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Deep Practice

photo credit: WestEnd61
"We tend to think of our memory as a tape recorder, but that's wrong. It's a living structure, a scaffold of nearly infinite size. The more we generate impulses, encountering and overcoming difficulties, the more scaffolding we build. The more scaffolding we build, the faster we learn." - Dr. Robert Bjork, as quoted in THE TALENT CODE by Daniel Coyle (Bantam Dell, 2009)

As part of my next few posts this month I'd like to present a very interesting book on the characteristics of talent and talent development by Daniel Coyle called, "The Talent Code: Greatness isn't born. It's Grown. Here's How." Of course the concept of talent has fascinated humans for as long as there have been contests of skill and intellect. History and science have long questioned the rise of particularly gifted individuals at crucial moments in human evolution. We are all aware of the prodigy, the late-bloomer, the ne'er do well... Is destiny an inherent measure of talent? Not necessarily. According to Coyle, prodigies have a fairly poor record of success over the long-haul, so he defines talent more narrowly as a set of repeatable skills that do not depend on physical size (with apologies to jockeys and linebackers. Yes, his book is funny as well as informative.) He then goes on to share what he learned traversing the globe researching "chicken-wire Harvards" - unlikely places of humble disposition with a track record of producing hugely talented folks. From ramshackle soccer fields to aging tennis courts, small vocal studios to jerry-rigged laboratories.

Coyle introduces a concept he labels "Deep Practice" - a form of focused, integrated thinking on a problem or goal frequently just beyond our present abilities that supersaturates the brain with deepening attention and analytical thinking. "It's all about finding the sweet spot," Bjork is quoted as saying. "There's an optimal gap between what you know and what you're trying to do. When you find the sweet spot, learning takes off." What makes this idea intriguing, and indeed recapitulates the subject of the book, talent, is the author's discovery that talent is a learned ability, not an innate given. Coyle says quite clearly at the beginning of his research, "Deep practice is a strange concept for two reasons. The first reason is that it cuts against our intuition about talent. Our intuition tells us that practice relates to talent in the same way that a whetstone relates to a knife: it's vital but useless without a solid blade of so-called natural ability. Deep practice raise an intriguing possibility: that practice might be the way to forge the blade itself." What follows is a book stuffed with science and studies that supports the idea that greatness is made, and anecdotal case stories from his research that prove talent can both be taught and fostered for almost any individual or pursuit. This is an idea well worth exploring in my opinion, as "Deep Practice" speaks to what the human brain is organically gifted at doing - learning.

A cross-sectional microscopic image in Coyle's book highlights two nerve fibers wrapping ever deeper in myelin - nerve insulation that increases neuron signal strength, speed, and accuracy. "Skill is myelin insulation that wraps neural circuits and that grows according to certain signals. The story of skill and talent is the story of myelin." Here is where science bites into the talent code, and where we begin to pay serious attention. The more we work at something, the more myelin we lay down, creating super-broadband connectivity within our brains associated with that task. With myelin we create a better brain for the job.

We focus our attention on those tasks we determine to master and then excel through better, more targeted practice learning. Looking inward I ask, What are the habits of practice I engage in as a writer that are pointless and unfocused, and those that are great plunges into the building blocks of performance? The writing tools on the table range from the well-read mind to coaching, personal daybooks and writing practice. Self-editing is a particularly important learned skill for the writer. Editing engages the writer in a deep critical analysis of one's own technique and writing style as well as "the voice" of the project. Working until the objective of a better sentence is achieved, is, as Hemingway remarked, working to a true sentence. When the thing is made, not described.

Deep practice into the art of language.

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