Lead International

Growing Your Talent

January 25th, 2011 by ITAdmin

Growing Your Talent

Steve Collins

©2009 Lead International

Some times my reading list reminds me of the Bill Murray film, Groundhog Day .

Murray’s character relives the same day over and over and over and in the process is able to change his behaviors and attitudes. This spring, I have written about the keys to success identified by Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers and Geoff Colvin in Talent is Overrated. Both highlighted the need for consistent practice and significant experiences to achieve world class status.

Daniel Coyle has added his research and voice to the argument with his book, The Talent Code – Greatness isn’t Born. It’s Grown. Here’s how.  Like Gladwell and Colvin, Coyle’s mission is move our concept of success beyond a mysterious blessing bestowed at birth to an intentional path we can carve for ourselves.  Coyle breaks down the successful formula into 1. Deep Practice  2. Ignition 3.Master Coaching.  In Colvin’s book, he focused on “Deliberate practice, passion, and continuous feedback.”  An earlier article on Gladwell highlighted his findings on 10,000 hours of practice or experience and the need for passion. Starting to feel the Groundhog Day effect? However, just like in the movie, each repeated encounter with the concept brings us closer to changing our behavior.

Coyle provides a new dimension to the discussion with a neurological factor called myelin.  While our neurons and synapses are still vital to developing our skills and talent, neurologists are beginning to talk about the insulation that wraps the nerve fibers (myelin) as the key player.  Obviously going too deep in a discussion on brain anatomy will likely confuse the writer and the reader, but the compelling part of Coyle’s presentation is that “timing is everything.” This is especially true in performance whether it is music, sports, communication, or decision making.  The greater the insulation (myelin wrap) the stronger and faster the electric signal travels through the chain of neurons. The more that particular circuit gets fired, the more myelin wrap, and the more optimal the circuit.  With deliberate or deep practice, the right circuits are getting fired repeatedly forming the insulation where it leads to the desired benefit. Coyle sums it up, “skill is myelin insulation that wraps neural circuits and that grows according to certain signals.” He adds, “It is not that practice makes perfect, it is practice makes myelin.”

Coyle argues that the most effective way to build a good circuit is to fire it, then correct the mistakes, and continue to repeat the process. Similar to Colvin’s argument, practice is not particularly pleasant. Repeated firing, especially making adjustments to overcome mistakes is not the most fun. The good news is that with intentional, focused training you can accomplish your training goal in much less time than others who are just putting in time, However, that doesn’t mean Coyle has discovered a short cut to greatness. His equation like Gladwell’s and Colvin’s includes 10,000 hours. And that is not 10,000 hours of scrimmaging or playing your favorite musical pieces.

Coyle offers three rules to deep practice. First, you have to think in chunks or a small set of activities that when combined make up the skill. To use the chunk approach, you first have to see the whole so you get a feel for what you are going to be imitating. Then you break it down into the bite size pieces that can be memorized and then you can begin to link together the chunks. All this is done in slow motion. Apparently, slowing things down allows you to attend to the errors and to develop a deep learning of the fundamental process. Not surprisingly, rule two is to repeat it.  Most world class experts can only “deep practice” between three and five hours a day because of the physical and mental energy that it requires.

Rule Three is “Learn to Feel It.” Deep practice is the opposite of being on auto pilot and the practice time passing by effortlessly. Martha Graham calls it, “divine dissatisfaction.” This doesn’t mean that practice becomes the worst time of the day.  Initially, it may feel that way, but for those who really move into the deep practice phase, an intensity develops where reaching for next wrung offers the needed reward.

The list of world class achievers who lacked passion for their endeavor has to be pretty short. Coyle identifies a couple of interesting sources for what he calls “ignition.” One is seeing someone similar who has achieved that world class status we desire. Coyle’s examples range from South Korean golfers and Russian tennis players who rose to the top of their professions after one of their own broke through to the top.  Coyle notes that after the break through example, the talent boom usually hits a few years later after the required time for deep practice has taken effect.

Another influence on passion relates to the individual’s initial perception of potential and commitment. Coyle sites the example of beginning music students who were asked before their first lesion how long they planned to play the instrument. When the responses were measured, there was a strong correlation between performance time and how long they thought they would play the instrument. Interestingly, the difference was not reflected in the amount of practice time but in performance. With the same amount of practice time, the group with a longer term outlook outperformed the shorter term outlook by 400 percent. Starting out with some sense of direction and purpose plays a decisive role.  Coyle argues that this passion is really a reaction to a number of primal and environmental cues like seeing other succeed and believing you can too.  Environmental factors can come in different shapes and sizes. Coyle cites one study that shows a disproportionate number of world leaders lost at least one parent at an early age. One explanation is that losing a parent sent the message you are not safe and therefore you have to make your world different. Coyle added his observation that a disproportionate number of world class sprinters were younger siblings who grew up receiving the primal cue, “you’re behind – keep up. Obviously what creates that passion can be a variety of influences but the important thing is that the passion switch has to be turned on.

As I read, Coyle’s book I wondered how these findings might have influenced me 35 or 40 years ago, as I aspired to be a world class athlete. Could deep practice have overcome what I have always blamed on a lack of natural athletic talent? It is still hard to picture any amount of practice enabling me to jump like Michael Jordan.  I do think being intentional and continuous in our improvement process should apply to any endeavor at any age.  However, I was pleased when I reached the third element of Coyle’s formula, Master Coaching. This seemed a little closer to my stage in life. Coyle describes these master coaches not as the traditional great leader of commanding presences but rather as “talent whispers.” They listened more than they spoke, avoided motivational speeches, customized their message and approach, and offered small targeted commands for improvement.

Colye cited the work of two educational researchers who followed legendary basketball coach John Wooden through a season of practices and games. They were initially shocked to discover that Wooden spent little time on motivational speeches or praising and punishing but rather providing targeted information that allowed his players to practice a small element, receive feedback on any errors and repeat again. Their discovery was that Wooden basically put his players through “deep practice” every chance he had. This meant he planned his practices to the minute and knew exactly how to customize his instructions to meet the individual player’s needs.  However, it turns out it being a master coach is not just about being a master at deep practice. Coyle demonstrates that master coaches also have to turn on the passion switch. He cites one study that shows that most world class performers do not start their journey to greatness with a highly regarded professional teacher. So, while that teacher may not bring John Wooden’s deep practice skills, they do create and flame an enduring passion. Building those all important myelin circuits requires both deep practice and ignition.

Like Gladwell’s and Colvin’s book, Coyle’s is interesting and convincing. While he does spend a lot of time detailing the kind of world class performers in music and sports we all dreamed of being as children, his formula also applies to the more mundane areas of behavioral change. Continuing to spend time in our comfort zone and call it practice doesn’t really bring about change. And change doesn’t happen without passion (ignition) and usually doesn’t happen without the support and feedback of others like a masterful coach.  Come to think of it, Bill Murray’s character in Groundhog Day finally ended up breaking the cycle of living the same day through a combination of deep practice and ignition. If he had a master coach as well, he might have broken the cycle much earlier.

Leave a Reply