by Anders Ericsson & Robert Pool, 2016
Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise is simply one of the best books on personal and professional development I’ve ever read. There exists a myth in our culture that people who are good at something were born good at it, that they have an inexplicable talent that has allowed them to achieve a greatness to which others cannot aspire. Ericsson and Pool seek to dismantle this myth and show that those who have reached a high level of success in their endeavors have not done so without time, practice, and effort. The book serves as great inspiration for anyone who has wanted to master a skill but who has felt that, for reasons beyond their control, they are relegated to failure. The truth is that anyone can achieve greatness (or, very good-ness) if they’re willing to dedicate themselves to the work.
Perfect pitch is the first myth that the authors take down, and they do so by examining Mozart’s seemingly divine gift for performing and composing music. Perfect pitch is often thought to be genetic, something that one is either born with or without, but not something one can learn. What Ericsson and Pool reveal is that this is not quite true. Mozart may have had a great talent for music, but he was also exposed to music and instruments a very young age, was heavily influenced by his father who did not accomplish his own dreams of music, and followed his sister who also showed great musical talent. They hypothesize that the elder Mozart likely perfected his teaching technique so that his son benefited from being the second-born. A 2014 Japanese study confirmed this idea by effectively teaching twenty-four children perfect pitch after months of instruction. This 100% success rate shatters the notion that perfect pitch is a gift that only one in ten thousand people develops. What the authors conclude from this and similar research is that “no matter what role innate genetic endowment may play in the achievements of ‘gifted’ people, the main gift that these people have is the same one we all have—the adaptability of the human brain and body, which they have taken advantage of more than the rest of us.”
The beauty of the book is that it’s easy to see how the authors’ theories can apply to a number of disciplines. While they focus mainly on music, chess, sports, and an experiment involving remembering numbers to explain their research, I couldn’t help but look at it through the lens of language learning, as that’s what’s most prominent in my life right now. Their chief principle is that of “deliberate practice,” a universal approach that they claim will help anyone take advantage of the brain’s innate gift of adaptability. It’s not that thousands of hours are needed to master a skill—in fact, the authors take down Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours rule, which he borrowed from their own research and reported erroneously—it’s that many hours of practice just outside one’s current level of ability are necessary for development and, eventually, mastery. They explain deliberate practice as having well-defined, specific goals; as focused; as involving feedback; and as putting out of one’s comfort zone. The last one will perhaps be a bit surprising, as the authors explain that practice isn’t always fun. Obstacles abound, the practice is mentally and/or physically tiring, and it often takes up much of a person’s time. However, those who can figure out their true motivation for mastering a skill will be more likely to push through this discomfort and dedicate themselves to this needed practice. Of course, there may be physical or mental limitations that may affect one’s ability to master a skill, but it’s easy to see how effort and dedication are, otherwise, the most important factors in success.
For me, all of this means that the hundreds of uncomfortable, frustrating hours I’ve spent learning Spanish have been more beneficial than the ones where the language came to me easily. My latest endeavor—writing more often in Spanish, receiving feedback from a tutor, and revising my writing—often has me with my head in my hands, wondering why the connection between my brain and my hands that is so fluid in English seems to be broken in Spanish. Yet, this book gave me hope that I’ve stumbled upon exactly what I need to do. It’s really hard and I often don’t enjoy it, but I also know that it’s the only way I’m going to improve. Indeed, the authors say that the reason most people do not have extraordinary capabilities is not that they can’t, “but rather because they’re satisfied to live in the comfortable rut of homeostasis and never do the work that is required to get out of it. They live in the world of ‘good enough.’” I could write a thesis on this idea, based on what I’ve experienced of the American education system, both as a student as an educator, as it highlights some of the major misconceptions we have about learning. One is either good at math or good at writing, destined to be a track star or destined to lead the band, a good student or a bad student. One of the authors’ most powerful assertions challenges this idea. Once one embarks on deliberate practice, “learning is no longer just a way of fulfilling some genetic destiny; it becomes a way of taking control of your destiny and shaping your potential in ways that you choose.” If only this knowledge were the gift we received after twelve years of formal education. It’s what I’ll remind myself of every time I trip over my words, use the wrong preposition, or have the self-pitying thought that I’ll just never be good at Spanish.