Book Review: The Little Book of Talent

An awesome, short read that investigates what makes some of the greatest training grounds in the world so successful. Across various disciplines ranging from music to tennis, Dan Coyle investigates what makes for great coaching and training that leads to world class performance.

No matter what skill you set out to learn, the pattern is always the same: See the whole thing. Break it down to its simplest elements. Put it back together. Repeat.

One of the best books on performance and skill acquisition I’ve read in a while. Read it and look for areas where you can apply this in your life.

Enjoy!

Ramen-san


 

On getting inspired:

Talent begins with brief, powerful encounters that spark motivation by linking your identity to a high-performing person or group. This is called ignition, and it consists of a tiny, world-shifting thought lighting up your unconscious mind: I could be them. This first section is about creating the ignition moment, and about channeling its energy in the most constructive way.

On observing the best to trigger ‘engraving’:

If you were to visit a dozen talent hotbeds tomorrow, you would be struck by how much time the learners spend observing top performers. When I say “observing,” I’m not talking about passively watching. I’m talking about staring—the kind of raw, unblinking, intensely absorbed gazes you see in hungry cats or newborn babies.

The key to effective engraving is to create an intense connection: to watch and listen so closely that you can imagine the feeling of performing the skill. For physical skills, project yourself inside the performer’s body. Become aware of the movement, the rhythm; try to feel the interior shape of the moves. For mental skills, simulate the skill by re-creating the expert’s decision patterns. Chess players achieve this by replaying classic games, move by move; public speakers do it by regiving great speeches complete with original inflections; musicians cover their favorite songs; some writers I know achieve this effect by retyping passages verbatim from great works. (It sounds kind of Zen, but it works.)

On ‘stealing’ through observation:

Stealing helps shed light on some mysterious patterns of talent—for instance, why the younger members of musical families so often are also the most talented. (A partial list: The Bee Gees’s younger brother, Andy Gibb; Michael Jackson; the youngest Jonas Brother, Nick. Not to mention Mozart, J. S. Bach, and Yo-Yo Ma, all babies of their families.) The difference can be explained partly by the windshield phenomenon (see Tip #1) and partly by theft. As they grow up, the younger kids have more access to good information. They have far more opportunity to watch their older siblings perform, to mimic, to see what works and what doesn’t. In other words, to steal.

On building ‘hard’ skills (i.e. motor skills) with precision practice:

Precision especially matters early on, because the first reps establish the pathways for the future. Neurologists call this the “sled on a snowy hill” phenomenon. The first repetitions are like the first sled tracks on fresh snow: On subsequent tries, your sled will tend to follow those grooves. “Our brains are good at building connections,” says Dr. George Bartzokis, a neurologist at UCLA. “They’re not so good at unbuilding them.” When you learn hard skills, be precise and measured. Go slowly. Make one simple move at a time, repeating and perfecting it before you move on. Pay attention to errors, and fix them, particularly at the start. Learning fundamentals only seems boring—in fact, it’s the key moment of investment. If you build the right pathway now, you’ll save yourself a lot of time and trouble down the line.

Great teachers will often spend entire practice sessions on one seemingly small fundamental—for example, the way you grip a golf club, or the way you pluck a single note on a guitar. This might seem strange, but it reflects their understanding of a vital reality: These fundamentals are the core of your skills (see Tip #10). The more advanced you are, the more crucial they become.

On building ‘soft’ skills through endless reps:

While hard skills are best put together with measured precision (see Tip #8), soft skills are built by playing and exploring inside challenging, ever-changing environments. These are places where you encounter different obstacles and respond to them over and over, building the network of sensitive wiring you need to read, recognize, and react. In other words, to build soft skills you should behave less like a careful carpenter and more like a skateboarder in a skateboard park: aggressive, curious, and experimental

The Brontë sisters, three of whom became world-class novelists, built their talents by writing thousands of pages of stories in tiny homemade books when they were children. The early Brontë stories, like Fey’s early improv work, aren’t very good—and that’s precisely the point. They became skilled by performing thousands of intensive reaches and reps in an endlessly challenging, variable, engaging space.

On operating at the ‘edge’ of your abilities:

If you have early success, do your best to ignore the praise and keep pushing yourself to the edges of your ability, where improvement happens. If you don’t have early success, don’t quit. Instead, treat your early efforts as experiments, not as verdicts. Remember, this is a marathon, not a sprint.

Locating your sweet spot requires some creativity. For instance, some golfers work on their swings underwater (which slows them down, so they can sense and fix their mistakes). Some musicians play songs backward (which helps them better sense the relationship between the notes). These are different methods, but the underlying pattern is the same: Seek out ways to stretch yourself. Play on the edges of your competence. As Albert Einstein said, “One must develop an instinct for what one can just barely achieve through one’s greatest efforts.” The key word is “barely.” Ask yourself: If you tried your absolute hardest, what could you almost do? Mark the boundary of your current ability, and aim a little beyond it. That’s your spot.

On practicing well:

Solo practice works because it’s the best way to 1) seek out the sweet spot at the edge of your ability, and 2) develop discipline, because it doesn’t depend on others. A classic study of musicians compared world-class performers with top amateurs. The researchers found that the two groups were similar in every practice variable except one: The world-class performers spent five times as many hours practicing alone.

Develop the habit of attending to your errors right away. Don’t wince, don’t close your eyes; look straight at them and see what really happened, and ask yourself what you can do next to improve. Take mistakes seriously, but never personally.

Smaller practice spaces can deepen practice when they are used to increase the number and intensity of the reps and clarify the goal. A good example is used by FC Barcelona, widely considered the world’s best soccer team. The method is simple: one room slightly bigger than a bathroom, two players, and one ball—whoever can keep the ball from the other player longest wins.

When we learn how to do something new, our immediate urge is to do it again, faster. This is known as the Hey, Look at Me! reflex. This urge for speed makes perfect sense, but it can also create sloppiness, particularly when it comes to hard skills (see Tip #8). We trade precision—and long-term performance—for a temporary thrill. So, slow it down. Super-slow practice works like a magnifying glass: It lets us sense our errors more clearly, and thus fix them. Slow practice is used by many talent hotbeds to teach hard skills, from the Spartak Tennis Club (where students swing in such slow motion they resemble ballet dancers) to the Septien School of Contemporary Music (where performers learn a new song by singing one slow note at a time).

On positive ‘framing’:

There’s a moment just before every rep when you are faced with a choice: You can either focus your attention on the target (what you want to do) or you can focus on the possible mistake (what you want to avoid). This tip is simple: Always focus on the positive move, not the negative one. For example, a golfer lining up a putt should tell herself, “Center the stroke,” not “Don’t pull this putt to the left.” A violinist faced with a difficult passage should tell himself, “Nail that A-flat,” not “Oh boy, I hope I don’t miss that A-flat.” Psychologists call this “positive framing,” and provide plentiful theories of how framing affects our subconscious mind. The point is, it always works better to reach for what you want to accomplish, not away from what you want to avoid.

On the importance of ‘grit’:

Recently, a University of Pennsylvania researcher named Angela Duckworth measured the influence of grit on twelve hundred first-year West Point cadets before they began a brutal summer training course called the Beast Barracks. Before the course began, she gave the cadets a brief test: seventeen questions that asked them to rate their own ability to stick to goals, to be motivated by failure, and to persist in the face of obstacles. It turned out that this test—which took about two minutes to complete—was uncannily accurate at predicting whether or not a cadet succeeded, far exceeding West Point’s complex set of predictive criteria, including IQ, psychological test results, grade-point average, and physical fitness. The grit test has since been used to predict success in schools, business, and a variety of other settings. Grit isn’t inborn. It’s developed, like a muscle, and that development starts with awareness. To take Duckworth’s test, do a computer search for “Grit Survey” (or go directly to www.authentichappiness.sas.upenn.edu/tests/SameAnswers/t.aspx?id=1246).

On the biological roots of learning, myelin:

A few other facts worth knowing: • Action is vital. Myelin doesn’t grow when you think about practicing. It grows when you actually practice—when you send electricity through your wires. • Myelin wraps—it doesn’t unwrap. Like a highway paving machine, myelination happens in one direction. Once a skill circuit is insulated, you can’t uninsulate it (except through age or disease). This is why habits are tough to break (see Tip #46). • You can add myelin throughout life. It arrives in a series of waves throughout childhood, creating critical learning periods. The net amount of myelin peaks around age fifty, but the myelin machinery keeps functioning into old age, which is why we can keep learning new things no matter what our age.

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