The theory of limits. In my late teens, I read an essay by Ernesto Sabato that declared the limits of science and knowledge. He said that science cannot, and will not, reach the realm of what’s really important to us: our emotions, our feelings of art or justice, etc. Impressionable as I was (am), I took it as dogma. Around the same time, Richard Dawkins was producing extraordinary material on evolution theory and science. The scientific method and science, he said, allow us to see far beyond the limitations imposed on us by our senses… and time and again, we have come to understand, through scientific endeavor, phenomena that was deemed, for centuries, inexplicable.
I didn’t discover Dawkins until many years later. I felt cheated for having adopted Sabato’s posture for so long. Although I understand that Sabato may be correct in principle (there are limits to what can be known), Dawkins provides a much more powerful brain software for our lives: take action and never quit.
After reading PEAK: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, I experienced the same software upgrade that I felt when I first read The Blind Watchmaker: I had this belief about human potential that I had never questioned and that guided my decisions, and now it was shown to be false…
The fundamental idea is that the brain is adaptable and that the right kind of training can create skills that did not exist before. Skills as incredible as perfect pitch or chess mastery. Contrary to the common belief that individual differences in abilities (i.e., potential) are determined by genetics, the reality is that we can create our own potential.
Now again, there certainly are limits to one’s potential, but let me suggest that these limits are miles farther than where we think they are. As someone said to me:
“your mom thinks you can do 5, you think you can do 10, I think you can do 50, but you can do 100+.”
Here are my notes on PEAK.
Actively work on your mental maps… mental maps can only be developed by doing
We all make sense of information by developing mental maps. We can call it visualization. The more we practice, the better our mental map. A good chess player can glance at a game in play and know immediately which player is winning.
Simple repetition doesn’t make a difference, however. I know many people with years of experience in investment management and derivatives and they don’t have a clue about what they do because their mental maps are extremely weak. They repeat what they read in the news or what their friend at BlackRock told them. Interestingly, in their respective organizations, they are seen as experts and therefore receive no feedback on their performance.
To develop our mental map, we must actively seek to improve it. And the only way to improve our maps is through Deliberate Practice: focusing on developing skills outside one’s comfort zone, always pushing beyond our current abilities, and receiving feedback and adjusting our efforts in response to that feedback. That’s how we continuously upgrade our mental maps.
Deliberate Practice is hard work
Since you’re always pushing yourself beyond your comfort zone and applying maximum effort, deliberate practice is never intrinsically fun. I’ve just begun to accept the reality that there will never be a pleasurable workout session at the gym, only the satisfaction that comes with knowing one is going in the right direction 🙁
Challenge homeostasis: if you wish to get significantly better at something, you can
The human body has a preference for stability (think heart rate, blood pressure, temperature). When stability is perturbed, say, by exercising, the body eventually returns to its stable state. It is possible, however, to push beyond homeostasis and reach a higher level, a new comfort zone. I personally lived in the comfortable rut of homeostasis the last 10 years by going to the gym and doing pretty much the same exercises with the same level of effort. It was the “good enough” zone, which is perfectly acceptable, but it’s important to remember that we have the option to get significantly better.
Talent gives you a head start, but effort makes you win the race
The evidence shows that, in the short run, people with higher IQ or “innate talent” (e.g., she’s good at math, so she can go into physics) outperform their cohort. However, in the long run, it is the ones who practice more who prevail.
The danger of believing that talent is, if not everything, most of it, is that it is assumed that your potential is limited by your inherent talent AND that inherent talent can be spotted early on. This sort of thinking gives us an easy excuse to quit too early.