Thoughts on: Freakonomics Self-improvement Month – Peak, Grit, the Mundanity of Excellence, Tim Ferriss

I’m not really one for self-improvement, glossy books and lofty goals you never quite stick to have always seemed tacky. Freakonomics has taken a bit of a step down by hosting a self-improvement series, inviting in people with a product to sell and allowing them to promote their wares at will. However, the guest’s involvement has worked really well, I have bought two of the books that have been promoted, read them (twice – a self-improvement tactic of my own) and am now sketching out my opinion on them (another revolting self-improvement tactic). Perhaps, I really am one for naff self-improvement?


The Freakonomics self-improvement month focusses on productivity, by far the most popular topic amongst voting listeners. Guest in the introductory show, Charles Duhigg, suspects this popularity is because “our experience matches so poorly with our expectation”. My personal frustration at the mismatch between possibility and reality does not really stem from a lack of productivity, I am reasonably good at producing things when I need to, but my inability to ingrain and sustain good ideas, create good habits over time – perhaps I should read Duhigg’s books on habit. My retention of knowledge and skill is poor. In all, this limits my ability to benefit from learning new things, as I simply can’t do them a few weeks later and have to relearn. Reading books twice and writing my thoughts on them are attempts to remedy this and, hopefully, I will remember and act-on things I have liked from the books the better for doing this. This will be a small piece of self-improvement in itself. As a hopeful start, I remember the names of the authors and basic concepts with confidence (this is pretty rare for me after a single read of a book), so perhaps the additional effort of a double read and write up has been worth it.


The books and podcasts could be boiled down into 100 words for each contributor, so let’s do that:


Peak by Anders Ericsson, Freakonomics episode

Peak, Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, primarily exists to sell the idea of ‘deliberate practice’. This is practice, usually alone or with an instructor, with clearly defined, small goals, a known effective training regime, maximal concentration, deliberate change, a performance demand slightly beyond your current ability and fast, accurate feedback. ‘Focus, feedback, fix-it’. Deliberate practice aims for skills rather than knowledge. With plenty of deliberate practice, you can become an expert in almost any area, your initial aptitude, as long as it meets a fairly low baseline, is relatively unimportant.


The mundanity of excellence by Daniel Chambliss

Coming from years of observation of swimmers Daniel Chambliss summarises why some are faster than others. Qualitative differentiation is seen between levels, quantitative differentiation is seen within levels, these differences improve race times. These qualitative factors come from great training culture that strives for continuous improvement.  Most importantly, outstanding performance is the combination of many technical factors, each isolated, honed and reintroduced in practice, that come together consistently. Excellence is hard to understand when seen as a complete product, but there is no magic. ‘Practice not until you can get it right, but until you cannot get it wrong’.


Grit by Angela Duckworth, Freakonomics episode

Angela Duckworth is a pretty serious overachiever, and has a theory as to why some people reach great levels of performancE, they practice intensively and effectively (see Anders Ericsson) and they keep on practicing over long periods of time. They show ‘stick-to-it-iveness’, ‘follow-through’ – or grit. They are not distracted by other potential goals, always stepping towards their main goal. Talent x effort = Skill, Skill x effort  = achievement.


Tim Ferriss, Freakonomics episode

Has no evidence for what he says – why do Freakonomics give him an easy time? There is no grit or excellence here, just a good salesman.


Will anything I do be different as a result of reading these books? Probably not in the long term, I will almost certainly forget about their ideas over time – unless they keep on coming up. This is probably the way forward – if the ideas are good and stick around in the marketplace in some form, then I will assimilate them, if they don’t, they will be forgotten. Excitingly, Freakonomics are looking for volunteers to engage in deliberate practice to improve some skill over the course of a year or so, so perhaps it will remain on my radar for a while yet, or be killed as those volunteers fail in their ambitions.

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