If you’re interested in the art of developing good attitudes, skills and behaviour in your firm, you’ll be interested in a book called The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle. The book suggests that what got your people to get their jobs with you in the first place (including great academic achievements) is probably not what they need to excel in practice.
The Talent Code starts by asking the following questions:
- How did one run down Russian tennis club with only one indoor court produce more top 20 tennis players than the whole of the USA?
- How did the tiny island of Dominican Republic produce one in every nine top class baseball players?
- How did South Korea develop its Ladies golf talent, from one winner in 1998 to currently having eight from the top 20 money winners?
The first answer Coyle comes up with is deep practice, which he defines as struggling in certain targeted ways – operating at the edge of your ability, where you make mistakes. There’s lots of evidence that this process makes you smarter. How many lawyers, accountants or bankers do you know who are comfortable making mistakes?
An example of deep practice is the game of Futsal – a game played with some passion in Brazil on a small basketball sized court with a heavy ball. He claims that this forced the Brazilian soccer players to develop outstanding ball skills as well as vision and quick thinking.
Moving on to the science bit, the reason deep practice works is because it helps us produce myelin, the sheath that covers the neurons and ensures a strong, fast and accurate signal strength. So when we practise in the right way declining our French verbs, that 9 iron swing, Fur Elise on the piano, it’s like we’re building our own broadband system so we’ve got a better signal when we need it.
He argues that without the struggle element in the practice, you don’t get the required covering of myelin.
The Three Rules of Deep Practice
Those who develop a great talent in anything tend to practise in a different way. Research by the author spotted these tendencies:
- They chunk it up
In the context of music, players in talent hotbeds learn their pieces stanza by stanza (ie line by line). First they learn the notes, playing around with the rhythm, perhaps slowing it down. Then they link the phrases together. One teacher said ‘If anybody can recognise the piece when they’re practising, they’re not practising right!’
2. They repeat the practice more than we do
The old adage says ‘practice makes perfect’. Indeed many professionals practise around 5 hours a day. The research on talent hotbeds showed that those using a deep practice approach practised less – less than 3 hours a day. The important thing, it turns out, is to do the right practice. And deep practice is exhausting.
3. They learn to feel doing it right
Those engaged in deep practice tune themselves to be alert and focussed – in the zone. So they can hear or feel if anything isn’t perfect, thereby enabling them to self-correct. It’s not just about struggling. It’s about picking particular struggles. It goes like this:
- Pick a target
- Reach for it
- Evaluate the gap between the target and the reach
- Pick a new target….
Getting the Spark of Ignition
What causes some people to get into deep practice? It turns out that you need a spark of ignition.
There’s usually a psychological reason for causing ignition. For example, virtually all of the fastest sprinters were the youngest or amongst the youngest in their families. They had to keep up. Asafa Powell was 6th out of 6, Maurice Green was 4th out of 4, Carl Lewis was 3rd out of 4 and, guess what, Usain wasn’t the oldest! Is this a coincidence? It turns out that when you review all of the world’s fastest runners, they were born on average 4th out of 4.6 children.
Another startling discovery is that many of the most successful people lost a parent in their formative years. Here’s a sample:
Julie’s Caesar lost his father aged 15. Napoleon suffered the same fate at the same age. Fifteen British prime ministers lost one of their parents when they were kids. So did some notable US Presidents:
Washington – father, aged 11
Jefferson – father, aged 14
Lincoln –mother, aged 9
Here’s another selection of high achievers losing a parent early in life: Gandhi, Copernicus, Newton, Darwin, Dante, Michelangelo, Bach, Handel, Louis Armstrong, Charlie Chaplin, Paul McCartney, John Lennon as well as Lenin, Hitler, Stalin and dozens of others.
Might these losses have contributed to the springboard of energy to contribute to deep practice and myelin production?
This leads to the next important discovery – to do the type and level of deep practice, you need a lot of passion and persistence.
So some tips for those of you supervising juniors or in the role of mentors:
- help your juniors find their passion – without it, they won’t have the persistence
- stretch them so they’re at the edge of their capability
- give them lots of chance to practise
- let them make mistakes – they’ll learn from them!
It turns out that practice really does make perfect – but only if it’s the right type of practice!