Introduction

The talent code is built on revolutionary scientific discoveries involving a neural insulator called myelin, which some neurologists now consider to be the holy grail of acquiring skill. (5)

Myelin’s vital role is to wrap those nerve fibers the same way that rubber insulation wraps a copper wire, making the signal stronger and faster by preventing the electrical impulses from leaking out. (5)

The thicker the myelin gets, the better it insulates, and the faster and more accurate our movements and thoughts become. (5)

Skill is a cellular insulation that wraps neural circuits and that grows in response to certain signals. (6)

The more time and energy you put into the right kind of practice the more skill you get, or, to put it a slightly different way, the more myelin you earn. (6)


Part I Deep Practice

Chapter 1 – The Sweet Spot 

Talent in the strictest sense: the possession of repeatable skills that don’t depend on physical size. (11)

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. Or to put it a slightly different way, experiences where you’re forced to slow down, make errors, and correct them. (18)

Chapter 2 – The Deep Practice Cell

Q: Why is targeted, mistake-focused practice so effective?

A: Because the best way to build a good circuit is to fire it, attend to mistakes, then fire it again over and over. Struggle is not an option: it’s a biological requirement.

Q: Why are passion and persistence key ingredients of talent?

A: Because wrapping myelin around a big circuit requires immense energy and time. If you don’t love it, you’ll never work hard enough to be great. (34)

All actions are really the result of electrical impulses sent along chains of nerve fibers. Basically, our brains are bundles of wires – 100 billion wires called neurons, connected to each other by synapses (36)

The more we develop a skill circuit, the less we’re aware that we’re using it. We’re built to make skills automatic, to stash them in our unconscious mind. This process, which is called automaticity, exists for powerful evolutionary reasons. (37)

Once a skill is insulated, you can’t un-insulate it. That’s why habits are hard to break. The only way to change them is to build new habits by repeating new behaviors – by myelinating new circuits. (44-45)

Chapter 3 – The Brontes, the Z-Boys, and the Renaissance 

Myelin doesn’t care about prosperity, peace, or paradigms. (63)

In short, apprentices spent thousands of hours solving problems, trying and failing and trying again, within the confines of a world built on the systematic production of excellence. (64)

Chapter 4 – The Three Rules of Deep Practice 

Skill consists of identifying important elements and grouping them into a meaningful framework. The name psychologists use for such organization is chunking. (77)

First, the participants look at the task as a whole – as one big chunk, the megacircuit. Second, they divide it into its smallest possible chunks. Third, they play with time, slowing the action down, then speeding it up, to learn its inner architecture. (80)

Imitation need not be conscious, and in fact it often isn’t. (80)

“If you begin playing without technique, it is (a) big mistake.” (83)

Why does slowing down work so well? The myelin model offers two reasons. First, going slow allows you to attend more closely to errors, creating a higher degree of precision with each firing – and when it comes to growing myelin, precision is everything. Second, going slow helps the practicer to develop something even more important: a working perception of the ksill’s internal blueprints – the shape and rhythm of the interlocking skill circuits. (85)

They gathered a range of expert players, club players, and novices, and asked them how they approached the serve: their goals, planning, strategy choices, self-monitoring, and adaptation – twelve measures in all. Using the answers, they predicted the players’ relative skill levels, then had the players execute their serve to test the accuracy of their predictions. The result? Ninety percent of the variation in skill could be accounted for by the players’ answers. (86)

“If I skip practice for one day, I notice. If I skip practice for two days, my wife notices. If I skip for three days, the world notices.” (88)

Deep practice is not simply about struggling; it’s about seeking out a particular struggle, which involves a cycle of distinct actions.

  1. Pick a target
  2. Reach for it.
  3. Evaluate the gap between the target and the reach.
  4. Return to step one. (92)

Part II Ignition

Chapter 5 – Primal Cues

Motivation is created and sustained through a process called ignition. (97)

Ignition supplies the energy, while deep practice translates that energy over time into forward progress, a.k.a wraps of myelin. (97)

Where deep practice is all about staggering-baby steps, ignition is about the set of signals and subconscious forces that create our identity; the moments that lead us to say that is who I want to be. (101)

When long-term commitment combined with high levels of practice, skills skyrocketed. (104)

Ignition is determined by simple if/then propositions, with the then part always the same – better get busy. See someone you want to become? Better get busy. Want to catch up with a desirable group? Better get busy. (111)

Chapter 6 – The Curacao Experiment 

“To play ball, you need three things: Heart – Mind – Balls. If you have two, you can play, but you will never be great. To be great, all three.”

You’ve got to give kids credit at a younger age for feeling stuff more acutely. What skill-building really is, is confidence-building. First they got to earn it, then they got it. And once it gets lit, it stays lit pretty good. (134)

High motivation is not the kind of language that ignites people. What works is precisely the opposite: not reaching up but reaching down, speaking to the ground-level effort, affirming the struggle. (137)

Chapter 7 – How to Ignite a Hotbed

“The culture is an incredibly strong force, and the only way to reach them is to change the way they see themselves.” (150)


Part III Master Coaching 

Chapter 8 – The Talent Whisperers

Is it possible to look at two seedlings and tell which will grow taller? The only answer is It’s early and they’re both growing. (166)

Gallimore and Tharp recorded and coded 2,326 discrete acts of teaching. Of them, a mere 6.9% were compliments. Only 6.6% were expressions of displeasure. But 75% were pure information: what to do, how to do it, when to intensify an activity. (169)

“Wooden’s demonstrations rarely take longer than three seconds, but are of such clarity that they leave an image in memory much like a textbook sketch.” (169)

He formulated laws of learning (which might be retitled laws of myelin): explanation, demonstration, imitation, correction, and repetition. (170)

“The effect of this first phase of learning seemed to be to get the learner involved, captivated, hooked, and to get the learner to need and want more information and expertise.” (175)

Chapter 9 – The Teaching Circuit: A Blueprint

A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops. – Henry Brooks Adams (177)

Master coaches are the human delivery system for the signals that fuel and direct the growth of a given skill circuit, telling it with great clarity to fire here and not here. (178)

Many of the coaches I met shared a similar biographical arc: they had once been promising talents in their respective fields but failed and tried to figure out why. (179)

“If you spend years and years trying hard to do something, you’d better get better at it. How dumb would I have to be if I didn’t?” (184)

Small successes were not stopping points but stepping-stones. (188)

Speed and flexibility are everything; the faster and more flexible the circuit, the more obstacles can be overcome, and the greater that player’s skill. (193)

Consistency rules; when the violinist plays an A-minor chord, it must always be an A-minor chord, and not a smidgen off. (193)

To stop the game in order to highlight some technical detail or give praise would be to interrupt the flow of attentive firing, failing, and learning that is the heart of flexible-circuit deep practice. The lessons the players teach themselves are more powerful than anything the coach might say. (194)

The universal rule remains the same: good coaching supports the desired circuit. (195)

Chapter 10 – Tom Martinez and the $60 Million Dollar Bet

“I flat-out love coaching. There’s something there that’s real. you get your hands on it, and you can make somebody better than they were. That’s one hell of a feeling.” (203)

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