The Little Book of Talent

A condensed version of The Talent Code. You’ll learn the 52 principles of  talent acquisition. Very interesting and to the point. I highly recommend it, whether you have read The Talent Code or not.

Author: Daniel Coyle.

Date Finished: 31/01/2014

Here’s a link to the Amazon page.

The Basic Idea of Talent

While the underlying neuroscience is fascinating and complex, it all adds up to the basic truth: Small actions, repeated over time, transform us. As the master vocal coach Linda Septien put it, “This ain’t magic, and it ain’t rocket science. It’s about working hard, and working smart.”

Where Talent Begins

We are often taught that talent begins with genetic gifts—that the talented are able to effortlessly perform feats the rest of us can only dream about. This is false. 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.

Tip #1: Stare At Who You Want to Become

We each live with a “windshield” of people in front of us; one of the keys to igniting your motivation is to fill your windshield with vivid images of your future self, and to stare at them every day. Studies show that even a brief connection with a role model can vastly increase unconscious motivation.

Think of your windshield as an energy source for your brain. Use pictures (the walls of many talent hotbeds are cluttered with photos and posters of their stars) or, better, video. One idea: Bookmark a few YouTube videos, and watch them before you practice, or at night before you go to bed.

Tip #2: Spend Fifteen Minutes a Day Engraving the Skill on Your Brain

What’s the best way to begin to learn a new skill? Is it by listening to a teacher’s explanation? Reading an instructional book? Just leaping in and trying it out? Many hotbeds use an approach I call the engraving method. Basically, they watch the skill being performed, closely and with great intensity, over and over, until they build a high-definition mental blueprint.

Another example of engraving, which involves the ears instead of the eyes, is the Suzuki method for learning music. Each day, separate from their lessons, Suzuki students listen to a menu of songs, beginning with “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” and progressing by degrees to more complex tunes. Hearing the songs over and over (and over), engraves the songs in the students’s brains. The “listening practice” builds a strong, detailed mental map, a series of points from which the success or failure of each following attempt can be measured.

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.

Tip #3: Steal Without Apology

We are often told that talented people acquire their skill by following their “natural instincts.” This sounds nice, but in fact it is baloney. All improvement is about absorbing and applying new information, and the best source of information is top performers. So steal it.

Stealing has a long tradition in art, sports, and design, where it often goes by the name of “influence”.

Linda Septien, founder of the Septien School of Contemporary Music, a hotbed near Dallas that has produced millions of dollars in pop-music talent (including Demi Lovato, Ryan Cabrera, and Jessica Simpson), tells her students, “Sweetheart, you gotta steal like crazy. Look at every single performer better than you and see what they’ve got that you can use. Then make it your own.

When you steal, focus on specifics, not general impressions. Capture concrete facts.

Ask yourself:

  • What, exactly, are the critical moves here?
  • How do they perform those moves differently than I do?

Tip #4: Buy a Notebook

A high percentage of top performers keeps some form of daily performance journal.

What matters is not the precise form. What matters is that you write stuff down and reflect on it. Results from today. Ideas for tomorrow. Goals for next week. A notebook works like a map: It creates clarity.

Tip #5: Be Willing to Be Stupid

Feeling stupid is no fun. But being willing to be stupid—in other words, being willing to risk the emotional pain of making mistakes—is absolutely essential, because reaching, failing, and reaching again is the way your brain grows and forms new connections. When it comes to developing talent, remember, mistakes are not really mistakes—they are the guideposts you use to get better.

One way some places encourage “productive mistakes” is to establish rules that encourage people to make reaches that might otherwise feel strange and risky—in effect, nudging them into the sweet spot at the edge of their ability.

Whatever the strategy, the goal is always the same: to encourage reaching, and to reinterpret mistakes so that they’re not verdicts, but the information you use to navigate to the correct move.

Tip #6: Choose Spartan Over Luxorious

We love comfort. We love state-of-the-art practice facilities, oak-paneled corner offices, spotless locker rooms, and fluffy towels. Which is a shame, because luxury is a motivational narcotic: It signals our unconscious minds to give less effort. It whispers, Relax, you’ve made it.

The point of this tip is not moral; it’s neural. Simple, humble spaces help focus attention on the deep-practice task at hand: reaching and repeating and struggling. When given the choice between luxurious and spartan, choose spartan. Your unconscious mind will thank you.

Tip #7: Before You Start, Figure Out If It’s a Hard Skill or a Soft Skill

The first step toward building a skill is to figure out exactly what type of skill you’re building. Every skill falls into one of two categories: hard skills and soft skills.

Hard, high-precision skills are actions that are performed as correctly and consistently as possible, every time. They are skills that have one path to an ideal result; skills that you could imagine being performed by a reliable robot. Hard skills are about repeatable precision, and tend to be found in specialized pursuits, particularly physical ones.

Here, your goal is to build a skill that functions like a Swiss watch—reliable, exact, and performed the same way every time, automatically, without fail. Hard skills are about ABC: Always Being Consistent.

Soft, high-flexibility skills, on the other hand, are those that have many paths to a good result, not just one. These skills aren’t about doing the same thing perfectly every time, but rather about being agile and interactive; about instantly recognizing patterns as they unfold and making smart, timely choices. Soft skills tend to be found in broader, less-specialized pursuits, especially those that involve communication.

With these skills, we are not trying for Swiss-watch precision, but rather for the ability to quickly recognize a pattern or possibility, and to work past a complex set of obstacles. Soft skills are about the three Rs: Reading, Recognizing, and Reacting.

The point of this tip is that hard skills and soft skills are different (literally, they use different structures of circuits in your brain), and thus are developed through different methods of deep practice.

Begin by asking yourself which of these skills need to be absolutely 100-percent consistent every single time. Which need to be executed with machinelike precision? These are the hard skills.

Then ask yourself, which skills need to be flexible, and variable, and depend on the situation? Which depend on instantly recognizing patterns and selecting one optimal choice? These are the soft skills.

If you aren’t sure if the skill is hard or soft, here’s a quick litmus test: Is a teacher or coach usually involved in the early stages? If the answer is yes, then it’s likely a hard skill. If it’s no, then it’s a soft skill.

Tip #8: To Build Hard Skills, Work Like a Careful Carpenter

To develop reliable hard skills, you need to connect the right wires in your brain. In this, it helps to be careful, slow, and keenly attuned to errors. To work like a careful carpenter.

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.

Tip #9: To Build Soft Skills, Play Like a Skateboarder

Soft skills catch our eye because they are beautiful.

These talents appear utterly magical and unique. In fact they are the result of super-fast brain software recognizing patterns and responding in just the right way.

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, always seeking new ways to challenge yourself.

Even the most creative skills—especially the most creative skills—require long periods of clumsiness.

When you practice a soft skill, focus on making a high number of varied reps, and on getting clear feedback. Don’t worry too much about making errors—the important thing is to explore. Soft skills are often more fun to practice, but they’re also tougher because they demand that you coach yourself. After each session ask yourself, What worked? What didn’t? And why.

Tip #10: Honor the Hard Skills

As you probably recognize, most talents are not exclusively hard skills or soft skills, but rather a combination of the two.

The point of this tip is simple: Prioritize the hard skills because in the long run they’re more important to your talent.

These performers don’t say to themselves, “Hey, I’m one of the most talented people in the world—shouldn’t I be doing something more challenging?” They resist the temptation of complexity and work on the task of honing and maintaining their hard skills, because those form—quite literally—the foundation of everything else.

One way to keep this idea in mind is to picture your talent as a big oak tree—a massive, thick trunk of hard skills with a towering canopy of flexible soft skills up above. First build the trunk. Then work on the branches.

Tip #11: Don’t Fall for the Prodigy Myth

Most of us grow up being taught that talent is an inheritance, like brown hair or blue eyes. Therefore, we presume that the surest sign of talent is early, instant, effortless success, i.e., being a prodigy. In fact, a well-established body of research shows that that assumption is false. Early success turns out to be a weak predictor of long-term success.

One theory, put forth by Dr. Carol Dweck of Stanford University, is that the praise and attention prodigies receive lead them to instinctively protect their “magical” status by taking fewer risks, which eventually slows their learning.

The talent hotbeds are not built on identifying talent, but on constructing it, day by day. They are not overly impressed by precociousness and do not pretend to know who will succeed.

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.

Tip #12: Five Ways to Pick a High-Quality Teacher or Coach

Great teachers, coaches, and mentors, like any rare species, can be identified by a few characteristic traits. The following rules are designed to help you sort through the candidates and make the best choice for yourself.

1) Avoid Someone Who Reminds You of a Courteous Waiter

This species of teacher/​coach/​mentor is increasingly abundant in our world: one who focuses his efforts on keeping you comfortable and happy, on making things go smoothly, with a minimum of effort. This is the kind of person who covers a lot of material in a short time, smiles a lot, and says things like, “Don’t worry, no problem, we can take care of that later.

2) Seek Someone Who Scares You a Little

In contrast to encounters with courteous waiters, encounters with great teachers/​coaches/​mentors tend to be filled with unfamiliar emotion: feelings of respect, admiration, and, often, a shiver of fear. This is a good sign. Look for someone who:

  • Watches you closely: He is interested in figuring you out—what you want, where you’re coming from, what motivates you.
  • Is action-oriented: She often won’t want to spend a lot of time chatting—instead, she’ll want to jump into a few activities immediately, so she can get a feel for you and vice versa.
  • Is honest, sometimes unnervingly so: He will tell you the truth about your performance in clear language. This stings at first. But you’ll come to see that it’s not personal—it’s the information you can use to get better.

3) Seek Someone Who Gives Short, Clear Directions

Most great teachers/​coaches/​mentors do not give long-winded speeches. They do not give sermons or long lectures. Instead, they give short, unmistakably clear directions; they guide you to a target.

4) Seek Someone Who Loves Teaching Fundamentals

Great teachers will often spend entire practice sessions on one seemingly small fundamental. 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.

5) Other Things Being Equal, Pick the Older Person

Teaching is like any other talent: It takes time to grow. This is why so many hotbeds are led by people in their sixties and seventies. Great teachers are first and foremost learners, who improve their skills with each passing year. That’s not to say there aren’t any good teachers under thirty—there are. Nor is it to say that every coach with gray hair is a genius—they’re not. But other things being equal, go with someone older.

Improving Skills

If I had to sum up the difference between people in the talent hotbeds and people everywhere else in one sentence, it would be this:
People in the hotbeds have a different relationship with practicing.

Many of us view practice as necessary drudgery, the equivalent of being forced to eat your vegetables, far less important or interesting than the big game or the big performance. But in the talent hotbeds I visited, practice was the big game, the center of their world, the main focus of their daily lives. This approach succeeds because over time, practice is transformative, if it’s the right kind of practice. Deep practice.

The key to deep practice is to reach. This means to stretch yourself slightly beyond your current ability, spending time in the zone of difficulty called the sweet spot. It means embracing the power of repetition, so the action becomes fast and automatic. It means creating a practice space that enables you to reach and repeat, stay engaged, and improve your skills over time.

Tip #13: Find the Sweet Spot

There is a place, right on the edge of your ability, where you learn best and fastest. It’s called the sweet spot. Here’s how to find it.

[Comfort Zone]

Sensations: Ease, effortlessness. You’re working, but not reaching or struggling.
Percentage of Successful Attempts: 80 percent and above.

[Sweet Spot]

Sensations: Frustration, difficulty, alertness to errors. You’re fully engaged in an intense struggle—as if you’re stretching with all your might for a nearly unreachable goal, brushing it with your fingertips, then reaching again.
Percentage of Successful Attempts: 50–80 percent.

[Survival Zone]

Sensations: Confusion, desperation. You’re overmatched: scrambling, thrashing, and guessing. You guess right sometimes, but it’s mostly luck.
Percentage of Successful Attempts: Below 50 percent.

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.

Tip #14: Take Off Your Watch

Deep practice is not measured in minutes or hours, but in the number of high-quality reaches and repetitions you make—basically, how many new connections you form in your brain.

Instead of counting minutes or hours, count reaches and reps. Instead of saying, “I’m going to practice piano for twenty minutes,” tell yourself, “I’m going to do five intensive reps of that new song.

Tip #15: Break Every Move Down Into Chunks

Every skill is built out of smaller pieces—what scientists call chunks.

Chunks are to skill what letters of the alphabet are to language. Alone, each is nearly useless, but when combined into bigger chunks (words), and when those chunks are combined into still bigger things (sentences, paragraphs), they can build something complex and beautiful.

To begin chunking, first engrave the blueprint of the skill on your mind (see Tip #2). Then ask yourself:

1) What is the smallest single element of this skill that I can master?

2) What other chunks link to that chunk?

Practice one chunk by itself until you’ve mastered it—then connect more chunks, one by one, exactly as you would combine letters to form a word. Then combine those chunks into still bigger chunks. And so on.

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.

Tip #16: Each Day, Try to Build One Perfect Chunk

The real goal isn’t practice; it’s progress. As John Wooden put it, “Never mistake mere activity for accomplishment.”

One useful method is to set a daily SAP: smallest achievable perfection. In this technique, you pick a single chunk that you can perfect—not just improve, not just “work on,” but get 100 percent consistently correct.

The point is to take the time to aim at a small, defined target, and then put all your effort toward hitting it.

After all, you aren’t built to be transformed in a single day. You are built to improve little by little, connection by connection, rep by rep. As Wooden also said, “Don’t look for the big, quick improvement. Seek the small improvement one day at a time. That’s the only way it happens—and when it happens, it lasts.

Tip #17: Embrace Struggle

Deep practice has a telltale emotional flavor, a feeling that can be summed up in one word: “struggle.”

Most of us instinctively avoid struggle, because it’s uncomfortable. It feels like failure. However, when it comes to developing your talent, struggle isn’t an option—it’s a biological necessity. This might sound strange, but it’s the way evolution has built us. The struggle and frustration you feel at the edges of your abilities—that uncomfortable burn of “almost, almost”—is the sensation of constructing new neural connections.

Tip #18: Choose Five Minutes a Day Over an Hour a Week

With deep practice, small daily practice “snacks” are more effective than once-a-week practice binges. The reason has to do with the way our brains grow—incrementally, a little each day, even as we sleep. Daily practice, even for five minutes, nourishes this process, while more occasional practice forces your brain to play catch-up.

The other advantage of practicing daily is that it becomes a habit. The act of practicing—making time to do it, doing it well—can be thought of as a skill in itself, perhaps the most important skill of all. Give it time. According to research, establishing a new habit takes about thirty days.

Tip #19: Don’t Do “Drills”. Instead, Play Small, Addictive Games

This tip is about the way you think about your practice. The term “drill” evokes a sense of drudgery and meaninglessness. It’s mechanical, repetitive, and boring—as the saying goes, drill and kill. Games, on the other hand, are precisely the opposite. They mean fun, connectedness, and passion. And because of that, skills improve faster when they’re looked at this way.

Good coaches share a knack for transforming the most mundane activities—especially the most mundane activities—into games. The governing principle is this: If it can be counted, it can be turned into a game. Track your progress, and see how many points you score over a week. The following week, try to score more.

Tip #20: Practice Alone

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.

As the North Carolina women’s soccer coach Anson Dorrance said, “The vision of a champion is someone who is bent over, drenched in sweat, at the point of exhaustion, when no one else is watching.”

Tip #21: Think in Images

The images are far easier to grasp, recall, and perform. This is because your brain spent millions of years evolving to register images more vividly and memorably than abstract ideas.

Whenever possible, create a vivid image for each chunk you want to learn. The images don’t have to be elaborate, just easy to see and feel.

Tip #22: Pay Attention Immediately After You Make a Mistake

Most of us are allergic to mistakes. When we make one, our every instinct urges us to look away, ignore it, and pretend it didn’t happen. This is not good, because as we’ve seen, mistakes are our guideposts for improvement. Brain-scan studies reveal a vital instant, 0.25 seconds after a mistake is made, in which people do one of two things—they look hard at the mistake or they ignore it. People who pay deeper attention to an error learn significantly more than those who ignore it.

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.

Tip #23: Visualize the Wires of Your Brain Forming New Connections

When you go to the sweet spot on the edge of your ability and reach beyond it, you are forming and strengthening new connections in your brain. Mistakes aren’t really mistakes, then—they’re the information you use to build the right links. The more you pay attention to mistakes and fix them, the more of the right connections you’ll be building inside your brain. Visualizing this process as it happens helps you reinterpret mistakes as what they actually are: tools for building skill.

Tip #24: Visualize the Wires of Your Brain Getting Faster

Tip #25: Shrink the Space

Smaller practice spaces can deepen practice when they are used to increase the number and intensity of the reps and clarify the goal.

Ask yourself: What’s the minimum space needed to make these reaches and reps? Where is extra space hindering fast and easy communication?

Tip #26: Slow It Down (Even Slower than You Think)

When we learn how to do something new, our immediate urge is to do it again, faster. 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.

Tip #27: Close Your Eyes

One of the quickest ways to deepen practice is also one of the simplest: Close your eyes.

Closing your eyes is a swift way to nudge you to the edges of your ability, to get you into your sweet spot. It sweeps away distraction and engages your other senses to provide new feedback. It helps you engrave the blueprint of a task on your brain by making even a familiar skill seem strange and fresh.

Tip #29: When You Get It Right, Mark the Spot

One of the most fulfilling moments of a practice session is when you have your first perfect rep. When this happens, freeze. Rewind the mental tape and play the move again in your mind. Memorize the feeling, the rhythm, the physical and mental sensations. The point is to mark this moment—this is the spot where you want to go again and again. This is not the finish—it’s the new starting line for perfecting the skill until it becomes automatic. As Kimberly Meier-Sims of the Sato Center for Suzuki Studies says, “Practice begins when you get it right.

Tip #30: Take a Nap

Tip #31: To Learn a New Move, Exaggerate It

To learn a new move, exaggerate it. If the move calls for you to lift your knees, lift them to the ceiling. If it calls for you to press hard on the guitar strings, press with all your might. If it calls for you to emphasize a point while speaking in public, emphasize with theatricality. Don’t be halfhearted. You can always dial back later. Go too far so you can feel the outer edges of the move, and then work on building the skill with precision.

Tip #32: Make Positive Reaches

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.

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.

Tip #33: To Learn From a Book, Close the Book

Learning is reaching. Passively reading a book—a relatively effortless process, letting the words wash over you like a warm bath—doesn’t put you in the sweet spot. Less reaching equals less learning.

On the other hand, closing the book and writing a summary forces you to figure out the key points (one set of reaches), process and organize those ideas so they make sense (more reaches), and write them on the page (still more reaches, along with repetition). The equation is always the same: More reaching equals more learning.

Tip #34: Use the Sandwich Technique

Deep practice is about finding and fixing mistakes, so the question naturally pops up: What’s the best way to make sure you don’t repeat mistakes? One way is to employ the sandwich technique. It goes like this:

  1. Make the correct move.
  2. Make the incorrect move.
  3. Make the correct move again.

The goal is to reinforce the correct move and to put a spotlight on the mistake, preventing it from slipping past undetected and becoming wired into your circuitry.

Tip #35: Use the 3 x 10 Technique

To learn something most effectively, practice it three times, with ten-minute breaks between each rep. “I apply this to learning all the time in my own life, and it works,” Fields says. “For example, in mastering a difficult piece of music on the guitar, I practice, then I do something else for ten minutes, then I practice again [and so on].”

Tip #36: Invent Daily Tests

At Meadowmount, the music school, teachers will provide an impromptu test by tucking a five-dollar bill inside a student’s cello or violin—if he plays the song perfectly, he wins the money. Robert Lansdorp, the coach of former tennis champions Pete Sampras, Tracy Austin, and Lindsay Davenport, uses a similar game with ten-dollar bills tucked inside small orange cones—hit the cone, win the money.

To invent a good test, ask yourself: What’s one key element of this skill? How can I isolate my accuracy or reliability, and measure it? How can I make it fun, quick, and repeatable, so I can track my progress.

Tip #37: To Choose the Best Practice Method, Use the R.E.P.S. Gauge

The biggest problem in choosing a practice strategy is not that there are too few options, but that there are too many. How do you identify the best methods? This tip provides a way to measure practice effectiveness. It’s called the R.E.P.S. gauge. Each letter stands for a key element of deep practice.

R: Reaching and Repeating
E: Engagement
P: Purposefulness
S: Strong, Speedy Feedback.

Element 1: Reaching and Repeating. Does the practice have you operating on the edge of your ability, reaching and repeating.

Element 2: Engagement. Is the practice immersive? Does it command your attention? Does it use emotion to propel you toward a goal.

Element 3: Purposefulness. Does the task directly connect to the skill you want to build.

Element 4: Strong, Speedy Feedback. Does the learner receive a stream of accurate information about his performance—where he succeeded and where he made mistakes.

The idea of this gauge is simple: When given a choice between two practice methods, or when you’re inventing a new test or game, pick the one that maximizes these four qualities, the one with the most R.E.P.S. The larger lesson here is to pay attention to the design of your practice. Small changes in method can create large increases in learning velocity.

Tip #38: Stop Before You’re Exhausted

When it comes to learning, the science is clear: Exhaustion is the enemy. Fatigue slows brains. It triggers errors, lessens concentration, and leads to shortcuts that create bad habits. It’s no coincidence that most talent hotbeds put a premium on practicing when people are fresh, usually in the morning, if possible. When exhaustion creeps in, it’s time to quit.

Tip #39: Practice Immediately After Performance

The previous tip was about the importance of practicing when you’re fresh. This tip is about a different kind of freshness, which comes in the moment just after a performance, game, or competition. At that moment, practicing is probably the last thing you want to do. But it’s the first thing you should do, if you’re not too worn out, because it helps you target your weak points and fix them.

Tip #40: Just Before Sleep, Watch a Mental Movie

This is a useful habit I’ve heard about from dozens of top performers, ranging from surgeons to athletes to comedians. Just before falling asleep, they play a movie of their idealized performance in their heads. A wide body of research supports this idea, linking visualization to improved performance, motivation, mental toughness, and confidence. Treat it as a way to rev the engine of your unconscious mind, so it spends more time churning toward your goals.

Tip #41: End On a Positive Note

A practice session should end like a good meal—with a small, sweet reward. It could be playing a favorite game or it could be more literal.

Tip #42: Six Ways To Be a Better Teacher or Coach

Sooner or later, no matter who you are, you’ll find yourself being a teacher, a coach, or a mentor. It might happen at home, at work, or on the playing field, but when it happens, it helps to have a few basic skills. Here, from the master coaches I’ve researched, are six pieces of advice.

1) Use the First Few Seconds to Connect on an Emotional Level

Effective teaching is built on trust, and when it comes to trust, we humans are consistent: We decide if we’re going to trust someone in the first few seconds of the interaction. This is why good teachers use the first few seconds to connect on an emotional level, especially on the first encounter. There are lots of tools for making this connection—eye contact, body language, empathy, and humor being some of the most effective—but whatever you use, make sure you prioritize that connection above all else. Before you can teach, you have to show that you care.

2) Avoid Giving Long Speeches—Instead, Deliver Vivid Chunks of Information

The question is not what big important message you can deliver. The question is, what vivid, concise message can you deliver right now that will guide her toward making the right reach?

3) Be Allergic to Mushy Language

One of the most common mistakes teachers and coaches make is using mushy, imprecise language.

All good teaching follows the same blueprint: Try this concrete thing. Now try this concrete thing. Now try combining them into this concrete thing. Communicate with precise nouns and numbers—things you can see and touch and measure—and avoid adjectives and adverbs, which don’t tell you precisely what to do.

4) Make a Scorecard for Learning

Pick a metric that measures the skill you want to develop, and start keeping track of it. Use that measure to motivate and orient your learners. As a saying goes, “You are what you count.”

5) Maximize “Reachfulness”

Reachfulness is the essence of learning. It happens when the learner is leaning forward, stretching, struggling, and improving. The point of this rule is that good teachers/​coaches/​mentors find ways to design environments that tip people away from passivity and toward reachful action.

The larger point is that being a good teacher means thinking like a designer. Ask yourself: What kind of space will create the most reachful environment? How can you replace moments of passivity with moments of active learning?

6) Aim to Create Independent Learners

Your long-term goal as a teacher, coach, or mentor is to help your learners improve so much that they no longer need you. To do this, avoid becoming the center of attention. Aim instead to create an environment where people can keep reaching on their own. Whenever possible, step away and create moments of independence.

Tip #43: Embrace Repetition

Repetition has a bad reputation. We tend to think of it as dull and uninspiring. But this perception is titanically wrong. Repetition is the single most powerful lever we have to improve our skills, because it uses the built-in mechanism for making the wires of our brains faster and more accurate.

Embracing repetition means changing your mindset; instead of viewing it as a chore, view it as your most powerful tool. As the martial artist and actor Bruce Lee said, “I fear not the man who has practiced ten thousand kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick ten thousand times.”

Tip #44: Have a Blue-Collar Mind-Set

From a distance, top performers seem to live charmed, cushy lives. When you look closer, however, you’ll find that they spend vast portions of their life intensively practicing their craft. Their mind-set is not entitled or arrogant; it’s 100-percent blue collar: They get up in the morning and go to work every day, whether they feel like it or not.

As the artist Chuck Close says, “Inspiration is for amateurs.”

Tip #45: For Every Hour of Competition, Spend Five Hours Practicing

A five-to-one ratio of practice time to performance time is a good starting point; ten to one is even better.

Tip #46: Don’t Waste Time Trying to Break Bad Habits—Instead, Build New Ones

When it comes to dealing with bad habits, many of us try to attack the problem head-on, by trying to break the habit. This tactic, of course, doesn’t work, and we’re left with the old truth—habits are tough to break. The blame lies with our brains. While they are really good at building circuits, they are awful at unbuilding them. Try as you might to break it, the bad habit is still up there, wired into your brain, waiting patiently for a chance to be used.

The solution is to ignore the bad habit and put your energy toward building a new habit that will override the old one.

To build new habits, start slowly. Expect to feel stupid and clumsy and frustrated at first—after all, the new wires haven’t been built yet, and your brain still wants to follow the old pattern. Build the new habit by gradually increasing the difficulty, little by little. It takes time, but it’s the only way new habits grow.

Tip #47: To Learn It More Deeply, Teach It

The saying “Those who can’t do, teach” should be rewritten as “Doers who teach do better.”

Tip #48: Give a New Skill a Minimum of Eight Weeks

When it comes to growing new skills, eight weeks seems to be an important threshold. It’s the length of many top-level training programs around the world, from the Navy SEALs’ physical-conditioning program to the Meadowmount School of Music program to the clinics of the Bolshoi Ballet to the mission training for the Mercury astronauts.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that you can be proficient in any skill in eight weeks. Rather, it underlines two more basic points: 1) Constructing and honing neural circuitry takes time, no matter who you are; and 2) Resilience and grit are vital tools, particularly in the early phases of learning. Don’t make judgments too early. Keep at it, even if you don’t feel immediate improvement. Give your talent (that is, your brain) the time it needs to grow.

Tip #49: When You Get Stuck, Make a Shift

We all know the feeling. You start out in a new skill, you progress swiftly for a while, and then all of a sudden … you stop. Those are called plateaus.

A plateau happens when your brain achieves a level of automaticity; in other words, when you can perform a skill on autopilot, without conscious thought. Our brains love autopilot, because in most situations it’s pretty handy. It lets us chew gum and walk and ride bikes without having to think about it, freeing our brains for more important tasks. When it comes to developing talent, however, autopilot is the enemy, because it creates plateaus.

The best way past a plateau is to jostle yourself beyond it; to change your practice method so you disrupt your autopilot and rebuild a faster, better circuit. One way to do this is to speed things up—to force yourself to do the task faster than you normally would. Or you can slow things down—going so slowly that you highlight previously undetected mistakes. Or you can do the task in reverse order, turn it inside out or upside down. It doesn’t matter which technique you use, as long as you find a way to knock yourself out of autopilot and into your sweet spot.

Tip #50: Cultiave Your Grit

Grit is that mix of passion, perseverance, and self-discipline that keeps us moving forward in spite of obstacles. It’s not flashy, and that’s precisely the point. In a world in which we’re frequently distracted by sparkly displays of skill, grit makes the difference in the long run.

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). Take the test and use your score as a way to reflect on the role of this quality in your life. For instance, when you hit an obstacle, how do you react? Do you tend to focus on a long-term goal, or move from interest to interest? What are you seeking in the long run? Begin to pay attention to places in your life where you’ve got grit, and celebrate them in yourself and others.

Tip #51: Keep Your Big Goals Secret

While it’s natural and oh so tempting to want to announce big goals, it’s smarter to keep them to yourself.

Telling others about your big goals makes them less likely to happen, because it creates an unconscious payoff—tricking our brains into thinking we’ve already accomplished the goal. Keeping our big goals to ourselves is one of the smartest goals we can set.

Tip #52: Think Like a Gardener, Work Like a Carpenter

We all want to improve our skills quickly—today, if not sooner. But the truth is, talent grows slowly. You would not criticize a seedling because it was not yet a tall oak tree; nor should you get upset because your skill circuitry is in the growth stage. Instead, build it with daily deep practice.

To do this, it helps to “think like a gardener and work like a carpenter.” I heard this saying at Spartak. Think patiently, without judgment. Work steadily, strategically, knowing that each piece connects to a larger whole.”

The New Science of Talent Development

Much of the new research about talent revolves around the brain, specifically a substance called myelin. Here’s what you need to know.

Myelin is an insulator (you might recall the term “myelin sheath” from biology class). This refers to its function of wrapping the wires of our brain in exactly the same way that electrical tape wraps around an electrical wire: It makes the signal move faster and prevents it from leaking out. For the past hundred years or so, scientists considered myelin and its associated cells to be inert. After all, it looked like insulation, and it didn’t appear to react to anything.

Except the early scientists were wrong. It turns out that myelin does react—it grows in response to electrical activity, i.e., practice. In fact, studies show that myelin grows in proportion to the hours spent in practice. It’s a simple system, and can be thought of this way: Every time you perform a rep, your brain adds another layer of myelin to those particular wires. The more you practice, the more layers of myelin you earn, the more quickly and accurately the signal travels, and the more skill you acquire.

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.