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Peak by Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool (a review)

Can anyone become world class at a sport or academic discipline? Is my dream of becoming a leading light in the field of competitive tiddlywinks achievable, or am I destined forever to be in the shadows of the naturally gifted ‘winkers’? Just what is it that makes extraordinary performers truly extraordinary, where do we buy it, and can we sneak it past a drug testing panel?

Drawing on Professor Anders Ericsson’s own extensive research, which spans a diverse range of disciplines and a number of decades, the book explains how our brain’s capability to adapt plays a significant role in high level performance. Dismissing the idea that excellence is the limited to child prodigies and those with innate talent, it explores the idea that our own adaptability turns us into people with extraordinary abilities.

The core of the book is Ericsson’s theory of what makes truly effective training – ‘deliberate practise’. By discussing his experiments in depth, the authors explain how dramatic improvements have resulted from working hard in line with a set of core principles. If this sounds familiar, it may be because Ericsson’s research is cited as proof of Malcolm Gladwell’s ten thousand hour rule, something that Ericsson is keen to put a positive spin on. He argues that whilst a massive amount of deliberate practise is the key factor to mastering any field, this also means that success is open to practically anyone willing to apply themselves in the right way.

Peak was an enjoyable read. The first hand accounts of experiments and interactions with people chasing high performance gave real insight into Ericsson’s approach. This personal viewpoint helped humanise the research and kept the tone of the book light and readable. I rarely make notes in books, but I found myself highlighting something in almost every chapter and discussing the more surprising research with my wife. Most of the concepts were things I already had exposure to, like neuroplasticity, but the book a great job of selling those ideas and I finished it convinced of their validity.

Insightful rather than inspirational, I’m not sure that I’d read Peak again, but I’m glad that I read it.

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