Good is the Enemy of Great...

Good is the Enemy of Great...

A Commentary on Peak: Secrets From the New Science of Expertise

Because, good, could be in fact, the reason why you may NEVER become great at something. That is, until you identify this state of “being acceptable,” stare it straight in the face, and acknowledge that you want to escape this level of only sufficient. This state of not great.

Peak – by Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool explores this notion and explains what it takes to be a masterful performer. The book is fundamentally rooted in an anti-determinism philosophy; you leave with the sense that YOU HAVE CONTROL OF YOUR LIFE. Of course, this is something I always believed and preached, and this is even more literature to back this up.

The premise of the book is to teach you how to master anything utilizing a scientific approach. The fundamental approach behind mastery is what they coin purposeful practice.

Let’s take a walk through the mastery journey. Let’s use golf for example. All your friends play golf; your father plays golf, you’re an entrepreneur and many people who you could build business relationships with play golf. Screw it; you buy a few golf clubs and you want to learn. You are competitive by nature, so you hire a trainer before you even want to compete. You practice with this trainer, practice quite a bit on your own, and get a little pep in your step. The game feels automatic enough so that you’re comfortable enough to play a competitive and enjoyable game, every time. However, you are not satisfied with your performance, but all the easy stuff has been mastered to a point where the weaknesses and flaws, are not often enough to make you want to go and consciously work on them. These weaknesses are relatively infrequent, and do not interrupt the flow of the game. These weaknesses will also be your downfall because just like your strengths – they are automatic. The longer they exist, the harder it is to reverse condition them. This is a dangerous point.

Most people get to this point with all crafts they pick up, and instead of isolating the mistakes, they play year after year and hope that their level of performance will go up. This is naiive practice, not purposeful practice.  

The 10,000-hour rule coined by Malcolm Gladwell is a mainstream notion that states that no matter the quality of practice, if one does a task for approximately 10,000 hours, he or she will achieve mastery [1]. Ericsson does not only disagree with this rule, but Peak highlights why obeying this rule could be dangerous. Ironically, Erisson states that Gladwell formulated this rule by “citing our (Ericsson’s) research on expert musicians as a stimulus for his provocative generalization to a magical number.”

So, what is the difference between Naiive Practice and Purposeful Practice? The first is the undeliberate and hopeful practice that relies simply on repetition for improvement. On the other-hand Purposeful Practice is much more effective. Here are the criteria for purposeful practice:

  • Purposeful Practice will ALWAYS have a well-defined goal. (i.e. – Goal = Improve focus. Purposeful Practice plan: I will focus on reading for 15 minutes every day this week, without getting distracted at all. Each week, I will increase the number of pages by 5, until I am reading 100 pages per sitting)
  • Purposeful practice requires full immersion. NO DISTRACTIONS
  • Purpose practice will make one uncomfortable. If it is comfortable, it is not challenging a homeostasis.
  • Purpose Practice requires feedback – You MUST know whether you are doing something right or not.

How does purposeful practice work at improving you as an organism? Not only are we physically adaptive, but we are also neurologically adaptive. Neuroplasticity is the term scientists use, which simply states that your brain will change its structure and function if exposed to different stimuli. Purposeful practice is the way to expose your brain to such stimuli, with the intention of cognitive change, of course possible by neuroplasticity.

An encouraging idea that almost gives me a chilling sense of empowerment is that over the course of the past 10 years, study after study indicates that just like the body, the mind is drastically adaptable; and although there may be limits to human performance, we have not come even close to reaching these limits.

The body is so adaptable, ironically because it wants to stay the same, or maintain a status quo state called homeostasis. THE ONLY WAY TO CONSISTENTLY CHANGE YOUR MIND AND BODY TO IMPROVE IS TO CONSISTENTLY PUSH THEM TO NOVEL LEVELS OF DISCOMFORT. In context, this means that your attempt at getting good at golf as described above was hindered because you eventually stopped making yourself uncomfortable, and only comfortably played golf.

According to Ericsson and Pool, how is that we can achieve Peak performance in any task? “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 need to excel in their particular specialties.” They explain that a mental representation then “is a mental structure that corresponds to an object, an idea, a collection of information, or anything else, concrete or abstract, that the brain is thinking about.” It is deliberate practice that forces one to see all scenario’s that creates a great number of mental representations.

By having many thousands more mental representations or complex chunks of information, experts not only see the entire forest, but also see the best way to zero in on a tree. This is the ability to quickly see things in context, and have the ability to act as quickly as possible with the right move, whether it is the subconscious analysis of the runners on base, the pitchers body language, and the position of his arm prior to the release which allows baseball players to swing at a ball and strike it with it being barely visible, or a CEO seeing the exact context of his entire company and exactly what’s going on in each department and making the most important decision in the shortest amount of time despite having hundreds more to make that day, mental representations are the key to Peak performance.

Peak really hit home the point that it is not merely the repetition of a craft that will create mastery. Instead, it is focused, goal-driven, uncomfortable practice that will FORCE the body to create adaptations that will eventually drive improvement, all the way to the point of mastery. Practice hard guys.

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