It seems strange to call a book about self-improvement Peak. Perhaps the publishers baulked at Uphill Struggle, although that would have been more fitting for a tome in which Anders Ericsson – the psychologist behind Malcolm Gladwell’s “10,000-hour rule” – and science writer Robert Pool channel the Calvinist spirit to insist that greatness is possible for everyone. As long, that is, as we work at it.
We must labour in the right way. Fun is a no go. Knocking a ball around the tennis court with your friend will not lead to much improvement, 10,000 hours or not. Ericsson’s primer of the “new science of expertise” focuses on “deliberate practice”, which breaks an activity into focused sections, identifies weaknesses, and works to improve them. Learning through doing and through rapid, useful feedback, often from an experienced teacher, leads to the development of ever more complex and subtle mental representations of the activity. Whether playing tennis or chess, high-jumping, memorising numbers, flying fast jets, conducting neurosurgery or composing symphonies, such mental maps are central to Ericsson’s understanding of expertise.
This distillation of Ericsson’s extensive research makes intuitive sense in terms of the tacit knowledge embedded in our own expertise-laden profession. Unfortunately, his theory of learning, thus simplified, struggles to fill more than a few pages, and Ericsson and Pool’s mental maps for writing have been honed on the prosody of the lab report rather than the more mannered reaches of fiction. Ten thousand hours came to mind more than once on my own self-improving journey through Peak.
There’s another, deeper issue about the reflexivity of an expert writing about expertise. The book is told in the first person, but doesn’t do justice to the real expertise on display – that of the psychologists themselves. Their knowledge and ingenuity in assembling tests, analysing data and documenting evidence are the back story. There are Ericsson’s own careful experiments on number recognition, or his colleagues’ studies of London cabbies in training, mapping the drivers’ bulging hippocampi as they progress through the diabolical Knowledge. This is a pity, for the most interesting thing about expertise is the nature and content of that expertise itself. What really makes the pilots of Top Gun, the US Navy Fighter Weapons School, so very, very good? We never find out. In pursuit of a simple formula – that natural talent is a myth and deliberate practice leads to improved performance – Ericsson and Pool replace one black box with another.
Ericsson comes across as a generous man, happy to correspond with others about their practice and development. He shrugs off crass interpretations of the 10,000-hour rule (hint: it’s not a rule). He insists that high achievement involves lots of hard work, much of it in childhood. He doesn’t want to write a manifesto for Tiger Mothers, although the raw materials are here. As we discover in the final pages, his rebuttal of natural talent has a democratising intent, hoping to prevent those identified as talentless from being marginalised or excluded. Those of us always picked last for sport – a prerequisite for academics, surely – must applaud him for this as we drag ourselves, finally, over the finish line.
Philip Roscoe is reader in management, University of St Andrews.
Peak: Secrets from The New Science of Expertise
By Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool
Bodley Head, 336pp, £18.99
Published 21 April 2016