PART ONE: GETTING STARTED Stare, Steal, and Be Willing to Be Stupid
We are often taught that talent begins with genetic gifts—that the talented are able to effortlessly perform feats the rest of us can only dream about. This is false. Talent begins with brief, powerful encounters that spark motivation by linking your identity to a high-performing person or group. This is called ignition, and it consists of a tiny, world-shifting thought lighting up your unconscious mind: I could be them.
This first section is about creating the ignition moment, and about channeling its energy in the most constructive way. The tips cover several areas—mind-set, how to design your practice for the skills you want to build, and how to improve your learning by stealing effectively from top performers—but they share the same goal: to create the spark, and to use the fuel for deep practice.
TIP #1 STARE AT WHO YOU WANT TO BECOME
If you were to visit a dozen talent hotbeds tomorrow, you would be struck by how much time the learners spend observing top performers. When I say “observing,” I’m not talking about passively watching. I’m talking about staring—the kind of raw, unblinking, intensely absorbed gazes you see in hungry cats or newborn babies.
We each live with a “windshield” of people in front of us; one of the keys to igniting your motivation is to fill your windshield with vivid images of your future self, and to stare at them every day. Studies show that even a brief connection with a role model can vastly increase unconscious motivation. For example, being told that you share a birthday with a mathematician can improve the amount of effort you’re willing to put into difficult math tasks by 62 percent.
Many talent hotbeds are fueled by the windshield phenomenon. In 1997, there were no South Korean golfers on the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) Tour. Today there are more than forty, winning one-third of all events. What happened? One golfer succeeded (Se Ri Pak, who won two major tournaments in 1998), and, through her, hundreds of South Korean girls were ignited by a new vision of their future selves. As the South Korean golfer Christina Kim put it, “You say to yourself, ‘If she can do it, why can’t I?’ ”
Windshields apply equally well to adults. The 5th Special Forces Group of the Green Berets recently started a leadership-training program in which soldiers spent several weeks in the executive offices of General Electric. The soldiers went to the office each morning and accompanied the execs throughout their workday, with no responsibilities other than to simply observe. And when the soldiers returned to their unit, the commanders noticed a significant boost in performance, communication, and leadership. “It was definitely a success,” said Lieutenant Colonel Dean Franks, the 5th Group’s battalion commander. “We’re planning to do a lot more of this in the future.”
Think of your windshield as an energy source for your brain. Use pictures (the walls of many talent hotbeds are cluttered with photos and posters of their stars) or, better, video. One idea: Bookmark a few YouTube videos, and watch them before you practice, or at night before you go to bed.
TIP #2 SPEND FIFTEEN MINUTES A DAY ENGRAVING THE SKILL ON YOUR BRAIN
What’s the best way to begin to learn a new skill? Is it by listening to a teacher’s explanation? Reading an instructional book? Just leaping in and trying it out? Many hotbeds use an approach I call the engraving method. Basically, they watch the skill being performed, closely and with great intensity, over and over, until they build a high-definition mental blueprint.
A few years back, for the TV show 60 Minutes, the tennis teacher and author Timothy Gallwey assembled a group of middle-aged people who’d never played tennis before. He gave them a brief test of ability, and then selected the woman who showed the least potential. Then, without uttering a word, Gallwey began to hit a forehand while the woman watched. He directed her attention to his feet, his grip, and the rhythm of the stroke. The woman watched intently, then began to emulate his moves. Within twenty minutes, she was hitting a shockingly decent forehand.
Another example of engraving, which involves the ears instead of the eyes, is the Suzuki method for learning music. Each day, separate from their lessons, Suzuki students listen to a menu of songs, beginning with “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” and progressing by degrees to more complex tunes. Hearing the songs over and over (and over), engraves the songs in the students’s brains. The “listening practice” builds a strong, detailed mental map, a series of points from which the success or failure of each following attempt can be measured.
The key to effective engraving is to create an intense connection: to watch and listen so closely that you can imagine the feeling of performing the skill. For physical skills, project yourself inside the performer’s body. Become aware of the movement, the rhythm; try to feel the interior shape of the moves. For mental skills, simulate the skill by re-creating the expert’s decision patterns. Chess players achieve this by replaying classic games, move by move; public speakers do it by regiving great speeches complete with original inflections; musicians cover their favorite songs; some writers I know achieve this effect by retyping passages verbatim from great works. (It sounds kind of Zen, but it works.)
TIP #3 STEAL WITHOUT APOLOGY
We are often told that talented people acquire their skill by following their “natural instincts.” This sounds nice, but in fact it is baloney. All improvement is about absorbing and applying new information, and the best source of information is top performers. So steal it.
Stealing has a long tradition in art, sports, and design, where it often goes by the name of “influence.” The young Steve Jobs stole the idea for the computer mouse and drop-down menus from the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center. The young Beatles stole the high “wooooo” sounds in “She Loves You,” “From Me to You,” and “Twist and Shout” from their idol Little Richard. The young Babe Ruth based his swing on the mighty uppercut of his hero, Shoeless Joe Jackson. As Pablo Picasso (no slouch at theft himself) put it, “Good artists borrow. Great artists steal.”
Linda Septien, founder of the Septien School of Contemporary Music, a hotbed near Dallas that has produced millions of dollars in pop-music talent (including Demi Lovato, Ryan Cabrera, and Jessica Simpson), tells her students, “Sweetheart, you gotta steal like crazy. Look at every single performer better than you and see what they’ve got that you can use. Then make it your own.” Septien follows her own advice, having accumulated fourteen three-ring notebooks’ worth of ideas stolen from top performers. In plastic sleeves inside the binders, in some cases scribbled on cocktail napkins, reside tips on everything from how to hit a high note to how to deal with a rowdy crowd (a joke works best).
Stealing helps shed light on some mysterious patterns of talent—for instance, why the younger members of musical families so often are also the most talented. (A partial list: The Bee Gees’s younger brother, Andy Gibb; Michael Jackson; the youngest Jonas Brother, Nick. Not to mention Mozart, J. S. Bach, and Yo-Yo Ma, all babies of their families.) The difference can be explained partly by the windshield phenomenon (see Tip #1) and partly by theft. As they grow up, the younger kids have more access to good information. They have far more opportunity to watch their older siblings perform, to mimic, to see what works and what doesn’t. In other words, to steal.
When you steal, focus on specifics, not general impressions. Capture concrete facts: the angle of a golfer’s left elbow at the top of the backswing; the curve of a surgeon’s wrist; the precise shape and tension of a singer’s lips as he hits that high note; the exact length of time a comedian pauses before delivering the punch line. Ask yourself:
• What, exactly, are the critical moves here?
• How do they perform those moves differently than I do?
TIP #4 BUY A NOTEBOOK
A high percentage of top performers keeps some form of daily performance journal. Tennis champion Serena Williams and former World Series MVP Curt Schilling use notebooks; the rapper Eminem and the choreographer Twyla Tharp use shoeboxes, which they fill with ideas written on scrap paper. What matters is not the precise form. What matters is that you write stuff down and reflect on it. Results from today. Ideas for tomorrow. Goals for next week. A notebook works like a map: It creates clarity.
TIP #5 BE WILLING TO BE STUPID
Teammates of the hockey star Wayne Gretzky would occasionally witness a strange sight: Gretzky falling while he skated through solitary drills on the ice. While the spectacle of the planet’s greatest hockey player toppling over like a grade-schooler might seem surprising, it actually makes perfect sense. As skilled as he was, Gretzky was determined to improve, to push the boundaries of the possible. The only way that happens is to build new connections in the brain—which means reaching, failing, and, yes, looking stupid.
Feeling stupid is no fun. But being willing to be stupid—in other words, being willing to risk the emotional pain of making mistakes—is absolutely essential, because reaching, failing, and reaching again is the way your brain grows and forms new connections. When it comes to developing talent, remember, mistakes are not really mistakes—they are the guideposts you use to get better.
One way some places encourage “productive mistakes” is to establish rules that encourage people to make reaches that might otherwise feel strange and risky—in effect, nudging them into the sweet spot at the edge of their ability (see Tip #13). For example, students at the Meadowmount School of Music often practice according to an informal rule: If a passerby can recognize a song, it’s being played too fast. The point of this super-exaggerated slowness (which produces songs that resemble those of humpback whales) is to reveal small mistakes that might have gone undetected, and thus create more high-quality reaches.
Businesses do it too. Google offers “20-percent time”: Engineers are given 20 percent of their work time to spend on private, nonapproved projects they are passionate about, and thus ones for which they are more likely to take risks. I’ve encountered numerous organizations that have employees sign a “contract” affirming that they will take risks and make mistakes. Living-Social, the Washington, D.C., e-commerce company, has a rule of thumb for employees: Once a week, you should make a decision at work that scares you.
Whatever the strategy, the goal is always the same: to encourage reaching, and to reinterpret mistakes so that they’re not verdicts, but the information you use to navigate to the correct move.
TIP #6 CHOOSE SPARTAN OVER LUXURIOUS
We love comfort. We love state-of-the-art practice facilities, oak-paneled corner offices, spotless locker rooms, and fluffy towels. Which is a shame, because luxury is a motivational narcotic: It signals our unconscious minds to give less effort. It whispers, Relax, you’ve made it.
The talent hotbeds are not luxurious. In fact, they are so much the opposite that they are sometimes called chicken-wire Harvards. Top music camps—especially ones that can afford better—consist mainly of rundown cabins. The North Baltimore Aquatic Club, which produced Michael Phelps and four other Olympic medalists, could pass for an underfunded YMCA. The world’s highest-performing schools—those in Finland and South Korea, which perennially score at the top of the Program for International Student Assessment rankings—feature austere classrooms that look as if they haven’t changed since the 1950s.
The point of this tip is not moral; it’s neural. Simple, humble spaces help focus attention on the deep-practice task at hand: reaching and repeating and struggling. When given the choice between luxurious and spartan, choose spartan. Your unconscious mind will thank you.
TIP #7 BEFORE YOU START, FIGURE OUT IF IT’S A HARD SKILL OR A SOFT SKILL
The first step toward building a skill is to figure out exactly what type of skill you’re building. Every skill falls into one of two categories: hard skills and soft skills.
HARD, HIGH-PRECISION SKILLS are actions that are performed as correctly and consistently as possible, every time. They are skills that have one path to an ideal result; skills that you could imagine being performed by a reliable robot. Hard skills are about repeatable precision, and tend to be found in specialized pursuits, particularly physical ones. Some examples:
• a golfer swinging a club, a tennis player serving, or any precise, repeating athletic move;
• a child performing basic math (for example, addition or the multiplication tables);
• a violinist playing a specific chord;
• a basketball player shooting a free throw;
• a young reader translating letter shapes into sounds and words;
• a worker on an assembly line, attaching a part.
Here, your goal is to build a skill that functions like a Swiss watch—reliable, exact, and performed the same way every time, automatically, without fail. Hard skills are about ABC: Always Being Consistent.
SOFT, HIGH-FLEXIBILITY SKILLS, on the other hand, are those that have many paths to a good result, not just one. These skills aren’t about doing the same thing perfectly every time, but rather about being agile and interactive; about instantly recognizing patterns as they unfold and making smart, timely choices. Soft skills tend to be found in broader, less-specialized pursuits, especially those that involve communication, such as:
• a soccer player sensing a weakness in the defense and deciding to attack;
• a stock trader spotting a hidden opportunity amid a chaotic trading day;
• a novelist instinctively shaping the twists of a complicated plot;
• a singer subtly interpreting the music to highlight emotion;
• a police officer on a late-night patrol, assessing potential danger;
• a CEO “reading a room” in a tense meeting or negotiation.
With these skills, we are not trying for Swiss-watch precision, but rather for the ability to quickly recognize a pattern or possibility, and to work past a complex set of obstacles. Soft skills are about the three Rs: Reading, Recognizing, and Reacting.
The point of this tip is that hard skills and soft skills are different (literally, they use different structures of circuits in your brain), and thus are developed through different methods of deep practice.
Begin by asking yourself which of these skills need to be absolutely 100-percent consistent every single time. Which need to be executed with machinelike precision? These are the hard skills.
Then ask yourself, which skills need to be flexible, and variable, and depend on the situation? Which depend on instantly recognizing patterns and selecting one optimal choice? These are the soft skills.
If you aren’t sure if the skill is hard or soft, here’s a quick litmus test: Is a teacher or coach usually involved in the early stages? If the answer is yes, then it’s likely a hard skill. If it’s no, then it’s a soft skill. Violinists and figure skaters tend to have teachers; CEOs and stand-up comics don’t. The following three tips take this idea further, explaining the methods of deep practice that work best to develop each type of skill.
TIP #8 TO BUILD HARD SKILLS, WORK LIKE A CAREFUL CARPENTER
To develop reliable hard skills, you need to connect the right wires in your brain. In this, it helps to be careful, slow, and keenly attuned to errors. To work like a careful carpenter.
A good example of hard-skill carpentry is found in the Suzuki music instruction method. Suzuki students begin by spending several lessons simply learning to hold the bow and the violin with the right finger curve and pressure, the right stance, the right posture. Using rhyme and repetition, they learn to move the bow (without the violin) “up like a rocket, down like the rain, back and forth like a choo-choo train.” Each fundamental, no matter how humble-seeming, is introduced as a precise skill of huge importance (which, of course, it really is), taught via a series of vivid images, and worked on over and over until it is mastered. The vital pieces are built, rep by careful rep.
Another example can be found on a worn piece of paper inside the wallet of Tom Brady, the three-time Super Bowl–winning quarterback of the New England Patriots. On that paper is a handwritten list of fundamental keys to throwing technique. All of them are simple (example: “Throw down the hall”), and all of them connect to the drills Brady’s been doing with his personal coach Tom Martinez since he was fourteen years old. In fact, until Martinez died in 2012, Brady visited his coach once or twice a year for a tune-up—or, to put it more accurately, a repaving of Brady’s neural highways to make sure they were still running smoothly.
Precision especially matters early on, because the first reps establish the pathways for the future. Neurologists call this the “sled on a snowy hill” phenomenon. The first repetitions are like the first sled tracks on fresh snow: On subsequent tries, your sled will tend to follow those grooves. “Our brains are good at building connections,” says Dr. George Bartzokis, a neurologist at UCLA. “They’re not so good at unbuilding them.”
When you learn hard skills, be precise and measured. Go slowly. Make one simple move at a time, repeating and perfecting it before you move on. Pay attention to errors, and fix them, particularly at the start. Learning fundamentals only seems boring—in fact, it’s the key moment of investment. If you build the right pathway now, you’ll save yourself a lot of time and trouble down the line.
TIP #9 TO BUILD SOFT SKILLS, PLAY LIKE A SKATEBOARDER
Soft skills catch our eye because they are beautiful: Picture the soccer star Lionel Messi improvising his way to a brilliant goal, or Jimi Hendrix blazing through a guitar solo, or Jon Stewart riffing through a comic monologue. These talents appear utterly magical and unique. In fact they are the result of super-fast brain software recognizing patterns and responding in just the right way.
While hard skills are best put together with measured precision (see Tip #8), soft skills are built by playing and exploring inside challenging, ever-changing environments. These are places where you encounter different obstacles and respond to them over and over, building the network of sensitive wiring you need to read, recognize, and react. In other words, to build soft skills you should behave less like a careful carpenter and more like a skateboarder in a skateboard park: aggressive, curious, and experimental, always seeking new ways to challenge yourself.
Brazil, home of many of the world’s most skilled soccer players, develops its players through a unique game called futebol de salão (“soccer in the room”). This insanely fast, tightly compressed five-on-five version of the game—played on a field the size of a basketball court—creates 600 percent more touches, demands instant pattern recognition and, in the words of Emilio Miranda, a professor of soccer at the University of São Paulo, serves as Brazil’s “laboratory of improvisation.”
Chicago’s Second City, the comedy troupe that has served as a training ground for some of America’s most successful comedians (alumni include Bill Murray, John Belushi, John Candy, Steve Carell, Stephen Colbert, and Tina Fey, among others) accomplishes this by providing a rich, competitive, endlessly varied space in which to practice improvisation, sketch comedy, and stand-up. (For a good example of how profoundly this can improve skills, go to YouTube and look up Tina Fey’s Second City work from the ’90s. On second thought, don’t.) Even the most creative skills—especially the most creative skills—require long periods of clumsiness.
The Brontë sisters, three of whom became world-class novelists, built their talents by writing thousands of pages of stories in tiny homemade books when they were children. The early Brontë stories, like Fey’s early improv work, aren’t very good—and that’s precisely the point. They became skilled by performing thousands of intensive reaches and reps in an endlessly challenging, variable, engaging space.
When you practice a soft skill, focus on making a high number of varied reps, and on getting clear feedback. Don’t worry too much about making errors—the important thing is to explore. Soft skills are often more fun to practice, but they’re also tougher because they demand that you coach yourself. After each session ask yourself, What worked? What didn’t? And why?
TIP #10 HONOR THE HARD SKILLS
As you probably recognize, most talents are not exclusively hard skills or soft skills, but rather a combination of the two. For example, think of a violinist’s precise finger placement to play a series of notes (a hard skill) and her ability to interpret the emotion of a song (a soft skill). Or a quarterback’s ability to deliver an accurate spiral (a hard skill) and his ability to swiftly read a defense (a soft skill).
The point of this tip is simple: Prioritize the hard skills because in the long run they’re more important to your talent. At Spartak, the Moscow tennis club, there is a rule that young players must wait years before entering competitive tournaments. “Technique is everything,” said a coach, Larisa Preobrazhenskaya. “If you begin playing without technique it is big mistake.”
You might be surprised to learn that many top performers place great importance on practicing the same skills they practiced as beginners. The cellist Yo-Yo Ma spends the first minutes of every practice playing single notes on his cello. The NFL quarterback Peyton Manning spends the first segment of every practice doing basic footwork drills—the kind they teach twelve-year-olds. These performers don’t say to themselves, “Hey, I’m one of the most talented people in the world—shouldn’t I be doing something more challenging?” They resist the temptation of complexity and work on the task of honing and maintaining their hard skills, because those form—quite literally—the foundation of everything else.
One way to keep this idea in mind is to picture your talent as a big oak tree—a massive, thick trunk of hard skills with a towering canopy of flexible soft skills up above. First build the trunk. Then work on the branches.
TIP #11 DON’T FALL FOR THE PRODIGY MYTH
Most of us grow up being taught that talent is an inheritance, like brown hair or blue eyes. Therefore, we presume that the surest sign of talent is early, instant, effortless success, i.e., being a prodigy. In fact, a well-established body of research shows that that assumption is false. Early success turns out to be a weak predictor of long-term success.
Many top performers are overlooked early on, then grow quietly into stars. This list includes Michael Jordan (cut from his high school varsity team as a sophomore), Charles Darwin (considered slow and ordinary by teachers), Walt Disney (fired from an early job because he “lacked imagination”), Albert Einstein, Louis Pasteur, Paul Gauguin, Thomas Edison, Leo Tolstoy, Fred Astaire, Winston Churchill, Lucille Ball, and so on. One theory, put forth by Dr. Carol Dweck of Stanford University, is that the praise and attention prodigies receive lead them to instinctively protect their “magical” status by taking fewer risks, which eventually slows their learning.
The talent hotbeds are not built on identifying talent, but on constructing it, day by day. They are not overly impressed by precociousness and do not pretend to know who will succeed. While I was visiting the U.S. Olympic Training Center at Colorado Springs, I asked a roomful of fifty experienced coaches this question: Could they accurately assess a top fifteen-year-old’s chances of winning a medal in Games two years from then? Only one coach raised his hand.*
Anson Dorrance, the head coach of the University of North Carolina women’s soccer team, which he has led to twenty-one national championship wins, sums this up nicely. “One of the most unfortunate things I see when identifying youth players is the girl who is told over the years how great she is. By the time she’s a high school freshman, she starts to believe it. By her senior year, she’s fizzled out. Then there’s her counterpart: a girl waiting in the wings, who quietly and with determination decides she’s going to make something of herself. Invariably, this humble, hardworking girl is the one who becomes the real player.”
If you have early success, do your best to ignore the praise and keep pushing yourself to the edges of your ability, where improvement happens. If you don’t have early success, don’t quit. Instead, treat your early efforts as experiments, not as verdicts. Remember, this is a marathon, not a sprint.
* Unsurprisingly, it was the gymnastics coach, who works in a sport where athletes peak early and body type plays a dominant role.
TIP #12 FIVE WAYS TO PICK A HIGH-QUALITY TEACHER OR COACH
Great teachers, coaches, and mentors, like any rare species, can be identified by a few characteristic traits. The following rules are designed to help you sort through the candidates and make the best choice for yourself.
1) Avoid Someone Who Reminds You of a Courteous Waiter
This species of teacher/coach/mentor is increasingly abundant in our world: one who focuses his efforts on keeping you comfortable and happy, on making things go smoothly, with a minimum of effort. This is the kind of person who covers a lot of material in a short time, smiles a lot, and says things like, “Don’t worry, no problem, we can take care of that later.” This is a good person to have as your waiter in a restaurant, but a terrible person to have as your teacher, coach, or mentor.
2) Seek Someone Who Scares You a Little
In contrast to encounters with courteous waiters, encounters with great teachers/coaches/mentors tend to be filled with unfamiliar emotion: feelings of respect, admiration, and, often, a shiver of fear. This is a good sign. Look for someone who:
Watches you closely: He is interested in figuring you out—what you want, where you’re coming from, what motivates you.
Is action-oriented: She often won’t want to spend a lot of time chatting—instead, she’ll want to jump into a few activities immediately, so she can get a feel for you and vice versa.
Is honest, sometimes unnervingly so: He will tell you the truth about your performance in clear language. This stings at first. But you’ll come to see that it’s not personal—it’s the information you can use to get better.
It’s worth noting that the word “coach” originally came from kocsi, the Hungarian word for “carriage.” You’re not looking for a buddy or a parent figure. You’re looking for someone solid, someone you trust, someone with whom you take a journey.
3) Seek Someone Who Gives Short, Clear Directions
Most great teachers/coaches/mentors do not give long-winded speeches. They do not give sermons or long lectures. Instead, they give short, unmistakably clear directions; they guide you to a target.
John Wooden, the UCLA basketball coach who is widely considered one of the greatest teachers of all time, was once the subject of a yearlong study that captured everything he said to his team. Wooden didn’t give long speeches; in fact, his average utterance lasted only four seconds. This underlines a large truth: Teaching is not an eloquence contest; it is about creating a connection and delivering useful information.
4) Seek Someone Who Loves Teaching Fundamentals
Great teachers will often spend entire practice sessions on one seemingly small fundamental—for example, the way you grip a golf club, or the way you pluck a single note on a guitar. This might seem strange, but it reflects their understanding of a vital reality: These fundamentals are the core of your skills (see Tip #10). The more advanced you are, the more crucial they become.
5) Other Things Being Equal, Pick the Older Person
Teaching is like any other talent: It takes time to grow. This is why so many hotbeds are led by people in their sixties and seventies. Great teachers are first and foremost learners, who improve their skills with each passing year. That’s not to say there aren’t any good teachers under thirty—there are. Nor is it to say that every coach with gray hair is a genius—they’re not. But other things being equal, go with someone older.