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The Path to Super Good

Chess Prodigy Grandmaster Daniel Naroditsky
Every great and commanding moment in the annals of the world is a triumph of some enthusiasm.
- Ralph Waldo Emerson

This last week I've been thinking and writing about Daniel Coyle's engaging and well researched book, The Talent Code: Greatness Isn't Born. It's Grown. Here's How. Emerson's quote headlines a chapter in Coyle's book that addresses what motivates us to want to be great in the first place. Why did Roger Bannister break the four minute mile? And how did his seemingly impossible accomplishment fuel subsequent athletes to feats of equal or better time? While the examples are many, the finding Coyle arrives at is this: Where deep practice is a cool, conscious act (that necessary ten thousand hours of practice/ten years), ignition is a hot, mysterious burst. An awakening, he calls it. Our brains are organized to look for terrifically good uses of available focus and energy. Primal survival cues also leap-frog learning, seeking inspiration from copy-cat "Ah-ha!" moments (If he can do it, so can I!). The right mentoring, supportive environment, opportunity or impetus, and suddenly we are committing ourselves to a goal for the long haul.

One section of Daniel Coyle's research that I found personally fascinating (well yes, I'm the target subgroup), were the links between cognition and aging. The continual proof in the data of that old refrain: use it or lose it. It's simple, according to UCLA neurologist and researcher George Bartzokis, whom Coyle quotes extensively: "The myelin starts to split apart with age. This is why every old person you've ever met in your life moves more slowly that they did when they were younger. Their muscles haven't changed, but the speed of the impulses they can send to them has changed, because myelin gets old." No wonder, I thought reading this. It's a fact I run slower these days. My myelin is aging along with my knees.

But not so fast. It's a balance of natural entropy and regeneration, apparently. Bartzokis continues, "You must remember the myelin is alive, always being generated and degenerating, like a war. When we are younger, we build myelin easily. As we age, the overall balance shifts toward degeneration, but we can keep adding myelin. Even when the myelin is breaking up, we can still build it, right to the end of our lives." (I'll keep lacing up those running shoes.) Situations in which people are forced to adapt and attune themselves to new challenges (i.e., make errors, pay attention, deep practice) tend to increase cognitive reserve. Daniel Coyle concludes that "use it and get more of it," is what we need to remember as we age.

Finally, how do we raise motivated children and encourage budding talent? Coyle turns to psychologist Carol Dweck, who studies motivation. Her advice is distilled into two simple rules: pay attention to what your children are fascinated by, and praise them for their effort. The author's final observation in The Talent Code touches on the essential unique mystery of our brains, "In the whorls of myelin resides a person's secret history, the flow of interactions and influences that make up a life..." To be the best you can be? Embrace your passion, anchor your faith in the knowledge that failure is the path forward, and practice your way to "super good."

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