In The Talent Code, award-winning journalist Daniel Coyle draws on cutting-edge research to reveal that, far from being some abstract mystical power fixed at birth, ability really can be created and nurtured.
Part I: Introduction
“Look at that!” Gary McPherson, a music psychologist, points out a thirteen-year old girl named Clarissa playing the clarinet.
“She’s got a blueprint in her mind she’s constantly comparing herself to. She’s working in phrases, complete thoughts. She’s not ignoring errors, she’s hearing them, fixing them. She’s fitting small parts into the whole, drawing the lens in and out all the time, scaffolding herself to a higher level” (4).
It’s not talent, in the strictest sense of the word*, that she possesses.
*The strictest definition of talent: the possession of repeatable skills that don’t depend on physical size.
“This is not a picture of talent created by genes, it’s something far more interesting” (5). You wouldn’t look at her or hear her play and conclude that she’s a prodigy. And, to be clear, she is not. She lacks a musical ear and she’s not even particularly motivated.
But “in five minutes and fifty four seconds” Clarissa became famous in music-science circles when she glided from novice mistakes to masterful chords infused with spirit and rhythm, “accelerating her learning speed by ten times, according to McPherson’s calculations. What was more, she didn’t even notice” (3).
“It is six minutes of an average person entering a magically productive zone, one where more skill is created with each passing second” (5).
Where was this skill even coming from? How was it created in the first place?
We tend to look at skill, much like we view talent, as an intangible quality bestowed upon a person at birth. Perhaps some practice is sprinkled in, but we believe that we can spot a natural inclination toward a particular skill. He was born a writer, she’s got the gift for acting. After witnessing them do an incredible jump that we could certainly never do, we become convinced that they were always meant to be a pole-vaulter.
Our eyes scan the soccer field and we pick out the effortless dribbler bounding up and down the length of the field, a crisp contrast to our children’s clumsy bobbing.
It would be wise to remember that an effortless performance is actually a really terrible way to learn (18).
More useful than committing several hundred observations to memory are… a few seconds of stumbling and struggling.
“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” (19).
The more energy and time that you stay in the Clarissa zone, where you’re fixating on correcting your mistakes and firing the right signals through your circuits, the more skill you will get.
We’ve defined talent (well, Daniel Coyle did), but what about skill?
“Skill is a cellular insulation that wraps neural circuits and that grows in response to certain signals.”Daniel Coyle, page 6 of The Talent Code
Let’s go back to think about what goes through out mind when we’re kicking a soccer ball into a goal (GOOOAAAALLLLLLL!!!) or playing the right note on a piano.
We missed the last kick, perhaps we missed the ball entirely, so now we are determined to make an adjustment. Not any adjustment, the right adjustment.
With each adjustment our body’s myelin responds by wrapping layers of insulation (think of rubber insulation wrapping around a copper wire) around that neural circuit.
Each new layer of insulation wrapping around the neural circuit makes the neural circuit’s signal stronger and faster by preventing the electrical impulses from leaking out.
Each new layer of insulation, of myelin, adds a bit more skill and speed to that neural circuit.
“The thicker the myelin gets, the better it insulates, and the faster and more accurate our movements and thoughts become” (5).
What’s so great about myelin?
- Everyone can grow myelin and it grows throughout your life, though it does grow most swiftly during childhood (6).
- Myelin provides us with a vivid new model for understanding skill (6).
We’ll go into more of the role that myelin plays in obtaining skill.
For now, consider how we could become more skilled at putting on life vests in the case of an emergency by actually struggling to put on a life vest each time we flew instead of observing yet another life vest demonstration on an airplane flight.
Next up: Part II – Deep Practice
All from here:
Possessions meant little to Erdős; most of his belongings would fit in a suitcase, as dictated by his itinerant lifestyle.
Awards and other earnings were generally donated to people in need and various worthy causes.
He spent most of his life traveling between scientific conferences, universities, and the homes of colleagues all over the world.
He earned enough in stipends from universities as a guest lecturer, and from various mathematical awards, to fund his travels and basic needs; money left over he used to fund cash prizes for proofs of “Erdős problems”.
He would typically show up at a colleague’s doorstep and announce “my brain is open”, staying long enough to collaborate on a few papers before moving on a few days later. In many cases, he would ask the current collaborator about whom to visit next.
His colleague Alfréd Rényi said, “a mathematician is a machine for turning coffee into theorems“, and Erdős drank copious quantities (this quotation is often attributed incorrectly to Erdős, but Erdős himself ascribed it to Rényi).
Erdős signed his name “Paul Erdos P.G.O.M.” When he became 60, he added “L.D.”, at 65 “A.D.”, at 70 “L.D.” (again), and at 75 “C.D.”
- P.G.O.M. represented “Poor Great Old Man”
- The first L.D. represented “Living Dead”
- A.D. represented “Archaeological Discovery”
- The second L.D. represented “Legally Dead”
- C.D. represented “Counts Dead”
We were born before the wind
Also younger than the sun
Ere the bonnie boat was won
As we sailed into the mystic
Hark, now hear the sailors cry
Smell the sea and feel the sky
Let your soul and spirit fly
Into the mystic
The poem is by Chilean poet Claudio Bertoni:
I’d like to be a nest if you were a little bird.
I’d like to be a scarf if you were a neck and were cold.
If you were music, I’d be an ear.
If you were water, I’d be a glass.
If you were light, I’d be an eye.
If you were a foot, I’d be a sock.
If you were the sea, I’d be a beach.
And if you were still the sea, I’d be a fish,
and I’d swim in you.
And if you were the sea, I’d be salt.
And if I were salt, you’d be lettuce,
an avocado or at least a fried egg.
And if you were a fried egg,
I’d be a piece of bread.
And if I were a piece of bread,
you’d be butter or jam.
If you were jam,
I’d be the peach in the jam.
If I were a peach,
you’d be a tree.
And if you were a tree,
I’d be your sap…
and I’d course through your arms like blood.
And if I were blood,
I’d live in your heart.
And this is Sonnet XXX is by Edna St. Vincent Millay:
Love is not all: it is not meat nor drink
Nor slumber nor a roof against the rain;
Nor yet a floating spar to men that sink
And rise and sink and rise and sink again;
Love can not fill the thickened lung with breath,
Nor clean the blood, nor set the fractured bone;
Yet many a man is making friends with death
Even as I speak, for lack of love alone.
It well may be that in a difficult hour,
Pinned down by pain and moaning for release,
Or nagged by want past resolution’s power,
I might be driven to sell your love for peace,
Or trade the memory of this night for food.
It well may be. I do not think I would.
Now, Jeffrey McDaniel’s The Quiet World
In an effort to get people to look
into each other’s eyes more,
and also to appease the mutes,
the government has decided
to allot each person exactly one hundred
and sixty-seven words, per day.
When the phone rings, I put it to my ear
without saying hello. In the restaurant
I point at chicken noodle soup.
I am adjusting well to the new way.
Late at night, I call my long distance lover,
proudly say I only used fifty-nine today.
I saved the rest for you.
When she doesn’t respond,
I know she’s used up all her words,
so I slowly whisper I love you
thirty-two and a third times.
After that, we just sit on the line
and listen to each other breathe.
Lastly, Carla Bruni:
Je suis ton pile
Tu es mon face
Toi mon nombril
Et moi ta glace
Tu es l’envie et moi le geste
Toi le citron et moi le zeste
Je suis le thé, tu es la tasse
Toi la guitare et moi la basse
The Temptation of St. Anthony (detail), 1946 Oil on Canvas, 89.5 x 119.5 cm (35 1/4 x 47 in.) Brussels, Musées royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique
The moment one gives close attention to any thing, even a blade of grass it becomes a mysterious, awesome, indescribably magnificent world in itself.”
— Henry Miller
in the shape of a woman who seeing the sun decided to no longer dim the life bursting in lungs
Eyes open see braided grass swaying in plains
forests turn into locks of love,
bleached the light brown bark of my grandmother’s youth.
I once wrote this and forgot that I was the author until, after googling it, I could find nobody else who claimed it.
False attributions spring eternally.
The Houston Press asks who the verifiable author of the following quote is:
Find what you love and let it kill you. Let it drain from you your all. Let it cling onto your back and weigh you down into eventual nothingness. Let it kill you, and let it devour your remains.
For all things will kill you, both slowly and fastly, but it’s much better to be killed by a lover.
Falsely yours, Henry Charles Bukowski
Chapter one is titled “Too Many Information, Too Many Decisions: The Inside History of Cognitive Overload“.
“A tornado flew around my room before you came. Excuse the mess it made, it usually doesn’t rain in Southern California, much like Arizona.”Opening lyrics of the song “Thinking ‘Bout You” by Frank Ocean
Award-winning cognitive psychologist Daniel J. Levitin tells me in his book, The Organized Mind, that I’m about to drown in an ocean of data.
He would insist in our imaginary conversation that I can’t keep all that information in your head or else I”ll suffer from information overload.
Try me, I say in defiance. I don’t want to do the hard work of organizing. I keep 5 languages in this cranium plus — most impressive — the names of dozens of different tea varieties such as Borjuli, Assam, Darjeeling…
You’re already categorizing, he retorts, and by doing so you prove one of my points that we are driven, even wired, to categorize (13).
Notably, “all languages and cultures – independently – came up with naming principles so similar that they strongly suggest an innate predisposition toward classification” (32).
We categorize to cope with immense quantities of information or — and this is an opposing view from anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss — “because the human brain has a strong cognitive propensity toward order” (31).
Then the clincher: “what if I told you that unproductivity and loss of drive can result from decision overload” (7)?
And that “fundamentally, categorization reduces mental effort and streamlines the flow of information” which can reduce the amount of mistake you’re making or important details you’re forgetting (13).
He has captured my attention and I learn from Levitin the following:
- that “in order for something to become encoded as part of your experience you need to have paid conscious attention to it” (7),
- that “attention is created by networks of neurons in the prefrontal cortex (just behind your forehead) that are sensitive only to dopamine” (16); and
- that “brains evolved to receive a pleasant shot of dopamine when we learn something new and again when we can classify it systematically into an ordered structure” (32).
What you pay attention to matters because we don’t have the capacity, or bandwidth, to pay attention to all the stimuli that comes our way. Attention is a limited-capacity resource (11).
Our brains created an attentional filter which keeps us from being distracted by irrelevancies and “two of the most crucial principles used by the attentional filter are change and importance” (10).
The attentional filter is a brain’s change detector. Neural circuits monitor and notice if somebody moved the papers on your desk, especially if these papers are personally important to you. It’s the attentional filter that lets through what it thinks you will want to know about.
Unfortunately, this means that sometimes we experience a cognitive blind sport because we don’t know what our brain is honing in on and what it is we’re missing.
“Due to the attentional filter, we end up experiencing a great deal of the world on autopilot, not registering the complexities, nuances, and often the beauty of what is right in front of us” (11).
This is where the act of categorization comes in to save the day. Categorization helps us focus on what we can pay attention to and remember.
Physical organization and mental organization
Levitin notes that beyond appearances we often categorize “based on conceptual similarities rather than perceptual ones” (23).
An ordered structure is made up of physical organization (books go on a bookshelf, the fruit is placed in a fruit bowl), but also mental organization (that person is my cousin, that person is a stranger). Kinship terms, in particular, “allow us to reduce an enormous set of possible relations into a more management smaller set, a usable category” (25).
For example, strawberries and grapes are categorized as “fruit” and you may place them together in a fruit bowl even though they look very different. When you’re picking ingredients to add to your sandwich you may think of an avocado as a vegetable, although it is technically a fruit.
UPDATE: I’ve since learned that a banana is technically a fruit, but a strawberry is not a fruit.
Beyond making distinctions between various different types of fruit, knowing how to organize information helps us organize our time better so that we can “be more efficient, but also so we can find more time for fun, for play, for meaningful relationships, and for creativity” (xxi).
“The most fundamental principle of the organized mind, the one most critical to keeping us from forgetting or losing things, is to shift the burden of organizing from our brains to the external world”Levitan on page 35.
One of the ways we can organize information is by active sorting or “Triage”.
You do this by separating those things you need to deal with right now from those things you don’t need to deal with right now.
But how to determine what you do and don’t need to deal with?
That’s the next chapter in the series:
The First Things to Get Straight: How Attention and Memory Work
Source: Levitin, D. J. The organized mind: Thinking straight in the age of information overload. New York, NY, US: Plume/Penguin Books. 2014.
“If you inherently long for something, become it first. If you want gardens, become the gardener. If you want love, embody love. If you want mental stimulation, change the conversation. If you want peace, exude calmness. If you want to fill your world with artists, begin to paint. If you want to be valued, respect your own time. If you want to live ecstatically, find the ecstasy within yourself. This is how to draw it in, day by day, inch by inch.”