Category: Talent Hotbeds


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?

The Shyness Clinic, Palo Alto, California

A groundbreaking program that helps chronically shy people develop new social skills. Coached by therapists, the clinic’s clients practice social interaction exactly as if it were a tennis forehand or a piano chord.

Karen’s Journey: Episode 1

Karen’s Journey: Episode 16

Her screen name is ShyKarenInPaloAlto, she’s 37 years old, and she’s given us a remarkable record of her progress at the Shyness Clinic, marking the steady transformation from the nervous, visibly shaky person we meet Episode 1 to the increasingly happy, self-assured person of Episode 16. I especially like the moment at 1:50 in Episode 16, when Karen issues the clearest declaration of her desire: “I want to change my brain.” Also note her triumph at 3:00 when she successfully asks a stranger for the time, then turns to the camera and says “That’s how it’s done.” Karen’s emotional intensity at that moment is the equal of any athlete or musician who just hit the mark. Which makes sense, because Karen is doing exactly the same thing they are—she’s been ignited to deep practice a skill circuit.  



The Shyness Clinic takes a unique psychological tack. Rather than spending time exploring and analyzing the reasons and history behind the shyness, the clinic’s therapists realize that developing social skills is about deep practice: doing the action, over and over, until it’s comfortable. They do this by:

  • First, fixing faulty perceptions. (This is the cognitive half of the cognitive-behavioral one-two punch.) If a client is convinced everyone in the restaurant hates them, the therapists work to show the faulty reasoning here – the truth is, most people in the restaurant don’t really care.
  • Gradually escalating practice difficulty. It’s called “homework,” and it begins with simple tasks – make a phone call, speak with two friends – and steadily ups the ante to herculean feats of outgoingness – such as walking into a pizza restaurant, finding a waiter, and loudly inquiring “Could you please tell me where the pizza restaurant is?”


Florence, Italy, from 1300 to 1600

A modest-size city (population 70,000) which, in the space of a few generations, produced a concentration of artistic brilliance that has gone unmatched in history.

Leonardo’s Deep Practice

This clip is useful for marveling at the skill and breadth of Da Vinci’s work. It also contains telltale signs of his deep practice, the most evident of which is his lifelong habit of using a notebook for sketches and ideas (samples of which are shown here from the one- to two-minute mark). Da Vinci’s notebooks are a map of his relentlessly curious mind—and one that he constantly was redrawing and improving. One witness mentions “a little book he had always hanging at his belt,” ready to capture thoughts and images he would later rework, over and over, until he had uncovered something new.

Da Vinci recommended similar strategies for his students, requesting that they work only with pencil and paper—no colors or brushes—until they reached 20 years of age (a decree that reminds me of Spartak’s rule that students not compete in tennis tournaments for three years). Da Vinci explained:

“Many wish to learn how to draw, and enjoy drawing, but do not have a true aptitude for it. This is shown by their lack of perseverance, like boys who draw everything in a hurry, never finishing or shadowing.”

In other words, slow down, practice deeply, keep at it, and you get deeply good.


It seems almost impudent to presume that we can draw useful lessons from the Renaissance—the hotbed of all hotbeds. After all, we’ve been conditioned to think of Michelangelo, Da Vinci, Raphael, Botticelli et. al. as quasi-divinities—the ultimate natural geniuses of the art world. 

But in fact, every one of those “divinities” were once seven-year-old kids, learning skills just like any other kid. While we obviously can’t recreate the combination of cultural/religious/historical forces that set the stage for the Renaissance (not to mention parents who enjoy sending off their seven-year-old to work full time as a painter’s apprentice instead of school), but we can do something just as powerful. We can look at the behaviors and methods—at the combination of deep practice, ignition, and master coaching—that systematically built some of the finest skill-circuits the world has ever seen. Those include:

  • Copying. Modern notion of artistic genius is built around originality. Not so in Florence. Apprentices spent years learning their master’s skills—and not from textbooks (there weren’t any), but from simply doing. For apprentice painters, this usually meant making pencil sketches, over and over and over.
  • A Craftsman’s Mindset. We might think of them as divinely inspired geniuses, but as scholars have pointed out, the Renaissance artists themselves did not share this view. Instead, they saw themselves as craftsmen—akin to a watchmaker or a brilliant tailor. This attitude—unselfconscious, detail-oriented—helped fuel the immense amount of hard work that created their fluency. 

The Brönte Sisters, West Yorkshire, England

Three sisters, raised in a remote village, who at a young age produced some of the most lauded works in English literature. Charlotte (author of Jane Eyre), Emily (Wuthering Heights), and Anne (The Tenant of Wildfell Hall).

The Bröntes’ Training Ground: Audio Slideshow


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World-class writing skill, like soccer or skateboarding or anything else, requires 10,000 hours of deep practice – firing and honing skill circuits. The Bröntes’ special tool was called their Little Books: dozens of tiny, handmade journals they filled with thousands of pages of stories, poems, plays, and novels from the time they were quite young. Their 10,000 hours was particularly efficient because they:

    • Were willing to make mistakes. Out of view of any parent or teacher’s eye, they could boldly experiment (and fail) over and over. They became great writers not in spite of the fact that they started out immature and imitative—to the contrary, they became great writers precisely because they were willing and able to spend vast amounts of time being immature and imitative.


    • Worked from a platform of existing stories. Far from inventing things out of thin air, the Brontes’ Little Books were their reinterpretations (a.k.a. ripoffs) of stories they had read elsewhere, in magazines and books. In this way, they learned structure and technique—what works and what doesn’t.


    • Experienced it as an enthralling game. The Little Books were to the Brontes what empty swimming pools were to the skateboarding Z-Boys: a place to cooperate, compete, and entertain each other with ever-more-difficult feats of skill. In other words: a hothouse for skill circuits.


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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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.)

Septien Entertainment Group, Dallas, Texas

A small vocal studio in Dallas, Texas which has produced dozens of of pop-singing phenoms, including Jessica Simpson, Ryan Cabrera, and Demi Lovato. Like Opus 118, Septien is founded on the idea that anyone can learn to sing. As Linda Septien puts it, “Vocal cords are just muscles. You can learn to control them if you do it in the right way.”

Video Coming Soon


Septien illustrates the power and leverage of a single master teacher: founder and former opera singer Linda Septien. Operating out of a storefront, Septien spent ten years honing her essential skill: to ignite passion and to create deep practice. To do this, she:

  •  Targets the individual. Septien doesn’t teach principles. To the contrary: she is flexible, both emotionally and informationally, tailoring both the message and its delivery to each student. The goal, as she puts it, is to “meet them where they are, with the right message, at the right moment.”
  • Teaches like a GPS navigation system. We’re all familiar with how GPS systems use quick informative bursts to direct you though a crowded city. Septien, like all master teachers, does exactly the same: her teaching consists of short, sharp shocks, honing the skill circuit in the direction it needs to grow.
  • Uses humor. Septien is a constantly, irrepressibly entertaining presence. This is not happenstance; it is essential. At its core, deep practice is hard work—and master coaches become masters, in part, by knowing how well a spoonful of sugar can help the medicine go down.

KIPP-Heartwood School, San Jose, California

In a rough neighborhood of failing schools, KIPP-Heartwood has built a island of dazzling success, producing some of the state’s top test scores. KIPP-Heartwood is part of the KIPP charter school system started by two young teachers in 1993 which now runs 66 schools, and which sends 80 percent of its students on to college, and is held up as a model for national education reform. 

“I’m Leaning Toward Stanford”

This is from the KIPP Academy of Opportunity of a Los Angeles– but the story is the same as KIPP-Heartwood or any other KIPP school. The way these kids talk, walk, hold themselves is characteristic of the system, and why KIPP is being increasingly seen as a model for reform. As on Harvard researcher told me, “They’re knocking it out of the park.”

Notice the chant they do to learn cell division at 4 minutes. All the KIPP schools learn in this way, using rhythm and song to build memory and reinforce learning – which, from a skill-circuit perspective, makes perfect sense.

I love the way the students talk about college around the 8 minute mark. This is very typical of the way KIPP’s college-focus infects their perspectives. These kids are not yet in middle school, yet they talk about college as if it’s a foregone conclusion—they are going, no question. Everything in their life is pushing in that direction. 


Like all hotbeds, KIPP-Heartwood does lots of deep practice (helped by long school days, which give 62 percent more learning time than public schools) and master teachers. But where it truly excels is in igniting motivation in its students; using a calculated burst of signals to release unconscious reserves of energy and passion that fuel the hard work. It does this by:

  • Creating and reinforcing an ultimate goal—in this case, college. KIPP establishes college as a goal the same way a priest establishes heaven as a goal. They make that goal tangible though campus visits and constant repetition. As one KIPP teacher put it, “At KIPP we say the word ‘college’ as often as people at other schools say the word ‘um.’ “
  • Coherency. Every element of KIPP – how a student earns his desk, how the classes stand in line, how they are named after their graduating year – is designed to push the same direction. When I attended the first school day of 2007, it was a bit like attending a Broadway play: every single detail told the same story: Work hard, be nice, and you’ll go to heaven (a.k.a., college).
  • Willingness to stop and fix. Whenever a KIPP student misbehaves—no matter how small that misbehavior is–everything stops, and they fix it. This same technique is found at many other hotbeds. Including, interestingly enough, the assembly lines of Toyota, the world’s most successful carmaker. They follow the same deep-practice principle: that honing skill-circuits, fixing small mistakes, builds excellence.

Spartak Tennis Club, Moscow, Russia

A rundown tennis club (and that’s putting it politely) in a freezing climate which, with one indoor court, has in recent years produced more top-20 women players than the entire United States. (Yes, you read that correctly.)  My 2006 visit to Spartak—the original article is here—helped inspire the book.

Inside the Hothouse: Audio Slideshow

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Spartak can be summed up in one word: tekhnika (technique). Every moment, every resource is devoted to helping players with the most essential task: hitting the ball correctly. Or, to put it a different way, to building a reliable, fast skill circuit. To do this, they

    • Slow it down. Just like the violinists at Meadowmount, the Spartak players do their swings in slow-motion. All players also follow the same warmup routine—which starts with simple eye-hand drills where they bounce the ball and catch it—whether they are five years old or, as I saw, a world top-ten player.
    • Imitate. They swing without the ball quite a lot, a drill called imitatsiya. The ball, in their view, is a distraction. The point is to make the swing—to fire the circuit properly.
    • Games can wait. The rule at Spartak is that players can only compete after three years of practice – a rule that would never fly in the states, but which, if you think of it in terms of skill circuits, makes perfect sense. Competition introduces a gigantic new variable, where skill circuits matter less than the score. As a Spartak coach told me, “Technique is everything. If you begin playing without technique, it is big mistake. Big, big mistake!”

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. 


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?

Brazilian Soccer Schools, Leeds, England

HOTBED: Brazilian Soccer Schools, Leeds, England

A project, begun in 1998 by an elementary schoolteacher named Simon Clifford, that has transformed a former soccer backwater into a veritable factory of talented players. Its main tool: a Brazilian game called futbol de salao (“soccer in the room”), an indoor five-a-side version of the sport.  The ball is smaller and heavier—creating more control. The field is tiny—putting a premium on vision, anticipation, and quick, accurate passes. The play is lightning-fast—forcing players to anticipate and adapt. Exactly like the Little Books of the Bronte sisters, futbol de salao uses deep practice to build skills at high velocity. 

Growing A Star


Here’s a portrait of how futbol de salao helped create one of the world’s greatest players: Ronaldinho of Brazil. The first five minutes (which you can mostly fast-forward past) show his stupendous level of vision, ball control, and anticipation.


At the five minute mark, however, we see where it began: with tiny kids on a futbol de salao court. See how the small, heavy ball stays at their feet, allowing them the chance to control it over and over. The game has all the features of typical kids’ soccer game –the cute clumsiness, the cat-herding quality—with a vital addition: because the ball doesn’t bounce away, players can control it. Watch at the six-minutes mark as the blond kid make a nice breakaway. She makes nine touches in a few seconds, each of them different, each of them earning her a bit of skill.


At 6:15, we see a rare treat: home movies of ten-year-old Ronaldinho playing futsal (you might also recognize this from a recent Nike commercial) Watch at 6:40 when young Ronaldinho flicks the ball over an opponent’s head to set up a goal. At 8:30, we see him pull off the exact same move as an adult, with similarly glorious results. Commentators love to talk about how “creative” Brazilian players are – but that’s not quite right. The truth is, they’ve been practicing that creativity for their entire lives.

Exporting Genius

Here’s a look at John Farnworth, one of the English kids who’s used futbol de salao to pick up a few moves (to say the least). These tricks may not be used much in games (Farnworth has given up his aspirations to play professional soccer to become a freestyle performer), but they show the heights of ball-control that futbol de salao can create.


Futbol de salao develops skill circuits far faster than the outdoor game, because players:

  • Touch the ball more often—600 percent more often, according to one study. More touches—in other words, more circuit-firings—creates more skill.
  • Are forced to develop more moves. Merely booting the ball down the field—often the first option in the outdoor game—doesn’t work. Futbol de salao players practice lots of fakes and tricks—because they have to. As one Brazilian told me, “Futsal is our national laboratory of improvisation.”
  • Grow accustomed to operating in tight spaces. When they get to the outdoor game, futsal players feel as if they have all the room in the world.