An Excerpt from The Talent Code

Chapter 5: Primal Cues

Every great and commanding moment in the annals of the world is a triumph of some enthusiasm. 
—Ralph Waldo Emerson


Growing skill, as we ’ve seen, requires deep practice. But deep practice isn’t a piece of cake: it requires energy, passion, and commitment. In a word, it requires motivational fuel, the second element of the talent code. In this section we’ll see how motivation is created and sustained through a process I call ignition. Ignition and deep practice work together to produce skill in exactly the same way that a gas tank combines with an engine to produce velocity in an automobile. Ignition supplies the energy, while deep practice translates that energy over time into forward progress, a.k.a. wraps of myelin. 

When I visited the talent hotbeds, I saw a lot of passion. It showed in the way people carried their violins, cradled their soccer balls, and sharpened their pencils. It showed in the way they treated bare-bones practice areas as if they were cathedrals; in the alert, respectful gazes that followed a coach. The feeling wasn’t always shiny and happy—sometimes it was dark and obsessive, and sometimes it was like the quiet, abiding love you see in old married couples. But the passion was always there, providing the emotional rocket fuel that kept them firing their circuits, honing skills, getting better. 

When I asked people in the hotbeds about the source of their passion for violin/singing/soccer/math, the question struck most of them as faintly ridiculous, as if I were inquiring when they first learned to enjoy oxygen. The universal response was to shrug and say something like “I dunno, I’ve just always felt this way.” 

Faced with these responses, it’s tempting to return the shrug, to chalk up their burning motivation to the unknown depths of the human heart. But this would not be accurate. Because in many cases it is possible to pinpoint the instant that passion ignited. 

For South Korea’s golfers, it was the afternoon of May 18, 1998, when a twenty-year-old named Se Ri Pak won the McDonald’s LPGA Championship and became a national icon. (As one Seoul newspaper put it, “Se Ri Pak is not the female Tiger Woods; Tiger Woods is the male Se Ri Pak.”) Before her, no South Korean had succeeded in golf. Flash-forward to ten years later, and Pak’s countrywomen had essentially colonized the LPGA Tour, with forty-five players who collectively won about one-third of the events. 

For Russia’s tennis players, the moment came later that same summer when seventeen-year-old Anna Kournikova reached the Wimbledon semifinals and, thanks to her supermodel looks, gained the status of the world’s most downloaded athlete. By 2004 Russian women were showing up regularly in major finals; by 2007 they occupied five of the top ten rankings and twelve of the top fifty. “They’re like the goddamned Russian Army,” said Nick Bollettieri, founder of his eponymous tennis academy in Bradenton, Florida. “They just keep on coming.” 

YearSouth Koreans on
Russians in WTA
Top 100

Other hotbeds follow the same pattern: a breakthrough success is followed by a massive bloom of talent. Note that in each case the bloom grew relatively slowly at first, requiring five or six years to reach a dozen players. This is not because the inspiration was weaker at the start and got progressively stronger, but for a more fundamental reason: deep practice takes time (ten thousand hours, as the refrain goes). Talent is spreading through this group in the same pattern that dandelions spread through suburban yards. One puff, given time, brings many flowers.*

A different example of this phenomenon began on a blustery day in May 1954, when a skinny Oxford medical student named Roger Bannister became the first person to run a mile in less than four minutes. The broad outlines of his achievement are well known: how physiologists and athletes alike regarded the four-minute mile as an unbreakable physiological barrier; how Bannister systematically attacked the record; how he broke the mark by a fraction of a second, earning headlines around the world and lasting fame for what Sports Illustrated later called the single greatest athletic accomplishment of the twentieth century. 

Less well known is what happened in the weeks after Bannister’s feat: another runner, an Australian named John Landy, also broke the four-minute barrier. The next season a few more runners did too. Then they started breaking it in droves. Within three years no fewer than seventeen runners had matched the greatest sporting accomplishment of the twentieth century. Nothing profound had changed. The track surfaces were the same, the training was the same, the genes were the same. To chalk it up to self-belief or positive thinking is to miss the point. The change didn’t come from inside the athletes: they were responding to something outside them. The seventeen runners had received a clear signal—you can do this too—and the four-minute mark, once an insurmountable wall, was instantly recast as a stepping-stone. 

This is how ignition works. Where deep practice is a cool, conscious act, ignition is a hot, mysterious burst, an awakening. Where deep practice is an incremental wrapping, ignition works through lightning flashes of image and emotion, evolution-built neural programs that tap into the mind’s vast reserves of energy and attention. Where deep practice is all about staggering-baby steps, ignition is about the set of signals and subconscious forces that create our identity; the moments that lead us to say that is who I want to be. We usually think of passion as an inner quality. But the more I visited hotbeds, the more I saw it as something that came first from the outside world. In the hotbeds the right butterfly wingflap was causing talent hurricanes. 

“I remember watching [Pak] on TV,” said Christina Kim, a South Korean–American golfer. “She wasn’t blond or blue-eyed, and we were of the same blood . . . You say to yourself, ‘If she can do it, why can’t I?’” Larisa Preobrazhenskaya, the Spartak coach, remembers the moment when the spark caught. “All the little girls started wearing their hair in ponytails and grunting when they hit,” she said. “They were all little Annas.” 

Ignition is a strange concept because it burns just out of our awareness, largely within our unconscious mind. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be captured, understood, and used to produce useful heat. In the next few chapters we’ll see how our built-in ignition system works, and how tiny, seemingly insignificant cues can, over time, create gigantic differences in skill. We’ll visit some places that have ignited, even though they might not know it, and we’ll see how myelin is really made out of love. Let’s begin by taking a closer look at the ignition process. 


In 1997 Gary McPherson set out to investigate a mystery that has puzzled parents and music teachers since time immemorial: why certain children progress quickly at music lessons and others don’t. He undertook a long-term study that sought to analyze the musical development of 157 randomly selected children. (This was the study that would generate the footage of Clarissa practicing the clarinet.) McPherson took a uniquely comprehensive approach, following the children from a few weeks before they picked out their instrument (at age seven or eight in most cases) through to high school graduation, tracking their progress through a detailed battery of interviews, biometric tests, and videotaped practice sessions. 

After the first nine months of lessons the kids were a typical mixed bag: a few had zoomed off like rockets; a few had barely budged; most were somewhere in the middle. Skill was scattered along a bell curve of what we ’d intuitively consider to be musical aptitude. The question was, what caused the curve? Was it inevitable, just a descriptive chart of what happens among any randomly chosen population who are striving to master a skill? Or was there some hidden X factor that explained and predicted each child’s success and failure? 

McPherson started analyzing his data to try to find the reason. Was the X factor IQ? Nope. Was it aural sensitivity? Nope. Was it math skills or sense of rhythm? Sensorimotor skills? Income level? Nope, nope, nope, nope. 

Then McPherson tested a new factor: the children’s answers to a simple question that he’d asked them before they had even started their first lesson. The question was, how long do you think you’ll play your new instrument? 

“They mostly say ‘Uh, I dunno’ at first ,” McPherson said. “But then when you keep digging and ask them a few times, eventually they will give you a real solid answer. They have an idea, even then. They’ve picked up something in their environment that’s made them say, yes, that’s for me.” 

The children were asked to identify how long they planned to play (the options were: through this year, through primary school, through high school, all my life), and their answers were condensed into three categories: 

Short-term commitment 

Medium-term commitment 

Long-term commitment 

McPherson then measured how much each child practiced per week: low (20 minutes per week); medium (45 minutes per week); and high (90 minutes per week). He plotted the results against their performance on a skill test. The resulting graph looked like this: 

When McPherson saw the graph, he was stunned. “I couldn’t believe my eyes,” he said. Progress was determined not by any measurable aptitude or trait, but by a tiny, powerful idea the child had before even starting lessons. The differences were staggering. With the same amount of practice, the long-term-commitment group outperformed the short-term-commitment group by 400 percent. The long-term-commitment group, with a mere twenty minutes of weekly practice, progressed faster than the short-termers who practiced for an hour and a half. When long-term commitment combined with high levels of practice, skills skyrocketed.

“We instinctively think of each new student as a blank slate, but the ideas they bring to that first lesson are probably far more important than anything a teacher can do, or any amount of practice,” McPherson said. “It’s all about their perception of self. At some point very early on they had a crystallizing experience that brings the idea to the fore, that says, I am a musician. That idea is like a snowball rolling downhill.” 

To illustrate how this snowball works, McPherson used the example of Clarissa. The day before her high-velocity practice, Clarissa’s teacher had been trying to teach her a new song called “La Cinquantaine.” As usual with Clarissa, the lesson had not gone well. Out of frustration, the teacher decided to play a jazz version of “La Cinquantaine”—“Golden Wedding.” He played a few bars, and the whole thing took perhaps a minute. But a minute was enough. 

“When he played that, at that moment, something happened,” McPherson said. “Clarissa was awestruck by the jazz version. Entranced. She saw the teacher play it, and he must have played with some style, because she got an image of herself as a performer. The teacher didn’t realize it then, but everything came together, and all of a sudden while hardly knowing it, she ’s on fire, desperate to learn.” 

Note the process McPherson is describing here. The teacher’s playing caused Clarissa to experience an intense emotional response. That response—call it fascination, rapture, or love— instantly connected Clarissa to a high-octane fuel tank of motivation, which powered her deep practice. It’s the same thing that happened to the South Korean golfers and the Russian tennis players. In their case, they used that fuel, over a decade ’s time, to dominate two sports; in Clarissa’s case, she used that energy to accomplish a month’s worth of practice in six minutes. 

McPherson’s graph, like the table showing the rise of South Korean golfers and Russian tennis players, is not a picture of aptitude. It is a picture of ignition. What ignited the progress wasn’t any innate skill or gene. It was a small, ephemeral, yet powerful idea: a vision of their ideal future selves, a vision that oriented, energized, and accelerated progress, and that originated in the outside world. After all, these kids weren’t born wanting to be musicians. Their wanting, like Clarissa’s, came from a distinct signal, from something in their family, their homes, their teachers, the set of images and people they encountered in their short lives. That signal sparked an intense, nearly unconscious response that manifested itself as an idea: I want to be like them. It wasn’t necessarily a logical idea for them to have. (Recall that it didn’t correlate with any aural, rhythmic, or mathematic skills they possessed.) Perhaps the idea came about purely by accident. But accidents have consequences, and the consequence of this one was that they started out ignited, and that made all the difference.**

* One of the useful things about this breakthrough-then-bloom pattern is that it makes it possible to forecast the rise of future talent hotbeds. I predict that one of them will be Venezuelan classical musicians. Gustavo Dudamel, a.k.a. El Dude, is the twenty-six-year-old wunderkind who now directs the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Most stories about him mention his off-the-chart skills, his signature curly hair, his charm. They don’t mention the fact that Venezuela is producing lots of El Dudes through a program called the Fundación del Estado para el Sistema Nacional de las Orquestas Juveniles e Infantiles de Venezuela, known by its handier nickname of El Sistema (the system). The program enrolls poor kids into classical-training programs (250,000 kids at last count), brings the best players back as teachers, sends orchestras all over the world, and in general is starting to bear a striking resemblance to Venezuela’s equally successful baseball academies. Another future hotbed will be Chinese novelists. Ha Jin (Waiting) looks to be the breakthrough performer of what might be a rather large contingent, including Ma Jian, Li Yiyun, Fan Wu, and Dai Sijie, which should arrive around the same time as the Chinese basketballers ignited by Yao Ming. Lastly, moviegoers should brace themselves for a wave of Romanian filmmakers, an unlikely group sparked by the four major prizes won at the Cannes Film Festival by that nation’s directors over the last three years, as well as by the famously rigorous teaching at the Bucharest National University of Drama and Film.

** At Meadowmount Music School I met a dozen kids who, when I asked them how they came to play, were vague, saying things like “I just always liked the violin/cello/ piano.” Then when I inquired what their parents did, it turned out that they played in symphony orchestras. In other words, these kids had spent hundreds of hours of their childhood watching the person they loved most in the world practice and perform classical music. In light of McPherson’s study, this is ignition in excelsis. Speaking of parental cues, Meadowmount’s roster included three Gabriels, named after the angel of music.

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