I have been wanting to read this book ever since I heard it mentioned by author Mike Sundy in an episode of Stories Unbound. It explores the question of what talent is and how we unlock it. Coyle says, "Greatness isn't Born. It's Grown. Here's How."
It's All About the Myelin
On a microscopic level you can actually see where talent lies in the brain by examining the way nerve fibers are wrapped in myelin. All of our thoughts, feelings and movements are controlled by complex circuits of nerve fibers and the more we fire certain circuits, the more those particular nerves become wrapped in an insulating substance called Myelin. Over time, the more myelin we develop, the better we are able to perform certain tasks. This is the science behind what we often call “muscle memory.”
This little piece of brain science is important evidence supporting the idea that talent is not actually innate, but something that can be developed through what Coyle refers to as Deep Practice. This was the part of the book I found most interesting and most applicable to art and illustration.
The Rules of Deep Practice:
Absorb it as a whole.
This means you are extensively studying the desired skill whether it is baseball or art or music. Watch, listen and absorb what it looks like until you can imagine yourself doing it. We are wired for imitation.
- Chunk it up.
Find a way to break larger pieces of information into a nested series of progressively smaller chunks. Break a skill into its component pieces, learn them individually and then begin to link them together again.
- Slow down.
This allows you to focus on correcting errors resulting in more precision and a deeper understanding. Slow to learn = slow to forget.
- Rinse and Repeat. There is no substitute for daily practice and Coyle points out that it takes as little as one month for myelin to begin to break down. Coyle does buy into the 10,000 hours to mastery principle, but he says it’s not the length of time spent practicing that’s important. It’s the way you practice.
This brings me to one of the biggest takeaways from this book and the one I found most encouraging. It is the idea that if you are not struggling, you are not practicing effectively (and conversely, if you are struggling, you are doing it right). If you are trying to learn to play a song on the violin and you just glide through it, skipping over wrong notes, rhythm or poor tuning, you are not practicing in a way that maximizes myelin growth. You can spend six minutes “deep practicing” in the way that Coyle recommends and make the same progress that might take you month to achieve with a less focused approach.
Effective practice is done when you step up to your edge – the space between comfort and discomfort. It is uncomfortable to practice in a way that feels like a struggle. We don’t want to do it because struggling feels like failure. But, he likens it to staggering babies: the more time they spend firing the circuits, the faster they learn to walk. And there is no way around it – they all go through an awkward stage.
There is much more to this book than what I have outlined here. It’s full of real life examples, research and stories that help reinforce the ideas of what makes effective practice. It also explores how talent is ignited (i.e. What drives people to pursue certain talents) and what makes a master coach. It a relatively quick read and will leave you with plenty to think about. It’s applicable to all areas of your life, not just art. I definitely recommend requesting it at your library or picking it up at your local book store!