Peak- Secrets from The New Science – Anders Ericsson 1

Authors’ Note
This book is the product of a collaboration between two people, a psychological
scientist and a science writer. We began talking regularly about the subject—
expert performers and “deliberate practice”—more than a decade ago and began
serious work on the book more than five years ago. During that time the book
grew in the give-and-take between the two of us to the point that it is now
difficult even for us to tell exactly who is responsible for which piece of it. What
we do know is that it is a much better—and different—book than either of us
would have produced alone.
However, while the book is a collaboration, the story that it tells is the story of
just one of us (Ericsson), who has spent his adult life studying the secrets of
extraordinary performers. Thus, we chose to write the book from his point of
view, and the “I” in the text should be understood as referring to him.
Nonetheless, the book is our joint effort to describe this exceptionally important
topic and its implications.

The Gift
WHY ARE SOME PEOPLE so amazingly good at what they do? Anywhere you look,
from competitive sports and musical performance to science, medicine, and
business, there always seem to be a few exceptional sorts who dazzle us with
what they can do and how well they do it. And when we are confronted with
such an exceptional person, we naturally tend to conclude that this person was
born with something a little extra. “He is so gifted,” we say, or, “She has a real
But is that really so? For more than thirty years I have studied these people,
the special ones who stand out as experts in their fields—athletes, musicians,
chess players, doctors, salespeople, teachers, and more. I have delved into the
nuts and bolts of what they do and how they do it. I have observed, interviewed,
and tested them. I have explored the psychology, the physiology, and the
neuroanatomy of these extraordinary people. And over time I’ve come to
understand that, yes, these people do have an extraordinary gift, which lies at the
heart of their capabilities. But it is not the gift that people usually assume it to
be, and it is even more powerful than we imagine. Most importantly, it is a gift
that every one of us is born with and can, with the right approach, take
advantage of.
The year is 1763, and a young Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is about to embark on
a tour around Europe that will jump-start the Mozart legend. Just seven years old
and barely tall enough to see over the top of a harpsichord, he captivates
audiences in his hometown of Salzburg with his skill on the violin and various
keyboard instruments. He plays with a facility that seems impossible to believe
in someone so young. But Mozart has another trick up his sleeve that is, if
anything, even more surprising to the people of his era. We know about this
talent because it was described in a rather breathless letter to the editor about the
young Mozart that was published in a newspaper in Augsburg, Mozart’s father’s
hometown, shortly before Mozart and his family left Salzburg for their tour.The letter writer reported that when the young Mozart heard a note played on
a musical instrument—any note—he could immediately identify exactly which
note it was: the A-sharp in the second octave above middle C, perhaps, or the Eflat
below middle C. Mozart could do this even if he was in another room and
could not see the instrument being played, and he could do it not just for the
violin and fortepiano but for every instrument he heard—and Mozart’s father, as
a composer and music teacher, had nearly every imaginable musical instrument
in his house. Nor was it just musical instruments. The boy could identify the
notes produced by anything that was sufficiently musical—the chime of a clock,
the toll of a bell, the ah-choo of a sneeze. It was an ability that most adult
musicians of the time, even the most experienced, could not match, and it
seemed, even more than Mozart’s skill on keyboard and violin, to be an example
of the mysterious gifts that this young prodigy had been born with.
That ability is not quite so mysterious to us today, of course. We know a good
deal more about it now than 250 years ago, and most people today have at least
heard of it. The technical term is “absolute pitch,” although it is better known as
“perfect pitch,” and it is exceptionally rare—only about one in every ten
thousand people has it. It is much less rare among world-class musicians than
among the rest of us, but even among virtuosos it is far from normal: Beethoven
is thought to have had it; Brahms did not. Vladimir Horowitz had it; Igor
Stravinsky did not. Frank Sinatra had it; Miles Davis did not.
It would seem, in short, to be a perfect example of an innate talent that a few
lucky people are born with and most are not. Indeed, this is what was widely
believed for at least two hundred years. But over the past few decades a very
different understanding of perfect pitch has emerged, one that points to an
equally different vision of the sorts of gifts that life has to offer.
The first hint emerged with the observation that the only people who had
received this “gift” had also received some sort of musical training early in their
childhood. In particular, a good deal of research has shown that nearly everyone
with perfect pitch began musical training at a very young age—generally around
three to five years old. But if perfect pitch is an innate ability, something that you
are either born with or not, then it shouldn’t make any difference whether you
receive music training as a child. All that should matter is that you get enough
musical training—at any time in your life—to learn the names of the notes.
The next clue appeared when researchers noticed that perfect pitch is much
more common among people who speak a tonal language, such as Mandarin,
Vietnamese, and several other Asian tongues, in which the meaning of words is
dependent on their pitch. If perfect pitch is indeed a genetic gift, then the only
way that the tonal-language connection would make sense would be if people of
Asian ancestry are more likely to have genes for perfect pitch than people whose
ancestors came from elsewhere, such as Europe or Africa. But that is something
that is easy to test for. You just recruit a number of people of Asian ancestry who
grew up speaking English or some other nontonal language and see if they are
more likely to have perfect pitch. That research has been done, and it turns out
that people of Asian heritage who don’t grow up speaking a tonal language are
no more likely than people of other ethnicities to have perfect pitch. So it’s not
the Asian genetic heritage but rather learning a tonal language that makes having
perfect pitch more likely.
Up until a few years ago, this was pretty much what we knew: Studying music
as a child was thought to be essential to having perfect pitch, and growing up
speaking a tonal language increased your odds of having perfect pitch. Scientists
could not say with certainty whether perfect pitch was an innate talent, but they
knew that if it was a gift, it was a gift that only appeared among those people
who had received some training in pitch in childhood. In other words, it would
have to be some sort of “use it or lose it” gift. Even the lucky few people who
are born with a gift for perfect pitch would have to do something—in particular,
some sort of musical training while young—to develop it.
We now know that this isn’t the case, either. The true character of perfect pitch
was revealed in 2014, thanks to a beautiful experiment carried out at the
Ichionkai Music School in Tokyo and reported in the scientific journal
Psychology of Music. The Japanese psychologist Ayako Sakakibara recruited
twenty-four children between the ages of two and six and put them through a
months-long training course designed to teach them to identify, simply by their
sound, various chords played on the piano. The chords were all major chords
with three notes, such as a C-major chord with middle C and the E and G notes
immediately above middle C. The children were given four or five short training
sessions per day, each lasting just a few minutes, and each child continued
training until he or she could identify all fourteen of the target chords that
Sakakibara had selected. Some of the children completed the training in less than
a year, while others took as long as a year and a half. Then, once a child had
learned to identify the fourteen chords, Sakakibara tested that child to see if he
or she could correctly name individual notes. After completing training every
one of the children in the study had developed perfect pitch and could identify
individual notes played on the piano.
This is an astonishing result. While in normal circumstances only one in every
ten thousand people develops perfect pitch, every single one of Sakakibara’s
students did. The clear implication is that perfect pitch, far from being a gift
bestowed upon only a lucky few, is an ability that pretty much anyone can
develop with the right exposure and training. The study has completely rewritten
our understanding of perfect pitch.
So what about Mozart’s perfect pitch? A little investigation into his
background gives us a pretty good idea of what happened. Wolfgang’s father,
Leopold Mozart, was a moderately talented violinist and composer who had
never had the degree of success he desired, so he set out to turn his children into
the sort of musicians he himself had always wanted to be. He began with
Mozart’s older sister, Maria Anna, who by the time she was eleven was
described by contemporaries as playing the piano and harpsichord as well as
professional adult musicians. The elder Mozart—who wrote the first training
book for children’s musical development—began working with Wolfgang at an
even younger age than he had started with Maria Anna. By the time Wolfgang
was four, his father was working with him full time—on the violin, the
keyboard, and more. While we don’t know exactly what exercises Mozart’s
father used to train his son, we do know that by the time Mozart was six or seven
he had trained far more intensely and for far longer than the two dozen children
who developed perfect pitch through Sakakibara’s practice sessions. In
retrospect, then, there should be nothing at all surprising about Mozart’s
development of perfect pitch.
So did the seven-year-old Wolfgang have a gift for perfect pitch? Yes and no.
Was he born with some rare genetic endowment that allowed him to identify the
precise pitch of a piano note or a whistling teakettle? Everything that scientists
have learned about perfect pitch says no. Indeed, if Mozart had been raised in
some other family without exposure to music—or without enough of the right
sort of exposure—he would certainly have never developed that ability at all.
Nonetheless, Mozart was indeed born with a gift, and it was the same gift that
the children in Sakakibara’s study were born with. They were all endowed with a
brain so flexible and adaptable that it could, with the right sort of training,
develop a capability that seems quite magical to those of us who do not possess
In short, perfect pitch is not the gift, but, rather, the ability to develop perfect
pitch is the gift—and, as nearly as we can tell, pretty much everyone is born with
that gift.
This is a wonderful and surprising fact. In the millions of years of evolution
leading up to modern humans, there were almost certainly no selection pressures
favoring people who could identify, say, the precise notes that a bird was
singing. Yet here we are today, able to develop perfect pitch with a relatively
simple training regimen.
Only recently have neuroscientists come to understand why such a gift should
exist. For decades scientists believed that we were born with our brains’ circuits
pretty much fixed and that this circuitry determined our abilities. Either your
brain was wired for perfect pitch, or it wasn’t, and there wasn’t much you could
do to change it. You might need a certain amount of practice to bring that innate
talent into full bloom, and if you didn’t get this practice, your perfect pitch might
never develop fully, but the general belief was that no amount of practice would
help if you didn’t have the right genes to start with.
But since the 1990s brain researchers have come to realize that the brain—
even the adult brain—is far more adaptable than anyone ever imagined, and this
gives us a tremendous amount of control over what our brains are able to do. In
particular, the brain responds to the right sorts of triggers by rewiring itself in
various ways. New connections are made between neurons, while existing
connections can be strengthened or weakened, and in some parts of the brain it is
even possible for new neurons to grow. This adaptability explains how the
development of perfect pitch was possible in Sakakibara’s subjects as well as in
Mozart himself: their brains responded to the musical training by developing
certain circuits that enabled perfect pitch. We can’t yet identify exactly which
circuits those are or say what they look like or exactly what they do, but we
know they must be there—and we know that they are the product of the training,
not of some inborn genetic programming.
In the case of perfect pitch, it seems that the necessary adaptability in the
brain disappears by the time a child passes about six years old, so that if the
rewiring necessary for perfect pitch has not occurred by then, it will never
happen. (Although, as we will see in chapter 8, there are exceptions of a sort,
and these exceptions can teach us a great deal about exactly how people take
advantage of the brain’s adaptability.) This loss is part of a broader phenomenon
—that is, that both the brain and the body are more adaptable in young children
than in adults, so there are certain abilities that can only be developed, or that are
more easily developed, before the age of six or twelve or eighteen. Still, both the
brain and the body retain a great deal of adaptability throughout adulthood, and
this adaptability makes it possible for adults, even older adults, to develop a
wide variety of new capabilities with the right training.
With this truth in mind, let’s return to the question that I asked at the
beginning: Why are some people so amazingly good at what they do? Over my
years of studying experts in various fields, I have found that they all develop
their abilities in much the same way that Sakakibara’s students did—through
dedicated training that drives changes in the brain (and sometimes, depending on
the ability, in the body) that make it possible for them to do things that they
otherwise could not. Yes, in some cases genetic endowment makes a difference,
particularly in areas where height or other physical factors are important. A man
with genes for being five feet five will find it tough to become a professional
basketball player, just as a six-foot woman will find it virtually impossible to
succeed as an artistic gymnast at the international level. And, as we will discuss
later in this book, there are other ways in which genes may influence one’s
achievements, particularly those genes that influence how likely a person is to
practice diligently and correctly. But the clear message from decades of research
is that no matter what role innate genetic endowment may play in the
achievements of “gifted” people, the main gift that these people have is the same
one we all have—the adaptability of the human brain and body, which they have
taken advantage of more than the rest of us.
If you talk to these extraordinary people, you find that they all understand this
at one level or another. They may be unfamiliar with the concept of cognitive
adaptability, but they seldom buy into the idea that they have reached the peak of
their fields because they were the lucky winners of some genetic lottery. They
know what is required to develop the extraordinary skills that they possess
because they have experienced it firsthand.
One of my favorite testimonies on this topic came from Ray Allen, a ten-time
All-Star in the National Basketball Association and the greatest three-point
shooter in the history of that league. 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. He took
advantage of his gift—his real gift.