A Sneak Preview — and a Question

Quick personal update: I’m working on a new book with a fairly audacious goal: to compile the world’s best talent-development advice into a short handbook for teachers, students, athletes, musicians, parents, coaches, and pretty much anybody.

The book will be called The Little Book of Talent, and it will contain around 75 rules — one rule per page. The rules will address how to improve your practice, increase your motivation, and make the most of the limited time you have.

Here’s a sneak preview:

  • Rule: Remove Your Watch

When it comes to measuring practice, we reflexively obey clocks. We naturally presume that an hourlong practice is twice as good as a half-hour practice. This reasoning is faulty, because it creates the false expectation that you will succeed merely by filling the allotted time. Deep practice is not about time passing, but about the number of times you stretch yourself to the edge of your ability, make mistakes, and fix them. Studies show you can accomplish more learning in a deep 10 minutes than a shallow two hours.

So instead of counting minutes or hours, count your reaches.  Instead of saying, “I’m going to practice piano for 20 minutes,” instead tell yourself “I’m going to do five reps of that new song.”  Instead of planning to hit golf balls for an hour, plan to make 25 quality swings with each club.

  • Rule: Practice in Short Segments

TV executives who schedule commercials have long known what scientists are just figuring out: your natural span of attention is around ten minutes. Therefore, it’s smart to organize your practice into short, intense sessions with a quick breather in between. Using short segments creates a clarity of target, and avoids the pitfall of mushy, vague practice. (This is one of the reasons coach John Wooden set up his drills to last around ten minutes each.)

Divide your practice into segments, with each segment focused on reaching for one particular goal — a new move in your repertoire.  Don’t worry if you don’t perfect the move in that time — you can always come back to it. The point is not to get it perfect the first time, but to build a system that helps you improve steadily and systematically.

  • Rule: Be Willing to Be Stupid

Being willing to endure the emotional burn of failure is a prerequisite for improvement, since without it we are cut off from the wellspring of our progress: reaching, failing, and learning from our mistakes. As baseball Hall of Famer Lou Brock said, “Show me a guy who is afraid to look bad, and I’ll show you a guy I can beat every time.”

  • Rule: “Practice Begins When You Get it Right”

This is a saying from violin teacher Kimberly Meier-Sims, director of the Suzuki program at the Cleveland Institute of Music. I like it because it addresses the common misconception that our first moment of success represents the finish line.  To the contrary: getting it right is not the finish, but the beginning. It marks the moment when the real work begins; the moment when you begin (through reaching and repetition) the process of taking ownership of your skill.

  • Rule: Try Sh*t

Practicing the same thing over and over in exactly the same way seems like a smart thing to do. Problem is, it’s usually not. Studies show that variable practice — where you move around, experiment, try new things and see how they work — is far more effective than “blocked” practice with no variance.  A good example is basketball free throws, where practicing from variable distances produces skill far faster than practicing from the same distance every time.

The reason this works is that embracing variability helps us sharpen our control — our ability to make small, crucial changes to adapt our performance to the situation. When we make a habit of experimenting — when we try sh*t, and do it systematically — we are increasing our ability to modulate our performance.

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Now comes the question. One of the things I’ve enjoyed most about writing this blog is the consistently high level of discussion that it generates — the comments, the emails, the links you share with me and the rest of the readers of this blog. So I feel compelled to ask: what nuggets of practical advice have worked best for you or for someone you know?  What other kernels of proven wisdom belong in this book?

Feel free to email me or, better, share your thoughts and ideas in the comments section below so others can use them too.  If I end up including your ideas in the Little Book, you will have both my ardent, heartfelt thanks as well as an inclusion in the book’s not-so-little acknowledgements section. Thanks!

PS — Let me start by thanking the remarkable Dr. Peter Vint of the U.S. Olympic Committee’s Performance Services Division — the “Try Shi*t” rule came from him.

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