice up there? Why you did, what you did? What were your mistakes? They studied the actual footage. Then trainers would offer constructive suggestions.
This was repeated every day. Over time, students learnt to ask these questions themselves and from each other.
The results were dramatic. From an average of shooting down 1 enemy jet in 5 encounters, the students went up to shooting 1 enemy jet every encounter.
Noticing the success, the air force adapted its own similar program. By the time of 7 months of Gulf War - US pilots shot down 33 enemy planes in air to air combat, losing only one plane in the process.
#doableAction - What expertise, that your organization requires, is in critical short supply? Can you do a Top-Gun on it?
What is usually left unstated, in stories about Top Gun, is that the Red Force also had to help Blue Force overcome 3 key beliefs -
One - get over all sorts of I can’t. There is no such thing as a more gifted pilot above a certain level of ability.
Two - simply doing the same things over and over again, does not automatically make you better. You have to deliberately stretch yourself and improve your mental representations all along.
Three - it is not sufficient to try hard enough. You have to work smarter too, by standing on the shoulders of those who are already experts.
#doableAction - For your organisation’s expertise creation area - do you think, you can address the limiting beliefs? How?
#doableAction - Work in organisations can be redesigned for leaders and experts to give them an opportunity for deliberate practice - while staying on-the-job. This is systematic creation of needed expertise!
Prior to launching the practice and feedback program, the following needs to be done by the Enablers, by way of preparation -
Determine with some certainty who the experts already are
Figure out what underlies their superior performance. This is research into the mental representations of the experts.
Evolving a language to address the representations is essential to breaking open this path for many others.
#doableAction - It is not easy to become an expert. It is unfair to task learner experts with also how to figure out the best way forward and to stay motivated to move forward relentlessly. Organisations need to take their best doers and turn them into enabler coaches, in a systematic program, if they wish to scale up their current levels of expertise.
#doableAction - Expertise building has to be planned and deliberately executed outside the purview of quarter-to-quarter results.
Chapter 6 - Principles of Deliberate Practice in Everyday life
Deliberate practice is for every one who dreams of doing. It could be anything. Coding. Drawing. Juggling. Golfing. Playing an instrument. A game.
#doableAction - First find a good teacher. If you can, take private instruction. More than anything else it is a problem of mental representations. The teacher must be able to talk and share mental representations and from his own ability, be able to recommend the best of basic forms and also later - next steps for where the student needs to apply deliberate practice.
#doableAction - Don’t rely on online ratings. Look for previous students of the teacher. You may also need to change teachers, as you yourself change.
Next step is purposeful engagement. #doableAction - Do Purposeful practice instead of mindless repetition. In the beginning it is important to focus on the correct form and processes rather than early results.
#doableAction - Focus and concentration during practice are essential. This is a mental play as much as skills practice.
#doableAction - If you don’t have a teacher in the beginning, still work on mental representations and having a feedback loop for process and form. Learn with someone with whom you can talk and review regularly. Then get out of your comfort zone and practice again and again.
A good teacher will also develop exercises for you, designed to specifically improve a particular part of the skill. #doableAction if you are on your own - Explore reaching to internet and online tutorials here.
#doableAction - The important thing is to be deliberate about your practice and approach it with a plan. Then after a period, review the plan and improve it too.
How do you keep going? That is the biggest question, anyone engaged in deliberate practice is likely to eventually face.
#doableAction - It is hard, but it certainly possible to keep going. Successful experts are all examples. Recognise that no-one has it easy. Anyone who is an expert, has been there, done that!
#doableAction - Recognize that will power is a very situation specific attribute. You can be iron willed in one aspect and zero in another aspect of your life. Look at best practices of habit change, to make best use of limited willpower that we all have.
If you have successfully lost weight (or unsuccessfully too) then the battle to becoming an expert is similar. Learn from it and apply the lessons.
#doableAction - Take good care of your health and energy levels and ensure a support system of family and friends in place. in addition to encouragement and support of loved ones, you can also count on approval and admiration of others. These all can will you in your long term plans. You may need to consciously bring them in, depending on what works for you.
Once you have practiced for a while and results start showing, then motivation is easier. #doableAction - So remember, that hard work is not for rest of life, but only upto the point when results begin to show.
#doableActions - Another motivational hack is to cultivate the belief that you can succeed. But this is a slippery slope too and has to be done with authenticity and mindfulness. Others talk about the use of prayer and service to others as additional pillars for motivating yourself.
#doableAction - Finally, if not already done so - set things up so that you are constantly seeing concrete signs of improvement. Your coach will pass you through a series of levels (karate belts!) for this reason.
Chapter 7 - The road to extraordinary
This is for parents, who want to help their children become experts. You will see parallels to JEE aspirants :)
Below, are 3 stages to the journey for your child, in becoming an expert.
start out as early as possible | parents give time attention encouragement, achievement oriented role modelling, teach values - self discipline, hard work, responsibility, constructive use of time.
#doableAction - There is no substitute for parents investing themselves in one area for their child and starting young.
#doableAction - Reflect on who decides, what area of expertise is right for your child and if this is a tradeoff between a care-free childhood and this, then is it worth it?
becoming serious - practice routine regular, motivate intrinsically, teachers do better than parents, encouragement more important than rules (children based their self concept on this field | get pleasure from flow
commitment - early mid teens - seek best teachers | accomplished, do utmost to improve
Chapter 8 - What about natural talent?
The roles of Training (deliberate practice) and Natural talent are inter-twined. But not as you would have them believe.
Studies of chess players have shown that practice is the major factor in their success. IQ had no noticeable role (in fact, there was some negative co-relation to IQs because those with lower IQ, tended to practice more). Those with higher IQ do learn faster in the beginning.
The real role of innate characteristics is in initial jump start - and shaping how likely a person is to engage in deliberate practice - meeting mirrored expectations of coaches and parents.
#doableAction Realize: the best amongst us, in various areas, do not occupy that perch because they are born with some innate talent. Rather they have arrived because of development of ability through deliberate practice.
Chapter 9 - Where do we go from here
University of British Columbia, Prof Carl Weiman, is passionate about improving undergraduate science education. He won the Physics Nobel prize in 2001.
Working with a team of instructors across 850 students, they used inexperienced teachers to reproduce remarkable learning results on a repeated basis.
While the traditional batches scored 41% on average, these groups scored 74%
The underlying design ideas was if facts, concepts and rules are built as a mental representation for doing something - they need not be juggled independently subject to limits of short term memory. They can directly go into long term memory. Individual pieces become part of an interconnected pattern that provides context and meaning to information, making it easier to work with.
Careful thought was given ahead of instruction to organising the material, creating clicker questions and designing learning tasks.
The students did pre-reading similar to a Flip class, based on progressive exposure to concepts.
The students then worked in groups to answer tough ‘clicker questions’ - prompting them to think about concepts, draw connections and move beyond.
Each class had active learning tasks, after which the instructor would address mis-conceptions based on outcomes, in mini-lectures.
The insights from this experiment are -
when preparing a lesson plan - it is far more important to determine what a student should be able to do (skills) than what she should know (that just happens).
This is the deliberate practice approach - break lessons into steps that can be mastered one at a time and layered upon. Crucial focus is on creating a mental representation at each step.
Clicker questions and Learning tasks worked very well for building Mental Representations, when they were used to trigger discussions in groups and to learn from it . They served the dual purpose of arriving at a shared language and helping learners to push outside comfort zones.
These worked even better, when students themselves were able to tweak questions during ’think aloud’ sessions. They were able to talk about the process of learning, while doing so and this helped in shaping the Mental Representation further.
#doableAction Deliberate practice, done with prior design, can revolutionise how people learn
Furthermore, once students create mental representations in one area (and saw success results) - they also understand what it takes to be successful in any other area as well.
#doableAction To set students up for success, our schools should explore making a student successful in at least one area of her natural talent and preference.
By touching excellence at one place, she becomes ready to touch it every where. (My 0.02 - Perhaps this is the most important insight from this book)