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20181028 – Peak Secrets of Expertise



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The main idea of this book is to present results of author’s extensive, decades long research of human learning process and resulting method of learning that author called Deliberate Practice. This method pretty much substitutes studying with doing, with continuing increase in complexity of tasks so they would be challenging, but not frustrating, controlled by experienced trainer who understands both tasks and student, consequently assuring maintenance of the golden point in process. Author also refutes idea of innate talent that allows some prodigy to achieve perfection without really trying. His research quite convincingly demonstrated that beyond generic intellectual ability and some specific hard work of Deliberate Practice there is no need for superb genetic abilities to achieve real success in just about any field.


Introduction: The Gift

This starts with the perfect pitch – probably one of the most widely known ability commonly linked to genetic endowment. After retelling story of Mozart as typical genius author present an amazing experiment of Sakakibara who managed train a group of regular children to have a perfect pitch. Then author discusses overall objectives of the book and its main lesson:“The right sort of practice carried out over a sufficient period of time leads to improvement. Nothing else.”The sort of practice author refers to – the “Deliberate Practice”, which is qualitatively different from practice as a repetitive exercise of some function. It is different in use of planning, modelling, and feedback processes that are consciously developed and then consistently applied in order to achieve expertise in some area.

The Power of Purposeful Practice

This is retelling of author’s work on using deliberate practice with a subject called Steve to develop meaningless, but difficult skill of remembering large numbers of random numbers. The regular person, Steve included has ability to remember about 7 numbers at most. After about a year of deliberate practice Steve achieved 82 digits capacity. After that author moves from individual achievement to cumulative achievement in sports when year after year generations of competitors develop new technics and methods leading to continuing increase in performance, so contemporary middle level sportsmen easily do staff that 20 years ago would be Olympic level achievement.  After that author discusses usual method of obtaining a new skill when progress, initially slows down and then stops when some acceptable level of performance had been achieved. Here author introduces notion of purposeful practice when objective to achieve is constantly moving, but at the pace consistent with achieved level. This would necessarily include barriers when improvement stops. This does not mean that more progress is not possible. It most often just means that new method to proceed should be discovered and applied. At the end of chapter author reviews limitation inherent to purposeful practice and states that deliberate practice allows overcome these limitations.

Harnessing Adaptability

This starts with discussion of human adaptability, including brain adaptability as demonstrated by famous London taxi drivers, which author discusses in detail. After that author moves to pushups and other physical examples. In short there is no qualitative difference between adaptability of brain and other parts of body. A very interesting point author makes here is that adaptability is directly caused by the need for homeostasis because it would not be possible without constant adjustment to changing environment.  The important point is to move just beyond existing level – a bit more would lead to the crash and a bit less would be not enough to move.

Mental Representations

This chapter starts with reference to blind chess playing when master can keep in mind a number of active games simultaneously as example of human capability to have mental representation of many complex systems. The key point here is that information if highly organized and easily compressed so it could be effectively managed. Author points out that it is not chess only, but practically all known human abilities, both mental and physical, depend on mental representation. For example, in addition to chess it also includes words, like dog or ability to walk or anything else conceivable. And since the main point of deliberate practice is to obtain expertise, here is how author defines what it is: “The main thing that sets experts apart from the rest of us is that their years of practice have changed the neural circuitry in their brains to produce highly specialized mental representations, which in turn make possible the incredible memory, pattern recognition, problem solving, and other sorts of advanced abilities needed to excel in their particular specialties.”. After that author proceeds to review use of mental representation in planning, learning, and so on.

The Gold Standard

The gold standard for deliberate practice could be found in musical training, which is highly developed from technical side and generally conducted by professional trainers with high levels of expertise. Author conducted research of what makes a great musician and found that what differentiate good from better and from best. The research included time study and concluded: That nobody likes practice per se, but the crucial finding was that: there was only one major difference among the three groups. This was the total number of hours that the students had devoted to solitary practice. Specifically, the music-education students had practiced an average of 3,420 hours on the violin by the time they were eighteen, the better violin students had practiced an average of 5,301 hours, and the best violin students had practiced an average of 7,410 hours.

Principles of Deliberate Practice on the Job  

This chapter starts with well-known example from Vietnam War when Navy started training program for its pilots imitating as close as possible real life combat. The trainers remained constant while pilots changed with every new group, allowing trainers accumulate expansive experience and provide specific instruction. Author describes it as an example of Deliberate Practice. The next step is going beyond practice as an activity separate from work to practice while doing the work. After discussing examples and methods, author moves to definition of difference between knowledge and skills, stressing superiority of the latter providing as example a medical practice of surgeons when after some 500 surgeries they usually stop killing patients.

Principles of Deliberate Practice in Everyday Life

Here author moves to practical application of process of deliberate practice, which starts with finding a good teacher. Author provides some advice on how to do this. The next important thing is to be engaged as much as possible. The formal approach would not cut it.  Author also discusses the problem of teacher unavailability. Here is his advice: “To effectively practice a skill without a teacher, it helps to keep in mind three Fs: Focus. Feedback. Fix it. Break the skill down into components that you can do repeatedly and analyze effectively, determine your weaknesses, and figure out ways to address them.”
.  The next important issue is inevitable achievement of plateau in development when it seems to be no progress occurs. The key here is to keep trying, analyzing, and diversifying approaches until breakthrough to the next level of performance occur. Final point here is the need to maintain motivation without which success is not achievable.

The Road to Extraordinary

Here author provides a number of success stories for deliberate practice such as female chess players raised by father psychologist specifically to be grandmasters. In such situation when somebody start training a child to achieve top levels of some activity, the important part is achieve child’s commitment to the process without which nothing is achievable.

But What About Natural Talent?

In this chapter author reviewing a number of well known example of prodigies and concludes: “The bottom line is that every time you look closely into such a case you find that the extraordinary abilities are the product of much practice and training. Prodigies and savants don’t give us any reason to believe that some people are born with natural abilities in one field or another.
 However, author does not stop here and does give some credit to innate characteristics, but more as a necessary initial condition for achievement, rather than as sufficient condition. Here is the point he makes about IQ:“A number of researchers have suggested that there are, in general, minimum requirements for performing capably in various areas. For instance, it has been suggested that scientists in at least some fields need an IQ score of around 110 to 120 to be successful, but that a higher score doesn’t confer any additional benefit. However, it is not clear whether that IQ score of 110 is necessary to actually perform the duties of a scientist or simply to get to the point where you can be hired as a scientist. In many scientific fields you need to hold a Ph.D. to be able to get research grants and conduct research, and getting a Ph.D. requires four to six years of successful postgraduate academic performance with a high level of writing skills and a large vocabulary— which are essentially attributes measured by verbal intelligence tests. Furthermore, most science Ph.D. programs demand mathematical and logical thinking, which are measured by other components of intelligence tests”

Where Do We Go from Here?

This chapter starts with description of experiment with students when group trained using deliberate practice method learned more than twice as much as regular class. Basically in came down to switching from feeding information to students to make them practice under direction of instructor and rather then receiving and reproducing information they where compelled to acquire skills. At the end author suggests that it is the way humans were developed evolutionary and that correct name for our species should be not Homo Sapience, but rather Homo Exercens.


It is a great book for anybody who needs or wants to achieve something in any area of human activities. I experienced this in my own live some 45 years ago when I was a student in University. Our professor of mathematical analysis for some reason liked to call me up not regurgitate some previously presented theme, but to start a new part of our curriculum. I guess she knew that I am a lazy person and, while I am pretty good problem solver, I was not smart or diligent enough to read the next chapter of curriculum. In short she would present a new problem and call me upfront to try solving this problem without real clue of how to do it. So I would come up with various suggestions, some of which she would immediately shut down, some she would allow to move on for a while until dead end arrived, and some would lead to solution, often clumsy, but correct. After that she would present real solution demonstrating the beauty of mathematical analysis that was developed by much more intelligent people than we lowly students, hinting at the same time that not all lost and if we work hard enough and smart enough we eventually be able achieve something in the range of this perfection. I enjoyed this process tremendously and I think anybody who is lucky enough to become part of such process of Deliberate Practice would enjoy both the process and final result.

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