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The Rage to Master

Daniel Coyle's The Talent Code credits psychologist Ellen Winner with the phrase "the rage to master" as a description of the focus and intensity that sets some of us apart from others in the development of performance and skill. (He makes the point that if you have to ask if your child possesses the rage to master, they don't.) Research clearly shows, even in the case of well known prodigies, that possessing a high level of skill - mastery - is not accidental. Expertise is not strictly a matter of nature vs. nurture, or because some of us fell on the right side of the "genius gene." (There is no such gene.) Some of us just want total domination more than others. Expertise is defined by Coyle as "deep practice" learning broken into three parts - chunk it up, repeat it, learn to feel it.

The concepts are simple and logical: "Chunk it up" is a strategy for mastery of technique undertaken by breaking a subject into concrete, defined, manageable chunks of new learning, sometimes broken down to the most minute levels (e.g. a challenging two-note measure on a single page of sheet music, the twisted arc within a complicated dive), slowed way down in practice, and then reassembled into an integrated whole. "Repeat it" touches on the research of 20th century Swede Anders Ericsson that found behind every so-called expert or super-talent, roughly ten years/ten thousand hours of committed practice - which Coyle believes foots perfectly with the intense and repetitive brain process of coiling myelin insulation layers around neuron circuits strengthening developing skills.

The third rule, "Feel it," is about learning in practice to sense the gap between what you are aiming for and a mistake. An awareness of a missed note, a feeling in the slightest off movement of a bad javelin toss, an ear for a mistake in grammar. Coyle describes this awareness in the words of Glenn Kurtz from Kurtz's book Practicing, "Each day, with every note, practicing is the same task, this essential human gesture - reaching out for an idea, for the grandeur of what you desire, and feeling it slip through your fingers." Now if that doesn't capture the struggle of learning, what does? Most important, it is the struggle that builds the skill.

These building blocks are simply not enough however without motivational fuel: the "rage to master," that ignition factor that leads us to want, to commit, to do. I'd welcome your thoughts on what made the difference for you between a routine practice and one that "clicked." What do you see in yourself, or in your children when they struggle to master something they passionately want to learn?

Let me close with an evocative poem by Billy Collins that speaks to me of the mystery and beauty of "deep practice."

by Billy Collins
My teacher lies on the floor with a bad back
off to the side of the piano.
I sit up straight on the stool.
He begins by telling me that every key
is like a different room
and I am a blind man who must learn
to walk through all twelve of them
without hitting the furniture.
I feel myself reach for the first doorknob.

He tells me that every scale has a shape
and I have to learn how to hold
each one in my hands.
At home I practice with my eyes closed.
C is an open book.
D is a vase with two handles.
G flat is a black boot.
E has the legs of a bird.

He says the scale is the mother of the chords.
I can see her pacing the bedroom floor
waiting for her children to come home.
They are out at nightclubs shading and lighting
all the songs while couples dance slowly
or stare at one another across tables.
This is the way it must be. After all,
just the right chord can bring you to tears
but no one listens to the scales,
no one listens to their mother.

I am doing my scales,
the familiar anthems of childhood.
My fingers climb the ladder of notes
and come back down without turning around.
Anyone walking under this open window
would picture a girl of about ten
sitting at the keyboard with perfect posture,
not me slumped over in my bathrobe, disheveled,
like a white Horace Silver.

I am learning to play
“It Might As Well Be Spring”
but my left hand would rather be jingling
the change in the darkness of my pocket
or taking a nap on an armrest.
I have to drag him in to the music
like a difficult and neglected child.
This is the revenge of the one who never gets
to hold the pen or wave good-bye,
and now, who never gets to play the melody.

Even when I am not playing, I think about the piano.
It is the largest, heaviest,
and most beautiful object in this house.
I pause in the doorway just to take it all in.
And late at night I picture it downstairs,
this hallucination standing on three legs,
this curious beast with its enormous moonlit smile.

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