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Has it ever frustrated you to think certain people are born with more talent than you and are just going to be better than you forever? Consider Michael Jordan. Everybody knows he was born with natural talent and skills in basketball and became the greatest hooper who ever lived. No matter how hard a kid might try to become as great as Michael Jordan, it is not going happen. Talent is talent and some people have a lot of it and some not as much. There is nothing anyone can do about that.

Tough luck. It's all the genes.

Hold on. Over this holiday season I found there is reason for hope for all of us regardless of our current skills at whatever we do, our chosen crafts, whether it's shooting a basketball, hitting a golf ball, playing the piano, writing, learning physics, writing software programs, teaching school children, literally anything that requires skill development.

I gained this encouragement by reading a new book titled The Talent Code: Greatness Isn't Born. It's Grown. Here's How.  Written by Daniel Coyle, the book offers a treasure-chest of research findings that support his premise that you and I can become better at, say, shooting a basketball by repeating the shooting drills over and over.

Well, duh, right? Everybody knows that practice makes perfect or close to perfect. Human beings have known this since the Stone Ages. Well, not so fast. There's more to it than you may have realized.

Here's what important :Literally, the more times you shoot the ball the more your brain's neural insulator mechanism,  known as myelin, adds vast amounts of speed and accuracy to your movements and thoughts. Neurologists have only started understanding myelin in the past decade, and much more so in the past few years. Understanding the critical role that myelin plays in skill development for you and everyone else is a relatively new scientific discovery--and it's a big deal.

The author writes: 

"Scientists have discovered that myelin might be the foundation of all forms of greatness. The good news about myelin is that isn't fixed at birth; to the contrary, it grows and, like anything that grows, it can be cultivated and nourished...Every human skill, whether it's playing baseball or playing Bach, is created by chains of nerve fibers carrying a tiny electrical impulse, basically a signal traveling through a circuit. Myelin's vital role is to wrap those nerve fibers the same way that rubber insulation wraps over a copper wire, making the signal stronger and faster by preventing the electrical impulses from leaking out. When we fire our circuits in the right way, when we practice swinging that bat or playing that note, our myelin responds by wrapping layers of insulation around that neural circuit, each new layer adding a bit more skill and speed. The thicker the myelin gets, the better it insulates, and the faster and more accurate our movements and thoughts become..."Myelin is a neurological mechanism in which certain patterns of targeted practice build skill...Skill is a cellular insulation that wraps neural circuits and grows in response to certain signals."

The author links his explanation of myelin to his first-hand research gathered on his treks to nine of the world's talent hotbeds, including classical music academies, a Caribbean Little League baseball program, and an elite youth tennis academy in Russia.

What does all this mean? It means that, for example, the notion that the Michael Jordan was born a great shooter is neuro­logically untrue. Like you and I, he had to practice shooting the ball countless times to build up more and more myelin in his brain. The more myelin his brain wrapped around more electrical signals, the more he improved and refined his shooting skill.

As the author writes: "Myelin does not care who you are. It only cares what you do."

That's a powerful idea. You, in effect, can control how good or great you can be.

Granted, Jordan was born with exceptional natural talent so he probably built up myelin faster and more effectively than most other people practicing shooting. But for the vast majority of other people who want to improve their basketball shooting skills, they can take heart that practicing repeatedly will improve their skill. Think of it this way: If two 10 year old boys born with roughly the same ability to shoot a basketball were studied, the one who shoots 200 shots per day will improve his skill more than the one who shoots 100 shots per day. He will literally build more myelin in the brain, wrap more of it around more electrical circuits, and will physiologically develop more sharpened skills.

But in developing these skills, it's not just to practice 200 shots and get better than if you shoot 100 shots. It's critical to execute what the author labels "deep practice." To make his point, he rhetorically raises the question as to why Brazil has for so many years ranked  among the world's greatest soccer countries measured by performance in the World Cup and other major international competitions.

A typical yet inaccurate assessment, he explains, is that Brazil excels at soccer because of the high percentage of people who play year round starting at a young age. But this theory does not hold up, because many other countries have comparable percentages of playing soccer year round when very young. It's not that Brazilian kids play soccer all the time and start young that makes them better than those from other countries. It's because of how they deep practice.

To illustrate, in Brazil kids start out playing soccer with heavier balls than typical balls, and they play on a court about the size of a high school basketball court. A basketball court is much smaller in length and width than a typical soccer field. By playing on a smaller "field" with a heavier ball, the players have to learn how to maneuver the ball in smaller spaces, with more defenders closer to them, with more narrow passing lanes, and more foot strength required to handle the heavier ball. They develop faster and more versatile foot and ball skills, sharper hand-eye and foot-eye coordination.

This deep practice translates to faster and more efficient skill development than kids in other countries who play constantly on normal size soccer fields. Neurologically, Brazilian kids develop more myelin faster, enabling them to improve their soccer skills faster and more broadly and effectively.

In another arena, consider this scenario of a youth baseball player. He would develop his hand eye coordination to hit a baseball much faster if he took 100 swings with a whiffle ball bat, which is much thinner than a typical baseball bat; and swing at golf-ball-sized whiffle balls, which are much smaller than typical baseballs. Hitting these small whiffle balls with a whiffle ball bat requires more precise hand-eye coordination than using a normal bat and baseball. By practicing more often with whiffle bats and balls more myelin develops in the child's brain, thereby accelerating his hitting skill. Put another way, skill development accelerates and improves by practicing more difficult skills, ones that stretch the limits of ability.

Here is how the book explains this concept:

The best way to build a good circuit is to fire it, attend to mistakes and then fire it again, over and over. Struggle is not an option; it's a biological requirement.

The book also stresses that if anyone really wants to master a skill, they need to practice it for 10,000 hours. Although a theoretical estimate, it does give a reasonable target number for what it truly requires to shoot a basketball with the high level of skill of Michael Jordan. He may not have deep practiced his shot for 10,000 hours during his life-we can't know for sure. But it's reasonable to assume he spent at least a few thousand hours in deep shooting practice.

So in rough times, if you deep practiced shooting a basketball every day of the year for one hour (365 hours), you would become great within 27 years (10,000 hours divided by 365 hours per year). Applying the same formula,  a professional writing career, and you started at the age of 22 writing every day for one hour per day, you should become a great writer by the age of 49 (27 years.+ 22 years = 49 years).

The book also drove home the same message that greatness isn't born. In the chapter about the Bronte sisters, Charlotte, Emily and Anne. Ultimately they became famous novelists who wrote some of America's greatest novels such as Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. But this didn't just happen one day when they sat down and started for the first time to write. Throughout their childhoods they wrote countless stories, exploring their imaginations, practicing the writing craft. The author points out that it was noteworthy to find that much of that early writing did not reveal anything close to excellent writing skills, somewhat poor in fact. But they practiced writing so much, build up so much myelin in the brain, that they ultimately developed exceptional writing skills.

"The unskilled quality of their early writing isn't a contradiction of the literary heights they eventually achieved-it's a prerequisite to it," the author writes. "They became great writers not in spite of the fact that they started out immature and imitative, but because they were willing to spend vast amounts of time and energy being immature and imitative, building myelin in the confined, safe spacer of their little books."

So there is hope for you, me and everybody. You have probably heard in your life that hard work pays off. After reading this book, I have never been more sure of this. I knew muscle memory played a big part in improvement at shooting a basketball, hitting a golf ball or whatever skill being developed. What I did not know-and this is the key breakthrough insight in the book-is that skill development starts with a physiological developmental change in how the brain operates. Myelin wraps around electrical circuits. That's the essence of skill. Practice the deep skill and more myelin will develop.  Develop more myelin and you will undoubtedly become better at whatever skill at which you strive to improve.

This is the biggest takeaway: Myelin doesn't care who you are. It only cares about what you do. This is one of the most inspiring realizations I have ever encountered. I hope it inspires you, too. Happy myelin wrapping in 2013 and beyond.

 

 

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