“How does a penniless Russian tennis club with one indoor court create more top-twenty women players than the entire United States? How does a humble storefront music school in Dallas, Texas, produce Jessica Simpson, Demi Lovato, and a succession of pop music phenoms? How does a poor, scantily educated British family in a remote village turn out three world-class writers?”

Daniel Coyle, New York Times bestselling author of The Talent Code, began his journey of unveiling the secrets of talent development by visiting talent hotbeds around the world. Coyle’s discovery answered some essential questions that lots of us learners have: How are talents developed? How do we learn best? How to accelerate our skill development?

It’s paramount to learn how to learn (#metalearning). WeZBest is all about accelerating our own personal growth, so I highly recommend this book. The following are my top 3 takeaways:

I. Holy grail of skill acquisition – myelin


“The talent code is built on revolutionary scientific discoveries involving a neural insulator called myelin, which some neurologists now consider to be the holy grail of acquiring skill. Here’s why. 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 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.”

II. Deep practice

Let’s play a game! Read the two lists below for 10 seconds each, then without looking, try to recall as many word pairs as possible. Which list can you recall better?



ocean / breeze
leaf/ tree
sweet / sour
movie / actress
gasoline / engine
high school / college
turkey / stuffing
fruit / vegetable
computer / chip
chair / couch
gym / coach
bread / b_tter
music / l_rics
sh_e / sock
phone / bo_k
chi_s / salsa
pen_il / paper
river / b_at
be_r / wine
television / rad_o
l_nch / dinner
healthcare / in_urance

Did you do better with List B? Most people would – three times better. Why? Coyle explained, the blank spaces in List B caused you to stumble for a microsecond – that struggle made you practice deeper which leads to better retention.

Deep practice is built on a paradox: struggling in certain targeted ways—operating at the edges of your ability, where you make mistakes—makes you smarter. Or to put it a slightly different way, experiences where you’re forced to slow down, make errors, and correct them—as you would if you were walking up an ice-covered hill, slipping and stumbling as you go—end up making you swift and graceful without your realizing it…. The trick is to choose a goal just beyond your present abilities; to target the struggle. Thrashing blindly doesn’t help. Reaching does.”

If you’re a student or professional (e.g. actuary) who needs to take certification exams (perhaps lots of them), don’t just read your textbooks/notes over and over again – that’s too easy for you; test yourself with quizzes – you need to “struggle” a bit to build myelin and better master the knowledge.

“Struggle is not optional – it’s neurologically required: in order to get your skill circuit to fire optimally, you must by definition fire the circuit sub-optimally; you must make mistakes and pay attention to those mistakes; you must slowly teach your circuit. You must also keep firing that circuit – ie, practicing – in order to keep myelin functioning properly. After all, myelin is living tissue.”

III. Three rules of deep practices:

A. Chuck it up:

  1. Absorb the whole thing: “absorb a picture of the skill  until you can imagine yourself doing it.” Stare at someone performing what you’re trying to learn. “We’re prewired to imitate. When you put yourself in the same situation as an outstanding person and attack a task that they took on, it has a big effect on your skill.”
    (Recall from Arnold Schwarzenegger’s biography, after he decided to become the best bodybuilder, he posted photos of legendary bodybuilders all over his bedroom and visualize himself winning… Visualization is definitely a great way to “absorb the whole thing.”)
  2. Break it into chunks: break a skill into its components, master each piece, then with progressively larger groupings, link them all together. Everyday, try to build at least one perfect chunk.
  3. Slow it down: Doyle learned this from visiting Meadowmount School of Music, a 7-week summer school in upstate New York. (You probably heard of some of its alumni: Yo-Yo Ma, Joshua Bell, etc.) It’s famous for its slow practices; students are often asked to practice at 3-5 times slower than normal.
    • “Why does slowing down work so well? The myelin model offers two reasons. First, going slow allows you to attend more closely to errors, creating a higher degree of precision with each firing—and when it comes to growing myelin, precision is everything. As football coach Tom Martinez likes to say, “It’s not how fast you can do it. It’s how slow you can do it correctly.” Second, going slow helps the practicer to develop something even more important: a working perception of the skill’s internal blueprints—the shape and rhythm of the interlocking skill circuits.”

B. Repeat it:

“Biologically speaking, no substitute for attentive repetition. Nothing you can do—talking, thinking, reading, imagining—is more effective in building skill than executing the action, firing the impulse down the nerve fiber, fixing errors, honing the circuit.”

“Attentive” here means practicing at the sweet point – deep practice.

C. Learn to feel it:

“Get a balance point where you can sense the errors when they come. To avoid the mistakes, first you have to feel them immediately… Deep practice is not simply about struggling; it’s about seeking out a particular struggle, which involves a cycle of distinct actions:”

  1. Pick a target;
  2. Reach for it;
  3. Evaluate the gap between the target and the reach;
  4. Return to step one.

(Does this skill building process reminds you of the “feedback loop” process of building a startup, as discussed in The Lean Startup by Eric Ries?)

What do you think? Have you done anything else that helps you learn more effectively and efficiently? Life is a journey of learning, so we need to learn how to learn! 🙂


BONUS: Some not so well-known tips I like from Daniel Coyle’s another bestseller, The Little Book of Talent52 Tips for Improving Skills

  • Take off your watch: “Instead of counting minutes or hours, count reaches and reps.”
  • Choose five minutes a day over an hour a week.
  • Visualize the wires of your brain forming new connections and getting faster.
  • Take naps: “Napping is good for the learning brain, because it helps strengthen the connections formed during practice and prepare the brain for the next session.”
  • Just before sleep, watch a mental movie of your idealized performance
  • Five ways to pick a high-quality teacher or coach: 

1. Avoid someone who reminds you of a courteous waiter
2. Seek someone who scares you a little – someone who:
–  Watches you closely
–  Is action-oriented
–  Is honest, sometimes unnervingly so
3. Seek someone who gives short, clear directions
4. Seek someone who loves teaching fundamentals
5. Other things being equal, pick the older person

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s