Month: April 2009

Abraham Lincoln, Deep Practicing Guy

More than just rail-splittingMore than just rail-splitting

It’s one of the all-time talent mysteries: how did a poor, uneducated kid from the dirt farms of Kentucky and Illinois grow up to become one of the most skilled, wise, empathetic, eloquent, brilliant communicators in the history of the world?

A good question, and I think we see some of the answer in Lincoln’s youth.  As a kid (six or seven), Lincoln would spend his evenings intently watching his father trade tales with visitors and neighbors. Each night, the boy lay awake, replaying the stories he’d heard. From Team of Rivals, by Doris Kearns Goodwin (which is terrific, btw).

“Unable to sleep, [Lincoln] would reformulate the conversations until, as he recalled, ‘I had put in in language plain enough, as I thought, for any boy I knew to comprehend.’ The following day, he would climb onto the tree stump or log that served as an impromptu stage and mesmerize his own circle of young listeners.”

Lincoln was not simply “learning” in the conventional loose sense of the word. He’s doing something much more powerful. He was building a neural map—a skill circuit. He was absorbing ideas, distilling them to their essence, translating them into a new form, then finally delivering them in a performance. Each step of the way, he was firing skill circuits, reaching, making connections and repeating. Sound familiar?

I dimly remember reading something about how a teenage Ben Franklin trained himself to be an essayist by rewriting famous essays in his own words– does that ring a bell with anyone?  (I’d remember myself, but apparently I didn’t deep practice enough.)

Decoding Funtwo (Guitar Superhero)

Here’s Funtwo (real name Jeong-Hyun Lim), the 25-year-old South Korean guitar virtuoso whose version of Pachelbel’s Canon has been viewed 58 million times on YouTube.

I love this video for two reasons: 1) it rocks; 2)  the mindset behind it. You would assume that Funtwo – whose playing has been compared to Hendrix and Django Reinhardt—would possess a little bravado. But it’s the opposite.

In fact, as Funtwo makes clear in this NY Times article by Virginia Heffernan, the very reason he posted it was to get suggestions on the mistakes he was making (that’s also one of the reasons he didn’t show his face). “I think play is more significant than appearance,” he said. “Therefore I want the others to focus on my fingering and sound.”

He’s still that way. “I am always thinking that I’m not that good,” Funtwo said “…Some said my vibrato was quite sloppy. And I agree that so these days I’m doing my  best to improve my vibrato skill.”

The conventional way to interpret Funtwo’s mindset would be to draw a moral lesson: to point out that Funtwo is a humble, virtuous guy. But in this case the lesson isn’t just moral—it’s neural. Funtwo’s mindset – attuned to errors, ever-reaching—is precisely the mindset that grows and hones skill circuits.

Decoding Danny MacAskill (Biker)

Meet 23-year-old Danny MacAskill of Edinburgh, Scotland. He is, as one commentator put it, ridonkulously talented. The sheer creativity is off the charts. (Who else would do the ride-atop-the-spiky fence thing?)

What’s cooler is to think about how MacAskill built those circuits.  

We’re seeing the result of 12 years of hard, deep practice (see this BBC article for details). MacAskill practiced several hours each day (10,000 hours, anyone?). Most of all, however, this kid is extremely skilled at persistence.

That sounds weird–to be skilled at persistence. But consider this: for the opening trick–the ride along the spiky fence–MacAskill practiced for eight hours before he got it right. Eight hours.

How many people would do that? You’d think after seven hours and 45 minutes, most of us might have said, “You know, this one might not be possible after all.”) Persistence is a skill circuit like any other–one that MacAskill has practiced a lot.  

This reminds me of the time I was about seven and my brothers and I built a plywood jump at the bottom of our driveway. I had a red Schwinn with a sparkly silver seat–hot stuff. The first jump I caught maybe four whole inches of air, and was pretty sure I was going to be the next Evel Knievel. The second jump I biffed pretty bad, nearly got hit by a car, and then we decided to play in the backyard instead. Persistently, I’m sure.

Voice of an Angel

Good article here from the Sunday Times that gives some useful background on the world’s newest and greatest talent discovery. The takeaway: Susan Boyle has been singing a loo-oong time, and has worked extremely hard to develop her voice (see this article for more on that). I was really interested in the part where her coach said, “She always had a vision of herself as a singer.” It sounds like such a small thing — but it’s HUGE. 

We can hear the journey in this early trackCry Me a River, reportedly from ten years ago. This performance to many ears is even better than what she sang on “Britain’s Got Talent” – shows that she’s got some serious range as a performer and no small motivation. Singing to a cat as a talent-accelerator: who knew?


A spinoff from a textile firm that has evolved into the largest, most successful car company in the world. Toyota is built on the principles of kaizen, which means “continuous improvement”-and which is a synonym for deep practice. Like any talent hotbed, Toyota makes those improvements through its willingness to stop, attend, and fix the tiniest error. In this light, their entire assembly line can be thought of as a single giant skill circuit, continually honed through deep practice.

The Business of Growing Skill

In this report, you’ll hear a familiar business story about a lean, successful Japanese company eating Detroit’s lunch. But when you look beneath the cliches, you’ll see the elements that make Toyota truly unique-and make them like Spartak, KIPP, Meadowmount, and the rest of the talent hotbeds.

For example, at two minutes, when the Toyota executive highlights their “culture of respect.” True enough, but the larger point is that the respect has a deeper goal: to create a free flow of information. To fix errors means you need to listen to everyone-especially line workers, who are the source of many of the company’s improvements. It’s estimated that each year every Toyota factory implements about a thousand new suggestions into its assembly line-deep practice in excelsis.

Check out the mock assembly line at 3:10 – workers are training by putting toy trucks into bins. It seems dangerously close to a scene from “The Office,” but look at the way they focus on it, and moreover the way they talk about it. I know they’re bound to say nice things about their company because the cameras are rolling, but don’t the workers seem unusually engaged? Especially the cheerful guy at 3:35 in the red shirt who talks about kaizen. That happiness on his face isn’t accidental-it’s part of the enthusiasm at the heart of any talent hotbed.


  • Eagerness to stop and fix. Toyota doesn’t just pay attention to errors-they seek them out, and celebrate the process of fixing them. Each factory features an andon-a pull-cord that stops the assembly line. Everyone at Toyota has the authority to pull the andon in order to stop and fix a problem, no matter how small.  
  • Raising the bar. Toyota president Katsuaki Watanabe has said that his goal is to build a car that does not hurt anyone and that cleans the air as it runs (talk about continual improvement!). This mindset allows Toyota to think long-term, and thus to adapt well to the current downturn. For instance, the company just worked with steel manufacturers to buy 20 percent fewer steel sheets, and they’ve anticipated the growing hybrid market.

Of course, they’re not the only company to create their version of deep practice. Check this out-any of it sound familiar?

Dyslexia and Entrepreneurs

Here’s a random-seeming question that pops up in the news from time to time: why do so many successful businesspeople have dyslexia?

A partial list:

  • Paul Orfalea, founder of Kinko’s
  • Charles R. Schwab, founder of Charles Schwab Corp.
  • Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Atlantic Airways
  • John T. Chambers, CEO of Cisco
  •  Craig McCaw, founder of McCaw Cellular and Clearwire
  •  Anita Roddick, founder of The Body Shop

A 2007 study by Julie Logan of the Cass Business School of London showed that 35 percent of the entrepreneurs she surveyed were dyslexic – a percentage she called “staggering.” (Dyslexia runs at 10 percent in the general population.) But why?

“We found that dyslexics who succeed had overcome an awful lot in their lives by developing compensatory skills,” Logan said in the New York Times. “…Dyslexics are extraordinarily creative about maneuvering their way around problems.”

“Compensatory skills” is the same term physiologists use to describe the principle through which muscles get stronger – when we push them to their limits during exercise, they compensate by getting stronger. What Logan seems to be saying is that for this group, skills work exactly like muscles – their entrepreneurial circuits work well because dyslexia has forced them to practice and strengthen precisely those skills.

For instance, in this article, movie producer Hunt Lowry (“A Time to Kill,” “Last of the Mohicans”) talks about how he was unable to tie his shoes as a second-grader.

“I was Tom Sawyer very quickly on,” (Lowry) says. “It took a little bit of diplomacy to teach kids in second and third grade to tie my shoes and make it seem like it was a good deal.”

It’s an interesting connection, especially when you consider the skill set needed to be a successful entrepreneur: you have to attack problems and solve them. You have to be persistent. You have to be a good verbal communicator. You have to be able to read people quickly, delegate well, figure out who you can trust – all skills that would be developed in a motivated person who was prevented from using the normal communication channels of reading and writing.

In this light, Branson, Schwab, Chambers, Orfalea and the rest are not succeeding in spite of their dyslexia; they are succeeding directly because of it. Their condition is not just a disability; in fact it is also a kind of lever through which they have developed the skills that truly matter in their professions – an irony they seem to realize.

As Orfalea, who says he also has attention deficit disorder, puts it, “I think everybody should have dyslexia and A.D.D.”

I can’t quite get there. But what is true is that when it comes to developing skill, the human brain is amazingly adaptable.

I also wonder: what other disability-skill connections are out there to be found?

Update: here’s a good article on that question. (Thanks, Monica!)

Little Tiger

With the Masters golf tournament starting up, it’s a good time to go ask a question. We know how amazingly talented Tiger Woods is right now. But what was he like when he started out?  When he was a little kid? 

Fortunately, there’s an answer:

The answer is, he’s pretty good. A decent swing, under lots of pressure.

On the other hand, though, Little Tiger’s not noticeably better than this equally young kid, or any of the dozens of other equally young kids (search “baby Tiger Woods on YouTube for a sampler). 


I think the thing to take away from these images isn’t the skill of Tiger’s swing—which, while good, isn’t that different from other similar-age kids who’ve had coaching (particularly when you consider that Earl Woods had introduced his son to golf before he could walk, and coached him well—to say nothing of the chutzpah to show off his son on national television).

The element that makes it different isn’t skill; it’s emotion. The moment happens about 25 seconds in – after Tiger hits the shot, he stares at the ball, watching the result of his  swing, completely oblivious to everything around him (no easy task, considering the seventies fashions). It’s not just focus or concentration. This tiny kid is utterly enthralled and absorbed by the physical act of hitting a golf ball and seeing where it goes. He wants to hit it again. And again. 

The look brings to mind a passage from a New Yorker story by Malcolm Gladwell (no small talent himself):

Before he was two years old, it is said, Wayne Gretzky watched hockey games on television, enraptured, and slid his stockinged feet on the linoleum in imitation of the players, then cried when the game was over, because he could not understand how something so sublime should have to come to an end. This was long before Gretzky was any good at the game itself, or was skilled in any of its aspects, or could create even the smallest of chunks. But what he had was what the physical genius must have before any of the other layers of expertise fall into place: he had stumbled onto the one thing that, on some profound aesthetic level, made him happy.

Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck has said that all parenting advice can be distilled to two things: 1) Pay attention to what your kids stare at; 2) Praise them for their effort.

Dweck is talking about exactly this kind of stare – the moment a kid gets completely lost in a task, when they’re enraptured in a way that defies rationality.  That emotion fuels the effort that, over time (10,000 hours), builds the kind of skill circuits that produce a Tiger or a Gretzky.

This week, sports commentators will be explaining Tiger’s success by talking a lot about his “determination” and “will to win” – which is true enough. But beneath that – and far more important – is something even more primal and unconscious: a little kid who fell in love with a game. 

Ray and Otis

Ray Lamontagne              

Ray LaMontagne

Lately I’ve been listening to a lot of Ray LaMontagne. In case you haven’t heard of him, he’s a folk/soul singer from Maine who’s gotten big lately because of his amazing voice.  He’s also got  something I can’t resist – a great story. It has three parts:

I: Young Ray has a hardscrabble childhood, never plays music at all. He gets a dead-end job in a shoe factory.

II: In his early twenties, Ray wakes up one day, hears a song on the radio, and has an epiphany that he should become a singer-songwriter.

III: He goes out and actually does it. With zero experience, in one of the all-time musical Cinderella stories, he trains himself to sing, play guitar, write songs, and becomes a big star.  Leno, Letterman, Rolling Stone, awards, etc.

So here’s what LaMontagne sounds like:

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And here’s the interesting part. Apparently he did most of his practicing by himself, in his apartment. He didn’t have much money, so he just got a bunch of old record and practiced by imitating them. The old records he bought were those of Otis Redding and Ray Charles, among others. He trained this way for several years, then started performing at coffee houses (several more years). LaMontange says he was terrible at the start, then got better. “I’m a really fast learner,” he told Roster magazine.

Now listen to Otis Redding:

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Isn’t that incredibly similar? The same raspy soulfulness, the same rhythms and phrasings and long vowels, the soaring yet earthy voice that, as Rolling Stone put it, “sounds like church.” 

So what does this mean? First of all, I don’t think it means that Ray LaMontagne is ripping off Otis Redding. His voice is his own—he built it, over his 10,000 hours, through deep practice.  (And it sure doesn’t sound like any Mainer that I ever met.)

What it does mean, I think, is that when LaMontagne was building that skill circuit – because that’s what any voice is, a circuit that controls the vocal cords—he used an powerful, underrated method for deep practice. He mimicked. Redding’s voice was his beacon – and LaMontagne used it exactly like a good tennis player uses Roger Federer’s backhand, or a good writer uses a Dickens paragraph. You spend time in it, and you can learn how it works, why it works. It tells you where to go, and you use it as a tool to pull yourself forward, to construct your own circuit.  

This reminds me of what I think of as the Olympics Effect. Whenever I watch the Olympics on TV, then go and do some of those same sports myself, I’m better. Sometimes a lot better – after watching Michael Phelps win all those medals, I think I actually did the crawl stroke properly for the first time in my life. Something powerful happens when we mimic someone, and its mostly unconscious. We’re built to copy.

For the Little League team I coach, I sometimes wonder if it wouldn’t be smarter, instead of spending time fielding grounders, to find a big-screen TV and watch major-league players doing their thing in slow-motion – and the coaches wouldn’t have to say a word. We could call it the LaMontagne Method. 


First of all, thanks for reading. I’ll be coming here from time to time to write about stuff connected to the ideas and stories within The Talent Code– and likely lots of stuff that’s not so connected. (more…)