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The Science of Talent

When you hear the sound of Bach or watch LeBron James glide across the court to jump 40-plus inches into the air, you can’t help but wonder: how? What about your co-worker who secretly plays the mandolin? Or your friend who decided to take up snowboarding a little too late in life but is showing you GoPro videos that reveal some amazing moves?

What is talent, exactly?

Ours is a culture mystified by the invisible power of talent— why are some people seemingly born with talent while others struggle to find theirs? The thinking goes, “My friend was born to be a pianist. Look at how good she is. I could never do that.”

The stories and language that we throw around are at the heart of a terrible misunderstanding. At the heart of this misunderstanding lies the kind of self-deception that’s easy to lean on.

“The saddest thing in this life is wasted talent,” said Sonny in the movie A Bronx Tale. The second saddest thing in life is neglecting to figure out what you’re talented in because of the hopeless (and unscientific, as it turns out) belief that people are born talented. That’s about as ridiculous as believing that putting on reading glasses makes you smarter. (It may make you look smart, but it won’t produce any extra knowledge.)

My perspective on talent fundamentally changed after reading The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle. The heart of talent, he argues, is built on a revolutionary scientific discovery on the neural insulator called myelin.

According to Coyle,

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 a copper wire, making the signal stronger and faster by preventing 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.

Daniel Coyle — Photo cred: thetalentcode.com

Here is the truth: everyone can grow myelin. It grows quickly in childhood but begins to wane around 50 years of age, like most of our physiology (sight, memory, hearing, etc.) It grows in any kind of skill, mental or physical. The only downside is that we can’t see it or feel it—we can only measure our progress in a skillset or find out through feedback. As Coyle summarized, “Skill is a cellular insulation that wraps neural circuits and that grows in response to certain signals.”

To see this in action, Coyle used a fascinating example of Brazilian soccer players. First, let’s acknowledge our cultural bias and admit that when we think of which country is best at soccer, we think of Brazil (regardless of that brutal beatdown in the 2014 World Cup against Germany). It turns out, what sets up young potential stars in Brazil for success is a game called futsal. Futsal is like soccer, but it’s played indoors with five, not eleven, players, including the goalie. The ball is heavier and smaller, and you play on a hard floor, not grass.

Coyle explains why this popular sport in Brazil has fueled the talents and progression of many players:

One reason lies in the math. Futsal players touch the ball far more often than soccer players—six times more often per minute, according to a Liverpool University study. . . . Futsal compresses soccer’s essential skills into a small box; it places players inside the deep practice zone, making and correcting errors, constantly generating solutions to vivid problems. Players touching the ball 600 percent more often learn far faster, without realizing it, than they would in the vast, bouncy expanse of the outdoor game. To be clear: futsal is not the only reason Brazilian soccer is great. The other factors so often cited—climate, passion, and poverty—really do matter. But futsal is the lever through which those other factors transfer their force.

One of the core catalysts for skill acquisition and improvement lies in deep practice. We’ve heard the phrases like “deliberate practice” or “the 10,000 hour rule” to achieve world-class skill, popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers.

However, deep practice is no mystery, and it’s a core element in improving one’s expertise. Coyle connects the importance of this practice with those we’ve deemed savants:

Savants tend to excel within narrow domains that feature clear, logical rules (piano and math—as opposed to, say, improvisational comedy or fiction writing). Furthermore, savants typically accumulate massive amounts of prior exposure to those domains, through such means as listening to music in the home. The true expertise of these geniuses, the research suggests, resides in their ability to deep-practice obsessively, even when it doesn’t necessarily look like they’re practicing. As Ericsson succinctly put it, ‘There’s no cell type that geniuses have that the rest of us don’t.’ That’s not to say that a minuscule percentage of people don’t possess an innate, obsessive desire to improve—what psychologist Ellen Winner calls ‘the rage to master.’

According to Dr. Michael Howe in Genius Explained, Mozart, by the age of six, had already studied 3,500 hours of music with his father. In Outliers, Gladwell tells a story about how Bill Gates had access to computers at a local university—and put in many hours of coding—before his colleagues could. Picasso drew his entire life. Tiger Woods was introduced to golf before the age of two, and everything from how he was parented to his environment championed the lifestyle.

But Coyle brings up a great reminder:

If we overlay Ericsson’s research with the new myelin science, we get something approaching a universal theory of skill that can be summed up in a temptingly concise equation: deep practice X 10,000 hours = world-class skill. But the truth is, life’s more complicated than that. The truth is, it’s better to use the information as a lens through which we can illuminate how the talent code works, to uncover hidden connections between distant worlds, to ask strange questions…

However, we can’t talk about skill and not talk about predisposition or inclination. Ursula K. Le Guin, American author and novelist, captured this balance beautifully in her book Dancing at the Edge of the World: Thoughts on Words, Women, Places.

My talent and inclination for writing stories and keeping house were strong from the start, and my gift for and interest in music and sewing were weak; so that I doubt that I would ever have been a good seamstress or pianist, no matter how hard I worked. But nothing I know about how I learned to do the things I am good at doing leads me to believe that there are “secrets” to the piano or the sewing machine or any art I’m no good at. There is just the obstinate, continuous cultivation of a disposition, leading to skill in performance.

The fundamental truth is this: when we look at talented people and feel battered by the fact that we may never live a life like that, we fail to see the whole story—parenting, environments that were either rich in stimulation or deprived with poverty, the right teachers, predisposition and the actualization of talent early in life, the opportunities to nurture these predispositions, and some luck.

When we zoom out and look at all these dots that debunk the mystery around talent, it’s actually empowering. What opportunities we have to cultivate our hidden talents and to bring them to life—to potentially change the trajectory of our lives. The veil is lifted. Nowadays, the opportunities to find out what’s inside of you abound, and this quest of whether you’re drawn to music, numbers, or words is exactly the kind of journey that shapes our character and our lives. The big red stop sign at the beginning of this journey is the hopeless, false belief that talent is a gift rather than the “obstinate, continuous cultivation of a disposition, leading to skill in performance.”

Michael Jordan was not born talented. Adele was not born talented. They became that way because they had the predisposition, but more importantly, they gave their lives to their vocations. They put in more than 10,000 hours. They breathed and lived their crafts. They sought opportunities that stretched them and teachers who challenged them.

What would your life become if you chose a craft or a domain and emptied yourself in its pursuit?