"All skills, all language, all music, all movements, are made of living circuits, and all circuits grow according to certain rules."
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“What is the secret for getting really good at something?” Genes? Luck? What if talent was not a luck of the draw approach but rather something that could be systematically broken down into a manageable approach? The Talent Code, by Daniel Coyle, explains that, “greatness isn’t born, it’s grown.” While many of the examples the author uses relate to athletics or music, he defines talent broad enough that the concepts are universally applicable. Talent in this case is “the possession of repeatable skills that don’t depend on physical size.”
To crack the talent code, Coyle traveled to a handful of places around the world he calls “talent hotbeds.” These locations vary in industry but all exhibit the same results. They are relatively small, low-key, operations but each produces extraordinary disproportionate results. For example, Coyle visited the rundown facility in Russia with a single tennis court that over a three-year period produced more top twenty professional tennis players than the entire United States. How do these places produce such phenomenal results? As Coyle explains, it all starts with a foundation of deep practice.
The Big Idea
Delve Deeper with Deep Practice
"[Deep practice is] the feeling... of being a staggering baby, of intently, clumsily lurching toward a goal and toppling over. It's a wobbly, discomfiting sensation that any sensible person would instinctively seek to avoid. Yet the longer the babies remained in that state—the more willing they were to endure it, and to permit themselves to fail—the more myelin they built, and the more skill they earned. The staggering babies embody the deepest truth about deep practice: to get good, it's helpful to be willing, or even enthusiastic, about being bad. Baby steps are the royal road to skill."
Deep practice is a deliberate and focused effort to improve, a targeted effort that allows for a biological process called myelination to accelerate the growth of skill. Coyle explains: “Every human movement, thought, or feeling is a precisely timed electric signal traveling through a chain of neurons—a circuit of nerve fibers. Myelin is the insulation that wraps these nerve fibers and increases signal strength, speed, and accuracy. The more we fire a particular circuit, the more myelin optimizes that circuit, and the stronger, faster, and more fluent our movements and thoughts become.”
Deep practice harnesses the benefits of myelination through three principles: chunking, repetition, and recognition. Chunking requires you to break the task down into smaller, more manageable pieces so you can tinker with them individually and strive to understand what you are trying to build. Once you have a blueprint of what you are trying to build you must repeat the action. Finally, you need to learn to recognize when you are in a state of deep practice rather than merely practicing. Growing talent is not a matter of simply putting in the hours; it is about investing time to correctly build your circuits.
However, for your deep practice to be the most effective it must contain one specific element.
Target the Struggle
"Deep practice is built on a paradox: struggling in certain targeted ways—operating at the edges of your ability, where you make mistakes—makes you smarter... experiences where you're forced to slow down, make errors, and correct them—as you would if you were walking up an ice-covered hill, slipping and stumbling as you go—end up making you swift and graceful without your realizing it."
Deep practice accelerates your learning because you are teaching circuits how to properly fire again and again. Think about a narrow forest trail overrun with vegetation, which can still be used but with difficulty. Now, if those that use the trail begin to travel along the edge, with each pass not only does the vegetation recede but the path becomes wider and easier to use. This example, while juvenile in nature, highlights two important points about targeting the struggle: (1) it requires increased effort, and (2) it will be uncomfortable.
While you want to focus on the struggle you must go deeper than that. You need to be deliberate about struggling. Coyle offers a pattern:
1. Pick a target.
2. Reach for it.
3. Evaluate the gap between the target and the reach.
4. Return to step one.
From now on, seek out the slippery slopes.
Do Something Today, Tomorrow, and the Day After That...
"There is, biologically speaking, no substitute for attentive repetition. Nothing you can do—talking, thinking, reading, imagining—is more effective in building skill than executing the action, firing the impulse down the nerve fiber, fixing errors, honing the circuit."
So you now understand the rules of deep practice, and have an area you want target. What now? You must act; none of this will work unless you do! It seems quite obvious, but I’ve found that action is often a sticking point. My father-in-law says, “To know and not to do is not to know.”
Actually firing the circuit is critical, as incredible as all the myelin and science is, it won’t develop without work. Coyle labels myelin as “meritocratic” in that the circuits that fire are the ones that become insulated and faster. There is then no way to cheat myelin, no shortcuts to mastery, either you practice or you don’t.
Deep practice and the process of myelination are simple, deceptively so, but they must be repeated over and over. It is easy to be enthusiastic about your first sales call, but what about the 423rd? Deep practice requires energy, passion and commitment spread over a long time. This is why even though it appears simple you must take action today, and again, and again, and again, for the myelin to work.
I recently had the opportunity to teach a 45-minute lesson at my church. Traditionally, I’ve prepared elaborate outlines that helped me feel prepared. But the outlines served as a crutch because I would only process the material I was teaching superficially since I could rely on the outline if I stumbled. With The Talent Code fresh in my mind I decided to target the struggle and limited myself to a single 3×5 notecard outline. The limited space forced me to learn the material on a deeper level and while there were uncomfortable moments where I scrambled, the practice left me an improved teacher.
Next time you want to become good at something remember The Talent Code. Break the task down into chunks and fire your circuits correctly. Then deliberately seek out the areas of struggle and make frequent investments in your efforts.
How do you plan to use deep practice to develop your talents?