My Favorite Books: The Science of Achievement

Last week, I wrote about my favorite books for learning how to learn. Developing a foundation in evidence-based learning strategies, however, isn’t quite enough. In becoming a more effective learner, it’s been necessary for me to set aside my intellectual insecurity and impostor syndrome—that voice in the back of my brain telling me I just don’t have “it.” Fortunately, a mountain of expertise and achievement research, much of it conducted by the three authors below, has declared that voice to be wrong.

Both neuroscience and cognitive science have suggested that high achievers across disciplines, from music to athletics to academics, are grown—not born—through grit and deliberate practice. In my mind, these books, while subtly different, are variations on the same theme. In applying evidence-based learning strategies, learners are already putting achievement research into action, but it pays to have a scientific appreciation that hard work really does count. 


Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, by Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool. Ericsson is one of the pioneers of expertise research, which studies the properties and practices of high achievers. Through years of surveys and interviews with world-class performers in everything from violin to track & field to the spelling bee, Ericsson has concluded that high achievers are created through the process of deliberate practice. In my own words, deliberate practice is the process of measurable, feedback-driven training to target weaknesses and incrementally improve. Deliberate practice, which requires focus, isn’t always fun, but it’s the stuff that turns good to great. Ericsson’s work became popularized several years prior to Peak through Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers (also a great book), which coined the “10,000 hour rule.” Ericsson clarifies that 10,000 hours of deliberate practice, not any old practice, is the rule of thumb for developing expertise. Interestingly, many of Ericsson’s early experiments involved a number memorization test, identical to the spoken numbers event held at memory competitions. I have based much of my memory competition training regimen on Peak’s ideas of purposeful practice (not quite deliberate practice; you’ll have to read the book to understand the distinction). In short: talent counts, but deliberate practice is what truly creates world-class performers.


Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, by Angela Duckworth. Through a subtly different lens, Duckworth has reached a similar conclusion to Ericsson’s; namely, that high achievers are developed through grit, defined as perseverance and passion for long-term goals. In fact, one of Duckworth’s studies names Ericsson as a collaborator, and she refers to his work repeatedly throughout the book. As Duckworth concisely puts it, Success = Talent * Effort². Effort takes the lion’s share. Noticing a pattern here?

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Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, by Carol Dweck. Like Ericsson and Duckworth, Dweck is a cognitive psychology professor who researches the science of achievement. The concept of mindset, while similar to those of deliberate practice and grit, is somewhat removed. Mindset research distinguishes between “growth” and “fixed” mindsets and their effects on behavior and practical outcomes. With respect to a given attribute, such as intelligence or personality, individuals holding fixed mindsets tend to believe that attribute is largely inborn and unlikely to change with effort. In contrast, individuals holding growth mindsets tend to believe that attribute is highly modifiable with effortful attempts to improve. As Dweck explains, simply possessing a growth mindset has been correlated with performance across a spectrum of learning outcome measures, as well as measures of motivation, self-esteem, and resilience in the face of setbacks. I think just about everyone understands that “working hard leads to success,” but the wisdom of mindset is that we still subconsciously suffer from fixed mindsets in many areas—the nagging feeling of “I’m just not cut out for this.” As Henry Ford famously said, “Whether you think you can, or you think you can't—you're right.” I still often catch myself looking at the world through a fixed mindset lens, but with the help of these books, I’ve been working on it. Something as simple as changing my mindset has helped me develop a grittier attitude for incremental, deliberate improvement.

Have a favorite book about the science of achievement? Share it in the comments below. We’d love to hear from you. If you missed it, check out: My Favorite Books: Learning How to Learn.