Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise

Book review for Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise by Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool.


This fascinating book takes a deep dive into how to harness the adaptability of your brain and body to achieve abilities that would otherwise be out of reach.

Focused and concise, illustrated with research, and bringing new science to light, I recommend this book to anyone interested in learning and improving.

The main premise is to explain that what we think about acquiring abilities is probably wrong. Are gifted people at a natural advantage to become experts? Can anyone apply certain techniques to achieve the same results as others? Does high IQ play a role?

Answers abound. There is no such thing as natural ability; anyone can become an expert by putting in the time. Illustrated with exploring prodigies through history, their skills reduce down to two questions: 1) What is the exact nature of the ability? 2) What sorts of training made it possible? Traits favorable to a task help at the beginning but don’t make a difference at high levels; it all comes down to your own effort.

But not just any effort. The 10,000-hour “rule” popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers: The Story of Success is not the full story—the how long isn’t as important as how. Just practicing over and over doesn’t lead to mastery as you’ll soon plateau and stop improving. Important to know that you aren’t reaching a set potential, you are developing your potential because it’s not a fixed state. Surprising to read about many studies showing adult brain plasticity and adaptability. The brain’s adaptability is incredible.

The key piece is deliberate practice: training with expert teachers, eliminating your weaknesses by forming mental representations that drive you consistently to great performance, and spending lots of time in private practice on the right things.

The best among us in various areas do not occupy that perch because they were born with some innate talent but rather because they have developed their abilities through years of practice, taking advantage of the adaptability of the human body and brain.

Since there are no shortcuts to expertise, and you aren’t born with natural advantages, to improve you must engage with your training and stick with it, getting out of your comfort zone to reach the next level. You can control your environment, and adapt to changes by learning new skills.

Deliberate practice is knowing where to go, and how to get there.

Pragmatic Thinking & Learning

Pragmatic Thinking & Learning, Refactor Your Wetware by Andy Hunt (2008) is sensible and matter-of-fact, a gem of a book that works well both as reference and as inspiration. A science-based lifehacker manual that serves as the ultimate guide to personal productivity.


Full of tips, tricks, philosophies, and science behind how our brains function best for learning and thinking, the book covers topics such as reading and study habits, control over context and environment, trusting intuition while questioning everything, discovery and capture of ideas, and how to pay better attention. All tied to harnessing the power of opposite sides of the brain, creative versus practical, reactive versus thoughtful. Seeing both the forest and the trees.

Since the book is too full of useful information to summarize in one blog post, I’d like to share a few of my favorite parts.

Intuition and pattern matching replace explicit knowledge.

This echoes my philosophy of The Investigative Mindset where rules are not a substitute for clear thinking while considering the context. You can trust your intuition, yet you would do well to verify it by asking questions and digging deeper and keeping in mind your expectations and cognitive biases.

If you don’t keep track of great ideas, you will stop noticing you have them. Everyone has good ideas, fewer go further to keep track, act on them, and pull it off.

So true. Keep a journal, review it often, and take action on the best ideas. Share them with others for accountability, they can improve with feedback, or someone else can run with it if you don’t have time or energy to do so.

Rewire your brain with belief and constant practice; thinking makes it so.

This idea of mastery through constant, focused effort echoes what I’ve learned elsewhere, including a new book I’m excited about, Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise (review to come soon).

A random approach, without goals and feedback, tends to give random results.

“You got to be careful if you don’t know where you’re going, because you might not get there.” —Yogi Berra

The best efforts need a plan, because if you work on a team like mine at Automattic you’ll know from experience that starting on things without a clear goal in mind, nor a plan on how to get there, without specific metrics to track it — means it’ll be almost impossible to measure the results.

I love the concept of SMART goals: specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-boxed. Reminds me of Google’s Objectives and Key Results.

Read deliberately with SQ3R (scan, question, read, recite, review), which I find similar and complementary to Adler’s ideas on how to read books, as described by Ian Stewart.

You are who you hang out with: attitudes, behaviors, beliefs, and emotions are all contagious.

What does it take to stay sharp? Awareness. Learn to quiet your mind’s endless chatter, keep track of your ideas by working on and adding to your thoughts in progress, and avoid context switching.

Pragmatic Thinking & Learning is a must-read for all thinkers and learners. Hat tip: Nikolay Bachiyski.

Press Publish

Announcing Press Publish with two upcoming dates in Portland, OR in March 2015 and Phoenix, AZ in April 2015.

A new, one-day conference for bloggers who use WordPress — or want to switch. With inspirational talks by successful bloggers and workshops by the people who make and Jetpack — all designed to help you level up your skills and get fired up about your blog.

We’re ridiculously excited about the speakers we have lined up, from personal bloggers to published authors from all over the country. Their successes and unique points of view represent a diverse range of the possibilities that come with sharing your voice with WordPress.

Want to attend the Phoenix event and save a bit off the conference price? Use discount code PHX40 for 40% off. The price includes a one-year subscription to the Premium upgrade, a $99 value.

Hope to see you there! (I’ll be giving a tutorial in Phoenix on how to pick the perfect theme.)

Encourage Dissidence

From the “Kindred Spirits” pattern chapter in Apprenticeship Patterns:

Your community’s health can be measured in the way to reacts to new ideas. Does it embrace the idea after vigorous debate and experimentation? Or does it quickly reject the idea and the person who proposed it? Today’s dissident is tomorrow’s leader, and one of the most valuable services you can provide to your community is defending it against those who believe that marching in lockstep is the price of membership.

I love this challenge—it’s got me thinking a lot about how I approach new ideas, both when I bring them to my community or team and when I’m faced with new ideas from other people.

I am sometimes going with the flow in order to be liked and get along with everyone? Do I reject things out of hand because I don’t like the idea or the person? And do I question everything with a healthy dose of dissidence?

Top 10 Lists vs. Web Craftsmanship

Are you the type of person who loves to read Top 10 lists, and then link them up on Twitter ad nauseam? Do you love Smashing Magazine and the tuts+ network (psdtuts, nettuts, …)? If so, this post is for you.

My latest pet peeve involves people who post and share links to web design and development tricks and “quick hit” tutorials. What are the odds that the list or tutorial is going to help you with your current work? Also, did you actually go read the list and follow the links and do the tutorial and launch a site based on it and can you show that product to me? What did you actually learn?

The tendency toward listmania is misleading at best and damaging to the web design and development community at worst. It promotes superficial knowledge, quick fix schemes, and small-minded solutions.

If you want to do quality work and be proud of your craft, avoid these sites and lists. The quick trick can’t make you a better web craftsman or -woman. There isn’t a shortcut or quick fix to learning web design and development fundamentals.

Instead spend time actually making awesome sites yourself. Build something and launch it to the public. Go to An Event Apart. Learn by doing: your experience will teach you more than any top 10 list ever will. The critical thinking and solid skills will come from your hard work, not from the latest, hottest tut.1

More fuel for the fire:

Here is the thing. While it’s fun to learn the latest way to vertically center a div on a page using jQuery, HTML5 and your mom, you’re wasting your time. You may use that what, 1-2% of the time in your projects. Your fundamentals are what is important. Positioning, layouts, typography, spacing, etc. Master those things. Tricks are just tricks. Fundamentals win the game. —Noah Stokes

One can only really learn by doing, by making mistakes, and not by following someone else’s abridged instructions. The tips might get you a quick ‘n’ dirty result, but after that, you’re none the wiser and will need more hints to get you through the next problem. To anyone with genuine aspirations to be great and to really improve themselves, drop the ridiculous lists of quick fixes and shortcuts and start learning for yourself by doing and by making mistakes. —Contrast blog

There is a “quick hit” culture amongst net junkies, where they read the bare minimum and foolishly believe they’re getting value or insight. These are the same people who bookmark links “to read later” but never do, and order piles of amazon books to sit on shelves forever. Someone thinking they’re getting value of 10 sentences along the lines of “Launch early, launch often” or “Your brand is beyond your control” is in need of far more than a top 10 list in my opinion. —commenter on the same Contrast post

1 And, this is silly, but I hate the word “tut” so much. Argh!

Be An Employable Web Designer

In The Employable Web Designer, Andy Rutledge gives his take on how you can be ready for a real web design job coming out of college.

Now more than ever, it is a student’s responsibility to craft his or her own career preparedness in addition to, even in spite of, the plans and curricula defined by schools. This fact is especially true for aspiring Web designers, for every indication is that most higher education institutions don’t have the first clue about the interactive professions or how to prepare future professionals.

As a web craftsman, I think even seasoned web designers could take a look at this list of skills and traits that make a truly employable web professional. Pay close attention to the “Technology and Web Craft Skills” section since those items require constant reading, learning, and exploration.

I hope that this list and my suggestions help aspiring web designers to better craft their own preparedness and, if necessary, adjust their degree plans toward a more effective and responsible result.

Andy’s list is not only a great resource for aspiring web designers and developers, but I see it serving as a standard for all web professionals to live up to.

(Also, see my take on preparing for a career in web design, Learning Web Design, from 2006.)

SEO Guide for Designers

I field a lot of questions about search engines and SEO (search engine optimization), so I’d like to point to a great resource for understanding SEO basics: SEO Guide for Designers. When I found this on Nick La’s Web Designer Wall, I realized it was a great resource for basic SEO learning—even for non-designers.

Many of the tips should be obvious to you if you maintain websites on a regular basis, but if you are a non-technical website owner or maintainer, bookmark the article and reference it when you are working on your website marketing and optimization.

(Also see my 2006 post Search Engine Rankings for Your Site.)