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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

“IF SHE CAN DO IT, WHY CAN’T I?”

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
LPGA Tour
Russians in WTA
Top 100
199813
199925
200056
200158
2002810
20031211
20041612
20052415
20062516
20073315

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. 

THE TINY, POWERFUL IDEA

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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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 ultimate handbook for fostering and cultivating a strong team culture.

Building a team has never been harder than it is right now. How do you create connection and trust? How do you stay focused on your goals? In his years studying the ways successful groups work together, Daniel Coyle has spent time with elite teams around the world, observing the ways they support each other, manage conflict, and move toward a common goal. In The Culture Playbook, he distills everything he has learned into sixty concrete, actionable tips and exercises that will help your team build a cohesive, positive culture.

Great cultures, Coyle has found, are built on three essential skills: safety, vulnerability, and purpose. Within this framework, he shows us how we can better serve our teammates, ourselves, and our shared purpose. More »


The Culture CodeHow do you build and sustain a great team?

The Culture Code reveals the secrets of some of the best teams in the world – from Pixar to Google to US Navy SEALs – explaining the three skills such groups have mastered in order to generate trust and a willingness to collaborate. Combining cutting-edge science, on-the-ground insight and practical ideas for action, it offers a roadmap for creating an environment where innovation flourishes, problems get solved, and expectations are exceeded.

Culture is not something you are—it’s something you do. The Culture Code puts the power in your hands. No matter the size of your group or your goal, this book can teach you the principles of cultural chemistry that transform individuals into teams that can accomplish amazing things together. More »


The Talent Code

What is the secret of getting really good at something?

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. More »


The Little Book of TalentThe 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?” More »