Ready to Peak? Becoming an Expert through Deliberate Practice: A book review

Mirjam Neelen

The first thing that Ericsson and Pool’s Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise confirmed for me is that expertise is a word that’s used too often. Too many people call themselves experts while they’re actually not. Following Ericsson and Pool’s definition of expertise some fields don’t even have experts. Because it’s not just about being extraordinarily good at something or about being exceptionally amazing. It’s about having objective standards so that you can determine if someone is an expert in an objective manner. What triggered me is that, according to Peak’s authors an expert’s awesomeness lies in the heart of their capabilities and that it’s something that “every one of us is born with and can, with the right approach, take advantage of” (p xii). Wow. We all can be experts in something? Now that’s an appealing thought, isn’t it?

If you’re not an expert, it’s because you don’t want to be one

What sets experts apart from the average Joe or even from a strong practitioner is the amount of knowledge plus the ability of organising and accessing that knowledge. It comes down to the quantity and quality of their mental representations and the ability to see patterns in a collection of things. The more expertise, the more sophisticated and effective the mental representations are. Also, the better the expert’s mental representations are, the more effectively the expert can practice to hone that particular skill (like a symbiotic relation between mental representations and the ability to practice that skill independently).

The option to become an expert is open to everyone. However, according to Peak’s authors most people live in the world of “good enough”. They’re comfortable in the pothole of homeostasis. They’re not willing to devote the practice it takes to become an expert. Carol Dweck would probably say that they don’t have a growth mindset, Angela Lee Duckworth would call it grit (see our blog), Obama would say “Yes, you can!” (Is it a coincidence that all these people are American? :)). Peak’s authors claim that the only way you can become an individual with extraordinary abilities is through blood, sweat, and tears or, in other words, through lots of deliberate practice.

A gold standard

I don’t want to dive too deeply into deliberate practice because we’ve already posted a blog on the topic. However I can’t totally ignore it because basically 80% of Peak explores what deliberate practice is, why it’s so effective and how to apply it in various contexts. Ericsson and Pool claim that “no matter what field … the most effective types of practice always follow the same pattern” (p 9). Trying hard isn’t gonna do it. Pushing yourself isn’t enough. Purposeful practice is not enough. What I didn’t realise, despite our previous blog on deliberate practice is that what distinguishes purposeful practice from deliberate practice is a gold standard. This makes sense: if there’s no gold standard how would you know if you’re meeting the “expert criteria”? The fields that the authors are discussing in Peak (think playing the violin, playing chess, or doing maths) have such a gold standard as well as highly developed, broadly accepted training methods. Another characteristic of the fields that Ericsson and Pool focus on is that they’re sufficiently competitive so that practitioners in that field have a strong incentive to practice and improve. Third, the fields are well established (according to the authors, this is the case when “the best performers have attained a level of performance that clearly sets them apart from people who are just entering the field” (p. 98). And last but not least, there are teachers and coaches available who have developed increasingly sophisticated sets of training techniques. This basically means that you can only be considered an expert if you are a practitioner in a field that meets these four criteria. Peak lists some examples for fields in which deliberate practice is simply impossible, such as business manager, engineer, or consultant because there are no objective criteria (yet?) for superior performance. Hence, being in one of those professions, you can’t claim to be an expert. Hmmm. Following this train of thought, this means that I, as a Learning and Development professional can never consider myself an expert as there’s no gold standard.

I find this definition of what’s in and out expertise-wise both enlightening and frustrating. Enlightening because it’s clear and well-defined. Frustrating because I now realise that my definition of what a strong learning and development professional is (see my blog on the learning design profession) is just my interpretation. But wait a minute? Is it really true that masters in chess or violin (the so-called established fields, according to Ericsson and Pool) never disagree on what the gold standard is? How objective is such a gold standard? I’m sure you can set certain objective criteria but I’d say that the nuances will always be somewhat elusive.

Sorry, no short cuts ahead

What about talent, you might wonder? According to Peak’s authors, natural talent or innate characteristics play a much smaller and different role in developing expertise than you might think. In other words, no one becomes an expert without deliberate practice and there are no short cuts to expertise. Basically, all examples in the book illustrate that what seemingly points to “talent” actually turns out to be extraordinary abilities based on practice and training. Peak also discusses the flip side. What about people who just don’t seem to have talent for something? They practice and practice but don’t seem to make any progress.

Ericsson and Pool also argue that something like IQ or visual spatial ability might have an advantage when first learning a skill but that the advantage fades over time. In the end it always comes down to the amount and quality of practice in determining how skilled an individual becomes. Is it me, or does this sound like the American dream?

With regard to physical skills such as in ballet, one could argue that you need at least some talent so that people who fall below that “talent requirement” would find it difficult or impossible to become an expert there. Ericsson and Pool argue that “outside some very basic physical traits, such as height and body size…, we have no solid evidence that such minimum requirements exist” (p 235). In other words, there is no evidence that any genetic ability plays a role in becoming the very best. The authors have an interesting take on this. They say that if there is such a thing as “genetic difference” between those who do and don’t make it to the top, these differences will most likely manifest themselves through the required practice and the effort that one needs to put into that practice to keep improving. Perhaps there’s some kind of “genes suite” that causes certain children to get more pleasure out of something, for example drawing. They keep practicing because they enjoy it. Then their parents see their child’s joy and put them in a class. The child might then practice more than others because it’s fun. The children who practice, get better over time, and so forth. I think you get the picture. The authors also mention temperament, the ability to focus more intently, focus for longer periods of time, or practice more effectively. In short, they argue that there might be a number of genetically based differences similar to the ones described here. This is all speculative but looking at developing expertise through this lens puts “talent” in a different perspective. But does it, really?

It might sound compelling to dismiss innate talent. Cause if it doesn’t exist, anything is possible as long as you practice. But isn’t that a bit extreme? Paul Kirschner shared an anecdote with me that made me grin. He told me that a biologist once said that the nature/nurture debate is as useful (or useless) as debating what determines the surface area of a table: the length or the width? In other words, believing that innate talent doesn’t exist at all or that innate talent causes someone to become an expert are both two extremes.

To Peak or Not to Peak?

It’s a bit of a mess. On one hand, the authors claim that everyone can be an expert, as long as you’re willing to practice deliberately ‘til you drop. On the other hand, they acknowledge that some individuals might have certain “traits” that make it possible or easier for them to start practicing and to continue to put in relentless effort. These traits can be motivation, personality, and intelligence perhaps. Although the authors don’t address the relation between intelligence and ability, they acknowledge that research has been done in this space, particularly with regard to chess, but then they just go on to warn us that it’s wrong to equate innate intelligence with IQ because IQ is basically some cognitive factor measured by… IQ tests. Although that makes sense, it doesn’t make things less nebulous. Perhaps my intelligence is too limited to understand the complexity of intelligence and how it relates to expertise. Who knows?

What I’m trying to get at is that it’s compelling to think that you can be whatever you want to be as long as you put in the effort. On the other hand, that seems unrealistic. Even if our brain would be able to become an expert in whatever we’d like, we will always have genetics and live in our environment with all the factors that come with that and that influence what we can accomplish one way or the other. The subtlety and sensitivity of genetics and environmental influences in relation to expertise is still not clear to me.

More specifically, for the Learning & Development field there’s simply no objective standard and therefore, following Peak’s definition of expertise one cannot claim to be an expert in the field. For some that might be a relief (“Pfew, it’s not my fault that I’m not an expert!”), for others it might be a painful conclusion (“I consider myself an expert and now it turns out that I’m not!”). Although it would be nice if the profession would work on certain objective standards to determine what distinguishes a high performing L&D professional from an average one (see, for example IBSTPI‘s work on instructional design competencies), I also think we need to take Ericsson and Pool’s train of thought with a grain of salt. Actually, I’d like to give them a taste of their own medicine. What’s the gold standard in their field? I know there is much debate going on with Ericsson and his colleagues in the field on what expertise is. So what is the gold standard in the “science of expertise”? Does this mean that Ercisson and Pool only are self-declared experts in expertise? If so, they’re in the exact same place as L&D. We’re ploughing on, step by step, calling ourselves experts because no one else does it for us.

References

Ericsson, A., & Pool, R., (2016). Peak. Secrets of the New Science of Expertise. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

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