The Talent Code

The Talent Code – Book Notes

Reading time: ~14 min.

Let’s say you’re at a party and you’re having difficulty remembering someone’s name. If you’re given the name by someone else, it’s highly likely that you’ll forget it again. On the other hand, if you can remember it on your own – to fire the signal yourself, instead of passively receiving the information – you’ll mark it into your memory because you practiced deeper.

Let’s give another example to compare passive with active learning/memorization again. Let’s say you’re on an airplane, and the cabin steward is giving the same instructions you’ve heard a million times before about how to put on a life vest – “Slip the life jacket over your head, and fasten the two black straps to the front. Pull down the red tabs to inflate the life jacket.” Sometime after, the plane experiences grave turbulence and you hear the captain’s urgent voice in the intercom telling passengers to put on their life jackets. How quickly could you do it? How should we wrap the black straps? What do the red tabs do again?

Now alternatively image the same flight, but this time instead of just watching the demonstration, you actually practice it. You put the yellow plastic over your head, and you toy around with the tabs and the straps managing to put yourself ready on your own. The plane experiences the same turbulence, and you hear the captain’s voice. Don’t you think you would put it much faster?

There’s a story about a pianist who dreamed about being a pilot. To practice he started by doing a simulator that taught how to pilot a plane in 0 visibility conditions, in much less time and cost than the real thing. All the military laughed at him and told him it was a good toy. Only about 50 were sold, and they were for amusement parks. Later on, really bad weather was hitting the region and he was already a pilot. In a day full of fog he landed perfectly which made all the military stupefied. In WWII thousands were sold and soldiers ability to land with bad visibility conditions dramatically improved. All this because before many pilots would die, the teaching method was the same for decades. The pilots that used the simulator weren’t smarter or innately better. They just had the opportunity to practice more deeply and with greater efficacy.

Another guy went to Brazil to study how was it possible that so many quality players were made there. He saw many things he’d expected to find: passion, tradition, highly organized training centers, long practice sessions (teenage players at Brazilian soccer academies logged twenty hours per week, compared with five hours per week for their British counterparts). He saw the poverty of the favelas, and the desperation in the players’ eyes to get out of it, which was a source of fuel for their motivation. Another reason is that they play a lot of futsal. It seems that they touch the ball 600% more than football (soccer) players which ends up resulting in them practicing a lot more. Moreover, the ball is smaller and heavier which forces them to be precise and strong. Also, since the field is much smaller, there is a lot of constant action increasing the total time they are practicing compared to regular football players. In the book the author talks about a coach that came from there, applied futsal drills to a team of sub-18 football players and put them winning championships a few years after that.

“I have always maintained that excepting fools, men did not differ much in intellect, only in zeal and hard work.” — Charles Darwin

Q: Why is targeted, mistake-focused practice so effective?
A: Because the best way to build a good circuit is to fire it, attend to mistakes, then fire it again, over and over. Struggle is not an option: it’s a biological requirement.

Q: Why are passion and persistence key ingredients of talent?
A: Because wrapping myelin* around a big circuit requires immense energy and time. Therefore persistence is needed if memories are to be consolidated. Also, if you don’t love it, you’ll never work hard enough to be great.

*Myelin is a substance that forms a insulating cover around many nerve fibers, and that increases the speed at which impulses are conducted. So a nerve fiber covered with myelin and another with out are like an internet connection of 100Mbs and another of 10Mbs, or a highway and a dirt road.

For a previous book, the author had spent a year following Lance Armstrong as he prepared for tour de France. He saw in Armstrong a typical mental approach of a champion — an almost maniacal focus on errors, a desire to optimize every dimension of the race, and a restless will to operate at the edge of his and others abilities.

We should think of our skill circuits (or the neurons and the pathways between them) as muscles. If we try to to lift things we can barely lift, the muscles will respond by getting stronger. If we lift things we can easily lift, we’re basically just expending energy. Similarly, if we fire our “skill circuits”, which in our brain will correspond to some specific neurons, by trying to do things we can barely do – which the author calls deep practice – then your skill circuits will respond by getting faster and more fluent.

Deliberate practice – is an expression coined by Ericsson and that can be defined as working on technique, seeking constant critical feedback, and focusing ruthlessly on improving weaknesses. From what I understood it has the same meaning as the author’s term “deep practice”.

Excellence is a habit. — Aristotle

There were 3 peasant uneducated girls, that was said lived in the countryside, orphans of mother and that, apparently from nothingness, that is, pure genius filled with talent, wrote some of the best English romances ever. An unconvinced historian dug deeper into their history and discovered that they actually lived in a city and that they had several books and magazines. Many manuscripts written by them were also found, and written in several styles (poems, prose, …) where they imitated other authors. But they pretty much sucked, and there were no visible sign of genius up until adulthood. However it may have been precisely that time of making a lot of mistakes and learning with them, being immature with writing that, according to the book’s author, allowed them to achieve the world-class level they did when adults.

So the futsal players made and corrected a lot more mistakes per day than the football players, that is, they were in a environment of dense practicing. Similarly, there was a group that by practicing in empty pools were constantly making and correcting their mistakes, which led them to rise to fame (Z-boys)

There’s also a very interesting topic to discuss which is why there are certain times when there seem to appear several geniuses and others none or very few (The Problem of Excess Genius)

We are hard-wired to imitate. There was a 8 year-old girl, top tennis player of her country, that had a right serve exactly like Federer’s. When asked how and why did she do it, and she replies “I don’t know. I just do it.” People could immediately say she is clearly a gifted girl, born with immense talent. Well turns out her family was a great fan of Federer and that they saw every single game of his.

Deep/deliberate Practice

1 – Know the whole, the broad and the basis first – Know the trunk of the tree before knowing the branches;

2 – Break it in parts, so that later you easily connect them – Break a skill into its component pieces, memorize/practice those pieces individually, then link them together in progressively larger groupings;

3 – Slow it down. – “It’s not how fast you can do it. It’s how slow you can do it correctly.” Some researchers asked volleyball players how they practiced the serve, and tried to guess their skill. It turns how the way they practice was enough to predict with ~90% accuracy their ranking. Experts practice differently and much more strategically. When they fail, they don’t blame it on luck or themselves as a person. They have in mind a specific action/issue they can fix.

4 – Dense practice. – As Vladimir Horowitz, a virtuoso pianist who performed into his eighties, put it, “If I skip practice for one day, I notice. If I skip practice for two days, my wife notices. If I skip for three days, the world notices.”

There was a study that showed that what made babies improve their walking ability was only how much time they were spending firing their neurons and circuits by trying to walk, failing, and trying again uncomfortably improving. It had nothing to do with weight, height, or other innate capacity. The image of a baby wobbling around and then falling, in a way represents dense practice [I think a better definition for the expression dense practice would be more density of mistakes/learning per time. So a dense practicing time would be one where you learned many things in little time. The definition given by the author just seems like another synonym to deep/deliberate practice].

The state of uncomfortably improving our skill. The longer the babies kept going in that state and permitted themselves to fail, the more myelin they built, and the more skill they earned. The wobbling babies personify the greatest truth about good practice: to get good, it’s best to be willing, or even enthusiastic, about being bad. “Baby steps are the royal road to skill.”

South Korea. A girl won an important golf world cup. From then on there were gradually more South Korean girls of champion caliber in golf appearing. The same thing with Anna Kournikova for the Russians in tennis. It wasn’t that all of a sudden tennis and golf geniuses appeared. It was that with time and deep dense practice that the first one became champion which motivated the others to achieve the same. Suddenly people from that country have someone to look up to, to imitate, to be like. It works as fuel.

There was another study about students playing an instrument. Everything else being equal, the ones that were thinking about being musicians and playing that instrument for the rest of their lives, would improve more quickly than the ones that just wanted to successfully finish the musical course.

The author defends that many times ignition and motivation comes from the outside, from someone that inspires us. For example, at a music school the author met some kids said things like “I just always liked the violin/cello/ piano.” when asked why did played that instrument. But then we would learn that their parents played in symphony orchestras. In other words, these kids had spent hundreds of hours in their childhood watching who they loved the most practice and perform classical music, a clear motive for ignition.

All the hotbeds (places where many great talents are formed) that the author visited were clumsy unattractive places, with just the necessary material to practice. If we are in a lovely pleasant environment, we tend to not exert as much effort. Why should we? But if we’re put in rough, though not too much, just enough to fuel us to want to change bad but still have the possibilities of doing so, we get motivated. A tennis coach says how a lovely well-kept tennis academy gives players a part of what they dream of in the present, therefore removing a source of motivation. It’s part of human nature.

For example, several accomplished “geniuses” such as Newton and da Vinci, lost a parent early on. That would give them the feeling of not being safe which would motivated them to excel to not feel unsafe. Lack of safety can work like a source of energy. Dean Keith Simonton wrote of parental loss in Origins of Genius, “…such adverse events nurture the development of a personality robust enough to overcome the many obstacles and frustrations standing in the path of achievement.”

Talent (read great skill/ability) needs deep practice. Deep practice needs energy (motivation). Primal feelings such as unsafety feelings can be such motivators.

“A nuclear burst of media attention followed, hailing Jones’s natural-born talent, comparing him to Clemente, Mantle, and da Vinci, marveling at the unearthly God-given quickness of his wrists. In fact, that quickness was no gift from above. Jones had been swinging a bat since the age of two, coached by his father, Henry.”

However, ignition alone isn’t enough. The fact that the korean golf player and the russian Kournikova won major competitions in their fields wouldn’t be enough. It is also necessary to maintain the flame lit. The author mentions for example that da Vinci would be surrounded by great artists, being inspired all the time. In Brazil there are signs of passion for football everywhere that encourages people to think about it, to get inspired and ultimately get motivated. By constantly being presented with a hero or just someone we look up to, can make us think “Hey, you can be like him/her too. You can achieve the same greatness. It it not out of your reach.”

Two groups of students were tested. Group 1 was told that one’s results mainly correspond to one’s intelligence. Group 2 was told that results correlate more highly with effort. The researchers let them chose between a easy and a hard test. Group 1 students tended to prefer the easy tests, whereas group tended to prefer hard tests. After that the researchers gave both groups a very hard test, so that they would all fail. Group 1 felt dumb and demotivated, while group 2 felt motivated for more (Carol Dweck).

Types of expressions used in hotbeds: “baby steps”, “practicing is a struggle”, “just do it”, “good job/work”, “good effort” > “you’re smart”. “Great, now do …. ” When a student manages to do something the coach immediately asks them to do something he can’t yet. Several coaches/teachers in hotbeds swear that what motivates their students is exactly enforcing the idea that reaching the top is a hard path that takes a lot of effort and time.

“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” [The entrepreneurial class has adopted this expression with great devotion, being it many times even valorized. Sir Richard Branson is a proponent of the great benefits of failing better. In an interview he said that it comes “from the playwright of Samuel Beckett, but it could just as easily come from the mouth of yours truly.”]

Wooden, nicknamed the Wizard of the West, author of the book You Haven’t Taught Until They Have Learned was one of the best ever baseball coaches. Most people regarded Wooden’s success as a product of his humble, thoughtful, inspiring character. But two researchers showed that his success was a result less of his character than of his error-centered, well-planned, information-rich method. What looked like unplanned drills, unplanned practice sessions, were planned by the minute beforehand with a lot of detail. No details were too small to be considered. Also his training was focused on identifying errors and correcting them, thereby increasing the density of the practice (things learned / amount of time). He would seek from their players a smalls improvements one at a time.

There are several top coaches that study their students to their minute details (motivation, family, wealth, psychological state, etc.) and  generate a practice schedule and methods accordingly.

In the author’s small town which apparently is a hotbed of music, they were told to have their kid taught by a short fully white-haired 86-year old lady named Mary. One time she asked if the author’s father had ever played an instrument to which he responded that he had tried piano but didn’t have the “knack”. “Didn’t have the patience, you mean,” Miss Mary replied kindly but firmly.

Finland’s success in education is analyzed. Despite their culture not being too different to the USA, and students have a normal life-balance. The reason? Teachers. There they are not only seen as a high status profession, but they are payed as such, and the path to becoming a teacher is very hard, probably harder than getting into medicine there. All of them have master’s degree in pedagogy.

Some parents use DVDs to try to improve their kids intelligence. However they actually decrease their vocabulary because listening and seeing is only shallow practice. When they could be actively talking and interacting with their parents (deep practice) they are passively watching and listening (shallow).

Toyota is also analyzed as a success story of a medium-sized company that became the multinational it is today.

In the USA there’s a shyness clinic. Social skills are like any others. If we practice and get feedback we improve. The cognitive behavior therapy focuses on deep practice by focusing on thinking errors. In that clinic everything is in baby steps. People start by doing one thing that makes them slightly uncomfortable, like making small talk with a stranger, and after time and effort they can do something that would in the beginning leave them completely terrified such as falling in the ground or letting a melon fall from their hands in a supermarket full of people.

Bill Gates, when he was still unknown, spent days and nights in front of the computer programming for years. Sometimes he would fall asleep over the keyboard “It was my obsession”.

Below are the books that were mentioned in this book that I found very related to this topic. The video is about a topic that was also talked about in the book, that is, focusing on improving and effort rather than one’s innate characteristics, such as intelligence. You probably might be also interested in the notes of the book Bounce, which is also about this same subject.

  1. The Problem of Excessive Genius
  2. Mindset: How You Can Fulfil Your Potential
  3. The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance
  4. Genius Explained
  5. The Power of Believing that you can improve

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