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Pabao Little League, Willemstad, Curacao

A scrappy, undersize group of kids from a small Caribbean island who have ascended to Little League baseball’s most illustrious stage: the Little League World Series in Williamsport, PA. For six of the past eight years, in a tournament where merely qualifying two consecutive years ranks as a remarkable achievement, Curacao has reached the semifinals six of the past eight years, winning the title in 2004 and finishing second in 2005.

 

A Field of (Myelin) Dreams: Audio Slideshow

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Lessons

Ignited in 1996 by local boy Andruw Jones’s dramatic World Series home runs, Curacao began its rise from mediocrity to international success. But the truly remarkable thing wasn’t the ignition (after all, other places have had local boys make good), but rather the tools they used to capture and funnel thatenergy into deep practice. They do this by:

  • Modeling. I’ve never seen quite so many coaches at a baseball practice as I did in Curacao—and many of them were still in their teens. It’s their system: the older players come back and help with coaching, modeling the right way to execute skills and sending a clear message: if he can do it, why can’t I?
  • Creating a culture of drills. The coaches and kids bring a near-religious attentiveness to the smallest practice drills. They’re all like tiny coaches, explaining how their swing works, or the best way to field a grounder. One 13-year-old player spent twenty minutes explaining why a sockball (made of two tightly folded socks) was the best way to learn to hit a curveball.
  • Compressing the game. Curacao doesn’t have many fields, and so in yet another classic example of advantages masquerading as disadvantages, they shrink practice to tiny areas. The coach frequently pitches batting practice from 30 feet, instead of the conventional 45 – a strategy which, like similar soccer techniques produces terrific results (I tried it with my Little League team.)

OPUS 118 Harlem School of Music, Harlem, New York

A public-school classical music program founded on the idea that anybody—that means anybody—can learn to play top-level classical music. Opus 118 students have played Carnegie Hall, the Oprah Winfrey Show, and inspired a documentary (“Small Wonders”) as well as the Hollywood treatment, “Music of the Heart,”  and have helped launch many similar efforts.

A Tiny, Powerful Idea  Takes Root

Ignition is a hair trigger– it happens all at once. Here, from the documentary “Small Wonders,” is the moment when a class ignites – not because of the violin, but because of the way Guaspari frames their introduction, through a lottery that poses the question: here is a meaningful group. Do you want to be one of them?

  • The first thing to note about Guaspari’s presentation is that it doesn’t center on the violin. In fact, it’s hardly mentioned. Rather, it’s about the idea of a group that is small, worthwhile, and engaged in meaningful work. “Some people are not going to win,” the teacher says. All are wonderful. But there’s only so much room.
  • At 1:25, a moment of ignition, when the boy in the back row suddenly announces,“I wanna be a violinist.”   The boy, of course, has never touched a violin, but as the music psychologist Gary McPherson points out, that doesn’t matter. These small ideas, taking root in the unconscious, have huge consequences.
  • Note that is not a soft sell by any means. Guaspari and the teacher keep emphasizing the hard work that will be required. This reminds me of the way KIPP school  (link) motivate students: simple language that tells the truth about the effort (a.k.a. the deep practice) motivates far better than pretending it’s going to be easy.
  • When the lottery results come in (at 3:35) look at the palpable electricity among the students—who, remember, have yet to so much as touch a violin. I like the girl in the ponytail, who confesses, “My heart is pounding,” and, when her name is picked, announces that her dream has come true. 

Funny thing? She’s right. 

Lessons

Like many hotbeds, Opus 118 started small: in this case, with a few violins in the trunk of beat-up car. Like many, it was driven by a devoted, energetic master teacher—in this case Roberta Guaspari (whose last name was Tzavaras). But there were also a few hidden factors in its favor, which helped ignite these kids to be the skilled and passionate violinists they became.

  •  The power of selection: The lack of violins, which appears a handicap, was turned to an advantage via a lottery. This created a tiny, powerful moment of ignition: when the winning student connected their identity to the violin, sparking a small thought that had big consequences: I’m a violinist.
  • Igniting by example: Roberta Guaspari is a master teacher by any definition, but a key to her success is how she cultivates other master teachers to grow the hotbed. Her faculty now includes students who came up through Opus 118. This radiates, as seen in KIPP, the most basic igniting signal: If they can do it, then why can’t I?

About The Books

The Talent CodeWhat is the secret of getting really good at something? How do we unlock it?

Journalist and New York Times bestselling author Daniel Coyle  visited nine of the world’s greatest talent hotbeds — tiny places that produce huge amounts of talent, from a small music camp in upstate New York to an elementary school in California to the baseball fields of the Caribbean.

He found that there’s a pattern common to all of them — certain methods of training, motivation, and coaching. This pattern, which has to do with the fundamental mechanisms through which the brain acquires skill, gives us a new way to think about talent — as well as new tools with which we can unlock our own talents and those of our kids.


The Little Book of Talent is a manual for building a faster brain and a better you. It is an easy-to-use handbook of scientifically proven, field-tested methods to improve skills—your skills, your kids’ skills, your organization’s skills—in sports, music, art, math, and business. The product of five years of reporting from the world’s greatest talent hotbeds and interviews with successful master coaches, it distills the daunting complexity of skill development into 52 clear, concise directives. Whether you’re age 10 or 100, whether you’re on the sports field or the stage, in the classroom or the corner office, this is an essential guide for anyone who ever asked, “How do I get better?”

The Little Book of Talent should be given to every graduate at commencement, every new parent in a delivery room, every executive on the first day of work. It is a guidebook—beautiful in its simplicity and backed by hard science—for nurturing excellence.”—Charles Duhigg, bestselling author of The Power of Habit

“It’s so juvenile to throw around hyperbolic terms such as ‘life-changing,’ but there’s no other way to describe The Little Book of Talent. I was avidly trying new things within the first half hour of reading it and haven’t stopped since. Brilliant. And yes: life-changing.”—Tom Peters, co-author of In Search of Excellence