Daniel Coyle [ 12 APR 2012 | Reinventing Education | 17:56 ] For the last five years I’ve been visiting talent hotbeds – little places that produce statistically impossible numbers of talented performers, in sports, art, music and math and business.

The Talent CodePlaces where talent blooms, like a little tennis club outside Moscow. It’s called Spartak — pretty much an average tennis club and then it produced more top 20 women players than the entire United States combined. A little inner city school in San Jose — was quite average in test scores and then, all of a sudden, it was in the 95th percentile in the state of California.

And as I visited these places — place after place, country after country — I started to hear a dangerous whisper. A very dangerous whisper, which was this: I should try to get really good at something.

A journalist’s job is to be objective — to stay apart from the story — but this whispered, “I should try to get good at something.”

I’m watching these people get brilliantly good stuff. Why shouldn’t I?

And so I thought about this. I thought I could become a better husband.


I looked around and I tried to find something to get good at and what I ended up finding, was this:


I could watch that a million times. I love watching that. And the reason I love watching that is: it embodies what talent is.

He is doing exactly the right thing, at exactly the right time. That’s what talent is. It could be someone writing a great Sonata. It could be somebody performing neurosurgery. It could be somebody getting 800 on the math SAT.

It’s the right thing, at the right time.

So I set out to try to do that.

I was raised in the golf hotbed of Anchorage. I don’t play much golf so it’s natural that I would not be that good at it. However, what I discovered is that there are actually three levels at being bad at something. There are three levels. Level 1: you are so bad that it’s sort of sad. Level 2, you are so bad that it’s a little bit funny. Level 3, you’re so bad that your children make a movie about how bad you are.

There’s an R-rated version, there’s a PG-rated . . .

Do we have 18 minutes or 18 hours? Because we could just keep going.

And this makes perfect sense. Of course I wasn’t very good. I was not born with that gift. Think about it: I’m not Tiger Woods. But then one day, something happened.


We love these stories. We love stories about that little Tennis Club, that wasn’t very good and all of a sudden produces these champs. That little school that is very forgettable, and all of a sudden, it’s brilliant.

I wasn’t very good and then I was pretty good.

The question is: what is this space made of?

What’s this space made of?

If you could bottle it, if you could X-ray it, if we could see it, what would we be seeing?

In our culture we’re told a story about this space. We’re told a story about it. It’s a very clear story. The story goes like this: it’s a very simple story.

Babies are born with gifts. Certain babies are born with gifts. And, with hard work — and passion, they become great.

That’s the story.

It’s the story of Michelangelo. It’s the story of Michael Jordan.

It’s the story we’re told in movies and books, by our parents, by teachers. Natural gifts, plus hard work, plus passion, equals success. Equals skill, equals performance.

And it’s a beautiful story. It’s a fantastic story. In fact, it’s the greatest story ever because it has magical babies in it.

Is there a better story anywhere? Because there are babies in it. These naked babies and they’re magical babies. That’s a cool story. Try to beat that story. You can’t.

There’s just one slight problem with that story and that’s that it’s fake. It’s fake. What are these gifts exactly? What type of hard work, works the best?

Where does passion come in?

It’s a little bit vague:

Going through life, thinking you can create great performance by combining natural gifts, hard work and passion, is exactly like going through life thinking you can create a Ferrari by combining steel, red paint and Italians.

It’s vague.

Science is telling us a new story about this space.

Science is telling us a new story about this space.

And that story has to do with the human brain.

In the human brain.

All skills reside there — even athletic ones.

Talk about muscle memory, muscles don’t really have memory. They’re doing what the brain tells them to do.

Every great human skill exists in the human brain.

And the new story of talent, the new story that we’re being told, is that talent grows in the brain when you practice intensively in certain ways.

Talent grows. It’s not a set capacity. It grows. It is constructed. That’s the new story.

So let’s talk about intensive practice. Let’s talk about that for a second.

We’ve all heard the term 10,000 hours, right?

Actually, let’s not talk about it.

Let’s just do some intensive practice.

Would you memorize these very quickly? There will be a quiz.

On the flight out here last night, the steward stood in the aisle and demonstrated the life jacket. I’ve seen this. . . it’s a great . . . have you seen it?

It’s fantastic. Super clear. Super clear. These nouns have been chosen by lawyers. They’re fantastic and clear and describe exactly what to do. Exactly.

Put it on over. . . and then you have to do that clicker thing, and then you have this thing you can blow in, there’s a light. He describes exactly how to do it. And I put on my reading material and I gave him a 100% my attention.

And yet. As the plane is taking off, I have a question, I wonder. Could I actually do it? Did I have that skill? Did I possess that skill?

Because I don’t know if I could.

The nozzles are here, and there’s something that goes around your midsection. There’s rings that the webbing goes through. And do you go through twice and back? Or do you go. . . ? How do you tie that? There’s something to pull on, there’s a couple of things to pull on. . . I’m not positive I could do it quickly.

However, if there had been a kiosk right next to the gate, where I could have, for 45 seconds, played with it, messed with it, struggled with it, could I do it then?

I’ve seen that little presentation hundreds of times, and I can’t do it. I’m worthless. But if I just had 45 seconds, to struggle.

What words do you remember, from the slide?

Which Column? B.

If you’re like most people, you’ll say B.

They’ve given this test to thousands of people and most people say B and the difference is not small.

The difference is 300%.

You remember 300% more from Column B.

The question is: why?


Let’s rewind the tape. One minute ago. One minute ago. Did you try 300% harder with Column B?

Did it take 300% longer to look at?

Did your IQ suddenly get to 300 when your eyes went that direction?


What happened in Column A . . . those words flowed over you. It was effortless. Like an ocean breeze, you might say.

It flowed over, you got it right away.

Ocean breeze, I got that, I got it.

Except you didn’t.

In Column B there was a catch. There was just a second, just a microsecond, where you had to make — and here’s the keyword: you had to make a Reach.

You had to make a Reach.

If you’re like me, you said bread and bitter? No, it’s butter. Right? There was a hesitation. There was a catch.

Let’s zoom in on that catch for a second.

Let’s visualize your brain is this collection of wires, which it is, with electricity going through those wires, which it does.

You said, “bread-and-bitter”, pcheeew this wire fired. Bitter, pcheeew right? Electricity going in the wire. And then this other wire came in from the side, right?

And it said, “no, you dumbass. it’s not bitter, right? It’s not bitter. It’s,” third wire, “its butter!”

Third wire: butter.

Three distinct events happened: a Reach, a recognition of a failure, “oops, made a mistake, oops” and then a correct Reach.

That mistake was not really a mistake.

That mistake was leverage. That mistake was the information you used to get the right answer.

It’s like a point on the map that lead you to the right point.

In Column A, you got no points. You just got this ocean breeze, right? It’s easy. But it’s not.

That Reach, that Reach makes all the difference.

 When you operate on the edge your ability, when you are Reaching, failing, Reaching again, Learning Velocity goes way up . It goes way up.

When we struggle we get smarter.

A beautiful example this is in the case of Brazilian soccer players. Brazilian soccer players. Because, as some of you may know, Brazil produces an unusual percentage of the world’s best soccer players.

They’ve won five World Cups. They’ve got more players in the big European leagues than any other any other country.

The question is, why?

The question is why?

Why is that so?

We have an intuitive response to that, which is: “well, it’s warm in Brazil, and they’re all running around on the beach and they love soccer.”

That’s our intuitive explanation. Of course it is.

The problem with that intuitive explanation is that there are a lot of other countries that have all of that, and Brazil wasn’t always great.

Until 1952, they were beaten by that warm-weather beach-loving country of Hungary — four consecutive times.

So they weren’t always great. There’s a lot of other places like this, so there’s a guy named Simon Clifford, he’s a coach.

He’s a coach in Leeds, in Yorkshire, England and he decided to go over there and try to get to the bottom of this mystery.

When he got to Brazil, he found something that surprised him. An unusually high percentage of those kids were playing this unusual game that resembled soccer, if you put soccer in a phone booth and fed it amphetamines.

It’s played in a room this size. It’s called Futebol de Salão — soccer in the room.

The ball is small. Difficult to control. Smaller center of gravity. You have to be more precise.

Make more mistakes. There’s no room. There’s five a side. Passing lanes are ridiculously tight. Pressure,  defensive pressure is on you all the time .

You are constantly forced into Column B.

You’re constantly making mistakes and having that feedback right back at you.

And in a game, of Futebol de Salão, a player touches it 600% more times, touches the ball 600% more often.

Most Brazilian players play nothing but this game for the first 12 years of their life.

There have been 39 Championships, World Championships, in this game. Brazil has won 30 of them.

Why is Brazil so good at football, at soccer? Is it their genes? Or is it something about the space they’re practicing in?

Simon Clifford took this game, took a big bag of balls, took them back to Yorkshire. They started playing this way.

Four years later his team, his under-14 team, beat the English national side under-14 team, beat the Scottish national side under-14 team.

Did their genes change?


What changed is that they shifted the culture into Column B, where they were constantly Reaching and repeating. Making mistakes, getting feedback, building better brains.

Building faster more fluent brains

So let’s zoom in even a little bit more.

What is happening, inside the brain, while this is going on?

This is a picture of myelin. It was shown to me by a guy named Dr. Douglas Fields. We were talking about talent and he said, “well, you need to see this.”

Myelin is the stuff — this is a picture of a neuron going right into the room. Myelin is the stuff wrapping it. It looks sort of like electrical tape. Have we all heard the term myelin sheath in biology class? That ring a bell?

Well myelin, for years, was thought to be inert. It’s basically insulation for our wires.

The same reason we have insulation on the wires, on this stage, the electricity would leak all over without it, right?

So myelin was thought to be inert, but in the last 15 years what they’ve discovered is that it’s not inert, it responds to things.

It responds to practice.

When you send electricity, a signal, down that axon, down that neuron, the myelin senses it and adds another wrap.

Electricity, adds another wrap.

Electricity, adds another wrap.

Every time you make a Reach or a repeat or spend an hour doing something, you’re earning another wrap, another wrap, another wrap.

And as that gets thicker, and it gets up to 50 layers thick, the signal speed, as you electrical engineers in here can appreciate, it speeds up a lot.

The more insulation, the signal speed starts to move, you can be much more accurate with the signal, much more precise.

An unmyelinated, a bare wire in your brain, the signal speed is two miles an hour. A fully myelinated neuron, the signal speed is 200 miles an hour.

It’s a massive difference

As Dr Fields explained to me, this is neural broadband.

This is what you’re building when you practice intensively.

This is what Reach and repetition is.

So what kind of picture do we get of talent, in the end?

We get a picture a little like this: its electricity!

It’s something that you’re constructing. This is a Jimi Hendrix guitar solo. This is a Michael Jordan jump shot. It’s a Roger Schmidt project.

It’s electricity moving through our brains that we are constructing. We are in charge of how we reach, how we repeat. We’re constructing it in our brains.

It’s not something you’re born with, it’s something that you build.

And you build it in concert with other people.

So how do we go about doing this?

What sort of habits can we have?

The main habit, that these places all have, that we can steal from them, is they maximize Reachfulness in their culture.

They celebrate those Reaches

They ruthlessly eliminate Passive Learning

They ruthless eliminate those moments when people are in the ocean breeze, in Column A.

They are constantly seeking to engage, to get the brains to fire, to get the electricity moving through the brain.

They’re embracing struggle and repetition.

They’re embracing that.

They’re embracing struggle.

A great culture that does that is Suzuki Violin.

I know that some of you are into that.

The Suzuki Violin has something called the Hundred Day Club where they celebrate someone who practices a hundred days in a row.

We think of repetition as drudge work. We think of it as boring, as monotonous. But in cultures that are really about talent hotbeds, they celebrate the heroism of that tradition.

And the last thing they do, is they really encourage that.

They encourage that.

When you see something great, figure out why it’s great, and rip it off.

That’s what happens in those places, when you see other projects that are like this. Find them, see how it works and copy it.

There’s nothing inate. Nothing magical about a single person’s talent.

The magic comes in the community

The old story of talent is a beautiful story

The idea that everyone has a unique, a totally unique, natural gift — and that’s a beautiful story.

But what is, I think, even more beautiful is the idea that we’ve got these interconnected webs, the way our brains connect, in a way we can construct communities of talent, hotbeds like this one, together.

YOUTUBE: Ronaldinho Playing Futsal

Neural Broadband

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.