On Peak

2018 has been a tough year for me. I went through two team changes, and for each change the reality was different from my expectation. With the new changes, I was not performing at the level that I wanted to. My confidence tanked, and my head was filled with negative thoughts. I was starting to think that my soft skills were so bad that I would not be able to survive in the industry; I am not born with the skill sets that I need; I don’t have eyes to identify impact, etc. During my time in Korea from Dec 2018 to Jan 2019, I seriously considered changing team / company, right after I get back. I even thought about coming back to Korea or going to graduate school for Ph.D. In the end, however, I came to a conclusion to stay in the current team and try my best for at least another half. If I move out of this team now, it’s literally running away from my responsibility, and I am not a person to run away from my responsibility.

Anyways, after I got back to California in mid Jan 2019, I ran into a short clip that talked about a book called Peak. It was saying that natural talent doesn’t really exist in reality and with the right practice a person can improve in any skill. I was immediately hooked since I was blaming my lack of natural talent in soft skills (and many other skills) and was feeling like I was hitting against a wall. I recently finished reading the book, and I am so happy that I ran into the book. I don’t think reading the book magically solved all my problem, but the book helped me to see a light of hope that I could not see before.

How did it help me see the light?

Anders Ericsson, the author of the book, starts by saying that there are two perspectives in looking at learning. One is to see learning as a process to fulfill a predefined potential, which is determined when a person is born. Another is to see learning as a process to grow the potential itself. He is a strong believer of the latter and the book introduces building blocks of his belief and researches that back up his idea.

Brain can change

He uses major portion of the book to explain why he believes that a person’s potential is not something preset. In order to have meaning discourse, he uses brain as a concrete object that represents potential. Traditional view of predefined potential has a deep relationship with the belief that one’s brain stops growing / changing at certain age at which point the person’s potential is set. There is nothing that can improve the brain’s functionality. In the book, he uses multiple researches that disprove that claim. One example that I remember is the research on London Taxi drivers. The test to be a London Taxi driver requires thorough memorization of London. It will give a candidate a pick up location A and a destination B and the candidate’s job is to provide the most efficient path from A to B from memory. The research consisted of two groups. Test group consisted of people who were starting to prepare for the Taxi exam and control group was people who were not. When the researchers scanned their brain, there was no significant difference on the size of the part of brain that controlled memory. After 4 years, the researchers re-scanned those people. Now there were three groups: one group that became London taxi drivers, one group that gave up, and the control group. As you might have guessed, the size of brain grew significantly for the group that became taxi drivers. The other two groups had similar brain size as 4 years ago. This research, along with other researches in the book, clearly shows that brain can adapt and rewire itself to grow our potential.

… the brain’s structure and function are not fixed. They change in response to use. It is possible to shape the brain – your brain, my brain, anybody’s brain – in the ways that we desire through conscious, deliberate training. (p. 36)

Deliberate practice

Okay, now we get that the brain can rewire itself, but how? Anders’s answer to that is practice. But not just any practice. He calls it a deliberate practice. He emphasizes the difference between naive practice and deliberate practice. Naive practice is a mindless practice. For example, if I play tennis with my friends just for fun without really focusing on my stroke, that would be a naive practice, and it won’t help much in development of my tennis skill. He argues that the best way to hone an ability is to do deliberate practice. My understanding of deliberate practice is that 1. It needs to be focused. The purpose of the practice must be clear. 2. It needs to be challenging enough that it’s not possible to do perfectly with the current skillset. 3. It needs to have a feedback loop. What is that I am doing correctly that can be improved? The following is the summary of deliberate practice based on the author’s own words.

The hallmark of purposeful or deliberate practice is that you try to do something you cannot do – that takes you out of your comfort zone – and that you practice it over and over again, focusing on exactly how you are doing it, where you are falling short, and how you can get better. (p. 157)

If the deliberate practice is done over and over again, our brain will adapt itself so that it can be better at what it’s trying to do.

Mental representation

How does this rewiring of brain manifest in our thought process? The author refers to this as a mental representation. As people do deliberate practice and their brains rewire themselves, people’s mental representation changes. The thought process of an expert is different from a novice. Anders uses chess as an example to demonstrate his point. When ordinary people are shown multiple chess boards in the middle of a game and asked to recreate them from memory, most fails to do it. However, when grandmasters are shown the boards, they are able to recreate the boards almost exactly. What makes the difference? He attributes to mental representation. The way these two groups of people look at boards is different. To ordinary people, the chess pieces on the boards are independent pieces, but to grandmasters the chess pieces on the boards tell a story of the game. They explain the board with abstract words like line of forces and power. In his own words, mental representation is:

As we shall see, the key to improved mental performance of almost any sort is the development of mental structures that make it possible to avoid the limitations of short-term memory and deal effectively with large amounts of information at once. (p. 24)

He also goes on to say that deliberate practice and mental representation form a virtuous cycle where deliberate practice leads to improved mental representation which helps in getting better self feedback during deliberate practice.

What now?

Reading this book at this point in myself helped me to reframe my mindset. My mindset was falling in a pessimistic swamp. I felt like my lack of natural talent set me to a failure. This book tells otherwise. With correct practice, I can improve any skill set I want (though it might take time). This book helped me to 1. Be hopeful that I can be better at areas that I was not good at. 2. Be patient. There is no expert that was good at what they do from day one. For me to be frustrated because I am not the best at the field after short period of time doesn’t make sense. On more concrete note, I think I have been 1. Approaching coding as every day business and didn’t really think about how to improve them. Nowadays, I am trying test driven development which I think is a good start. I need to look for ways to improve my practice on TDD further. I think revisiting the code that I wrote after about a month may be helpful. 2. Looking back, I have been running away from the opportunities for practices when it comes to soft skills. I need to put myself into those practices. Instead of running away from it thinking that I suck at that, I need to think that these are good opportunities to do deliberate practice on soft skill and I should capitalize on that. I think doing improv as Benjamin suggested may be a good way to put myself into do deliberate practice.

He has a strong message toward the end. He states that with deliberate practice people can own their potential and thus their life.

With deliberate practice, however, the goal is not just to reach your potential but to build it, to make things possible that were not possible before. This requires challenging homeostasis – getting out of your comfort zone – and forcing your brain or your body to adapt. But once you do this, learning is no longer just a way of fulfilling some genetic destiny; it becomes a way of taking control of your destiny and shaping your potential in ways that you choose. (p. 48)

Hell, I want to do that!

Written on March 14, 2019