Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, by Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool
New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016. 336 pp. $28 (hardcover).

At the beginning of Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool ask why some people are so good at what they do. Is their greatness, for example, innate or is it earned—is it the product of their genes or of their choices?

To answer that question, Ericsson and Pool look at peculiarities from why some people have perfect pitch to why others have perfect jump shots, they look at the history of these people for clues as to how they achieved such greatness, and sometimes they quote what the people themselves think.

On that latter count, for example, they cite the testimony of Ray Allen, the greatest three-point shooter in the history of the National Basketball Association.

Some years back, ESPN columnist Jackie MacMullan wrote an article about Allen as he was approaching his record for most three-point shots made. In talking with Allen for that story, MacMullan mentioned that another basketball commentator had said that Allen was born with a shooting touch—in other words, an innate gift for three-pointers. Allen did not agree.

“I’ve argued this with a lot of people in my life,” he told MacMullan. “When people say God blessed me with a beautiful jump shot, it really pisses me off. I tell those people, ‘Don’t undermine the work I’ve put in every day.’ Not some days. Every day. Ask anyone who has been on a team with me who shoots the most. Go back to Seattle and Milwaukee, and ask them. The answer is me.” And, indeed, as MacMullan noted, if you talk to Allen’s high school basketball coach you will find that Allen’s jump shot was not noticeably better than his teammates’ jump shots back then; in fact, it was poor. But Allen took control, and over time, with hard work and dedication, he transformed his jump shot into one so graceful and natural that people assumed he was born with it. (pp. xviii–xix)

For Allen, as for others who have achieved excellence in their fields, practice was indispensable—they were no more born with perfect pitch or a masterful chess game than they were born with the perfect jump shot.

In Peak, Ericsson and Pool focus on one kind of practice in particular, what Ericsson in his earlier research called “deliberate practice”; it has been popularized in recent years by authors such as Geoff Colvin (Talent is Overrated), Daniel Coyle (The Talent Code), and Malcolm Gladwell (Outliers).

Because of the popularity of these books, those who have read them undoubtedly will hear some of the same research and stories repeated in Peak. This is unfortunate for Ericsson and Pool, particularly because Ericsson was the trailblazer whose research those authors relied on. The repetition, however, is worth it. . . .

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