Book Notes: The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle


This is for anyone trying to be more than just good.

Mastery is a fire that starts with the spark of ignition, is fueled by practice, and survives the occasional rain shower with motivation boosts. A good coach acts as a bellows, speeding the growth of but not fueling the fire.

Ignition

Where deep practice is a cool, conscious act, ignition is a hot, mysterious burst, an awakening.

Where deep practice is all about staggering-baby steps, ignition is about the set of signals and subconscious forces that create our identity; the moments that lead us to say that is who I want to be.

Ignition is a strange concept because it burns just out of our awareness, largely within our unconscious mind.

When I asked people in the hotbeds about the source of their passion for violin/singing/soccer/math, the question struck most of them as faintly ridiculous, as if I were inquiring when they first learned to enjoy oxygen. The universal response was to shrug and say something like “I dunno, I’ve just always felt this way.”

I never have a good answer for why I like math. But I once tried to imagine a life where I didn’t do it regularly.

It took me 12 minutes to think of without instinctively recoiling from the thought.

That life didn’t feel stagnant, it felt stopped. Like there was a big wall in the way, and I wasn’t living but waiting.

Now I know why Erdos said the dead had “left” and those who stopped doing math had “died”.

Faced with these responses, it’s tempting to return the shrug, to chalk up their burning motivation to the unknown depths of the human heart. But this would not be accurate. Because in many cases it is possible to pinpoint the instant that passion ignited.

I didn’t always like math. For most of my life, it was my worst subject and I hated it.

Reading the math articles on Wikipedia during junior year high school calculus lit the spark that changed me. I read something and it made sense for the first time. I started to read the articles constantly, until late at night. I had no idea what most of them said, but the bits I could understand gave me the comforting feeling that one day I would learn them. At the time, that was mere delusion. But that delusion faded away after years of work.

Holy Shit Effect

Any discussion about the skill-acquiring process must begin by addressing a curious phenomenon that I came to know as the Holy Shit Effect. This refers to the heady mix of disbelief, admiration, and envy (not necessarily in that order) we feel when talent suddenly appears out of nowhere. The HSE is not the feeling of hearing Pavarotti sing or watching Willie Mays swing—they’re one in a billion; we can easily accept the fact that they’re different from us. The HSE is the feeling of seeing talent bloom in people who we thought were just like us. It’s the tingle of surprise you get when the goofy neighbor kid down the street is suddenly lead guitarist for a successful rock band, or when your own child shows an inexplicable knack for differential calculus. It’s the feeling of, where did that come from?

I hope she doesn’t crucify me for mentioning her here, but that’s exactly how I felt watching my friend Sameera as she became a much better mathematician than me.

I didn’t work hard until the end of college. I didn’t even know what hard work was until I saw her. But hard work and a lot of focus turned Sameera from one of many smart high school kids that fill up Berkeley into someone who’s more than that. Someone who could become truly great.

For about a week, the realization that she had easily lapped me in math bugged me. But then, I realized that could be me. Sameera wasn’t divinely touched. If anything, saying that would demean the massive amount of work she did. Sameera got where she is now because she worked her ass off and sacrificed a lot of time to get better.

She broke the implicit myth that only geniuses can take a place at the top. So thanks, Sameera. You taught me better.

Deep Practice

Best illustrated by examples.

“Look at that!” McPherson says. “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.”

When we see people practice effectively, we usually describe it with words like willpower or concentration or focus. But those words don’t quite fit, because they don’t capture the ice-climbing particularity of the event.

Deep practice is about stretching barely beyond your current abilities. Work on a skill that you’ve already mastered, and you’re wasting your time. Work on a skill way above your level, and you’re probably going to waste your time. Particularity is a good word for what you want.

Moments of slow, fitful struggle, rather like what I’d seen on the Clarissa video. It was as if the herd of deer suddenly encountered a hillside coated with ice. They slammed to a halt; they stopped, looked, and thought carefully before taking each step. Making progress became a matter of small failures, a rhythmic pattern of botches, as well as something else: a shared facial expression. Their taut, intense squint caused them to take on (I know this sounds weird) an unaccountable resemblance to Clint Eastwood.

Deep practice feels a bit like exploring a dark and unfamiliar room. You start slowly, you bump into furniture, stop, think, and start again. Slowly, and a little painfully, you explore the space over and over, attending to errors, extending your reach into the room a bit farther each time, building a mental map until you can move through it quickly and intuitively.

In squash, I get this when I start actually trying to hit the next shot properly.

In math, actually working through the algebra and doing the boring exercises.

Neither of them are fun. But they are what cause you to really grow.

Spending more time is effective—but only if you’re still in the sweet spot at the edge of your capabilities, attentively building and honing circuits.

This is exhausting. When you work at the edge for a few hours, you hit a wall. I promise you, you will not cross that wall. After hitting it, all creative thought goes out the window. I’ve asked everyone from an adjunct to a Fields medalist, and they all say about 4 hours is the limit. Seems to hold true across totally different fields, and reading everyone from Cal Newport to Mason Currey’s Daily Rituals backs it up.

What’s more, there seems to be a universal limit for how much deep practice human beings can do in a day. Ericsson’s research shows that most world-class experts—including pianists, chess players, novelists, and athletes—practice between three and five hours a day, no matter what skill they pursue.

When you depart the deep-practice zone, you might as well quit.

And they do. Richard Borcherds raises chickens, Umesh Vazirani played squash (until his knees gave out), and Ken Ribet reviews restaurants.

Don’t read it, fight it!

Even a slight struggle dramatically boosts your memory of what you learned.

Look at the following lists, and spend the same amount of time on each.

A B
ocean / breeze bread / b_tter
leaf / tree music /l_rics
sweet / sour sh_e / sock
movie / actress phone / bo_k
gasoline / engine chi_s / salsa
high school / college pen_il / paper
turkey / stuffing river / b_at
fruit / vegetable be_r / wine
computer / chip television / rad_o
chair / couch l_nch / dinner

Without looking, try to remember as many of the word pairs as you can. From which column do you recall more words?

Freaky to see how much your memory improved in 3 seconds from omitting a single letter. Makes the Halmos quote visceral.

We think of effortless performance as desirable, but it’s really a terrible way to learn.

“We tend to think of our memory as a tape recorder, but that’s wrong,” he said. “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.”

Reading Make it Stick by Peter Brown before this book is probably a good idea.

Constrain Your Environment

The ball was half the size but weighed twice as much; it hardly bounced at all. The players trained, not on a vast expanse of grass field, but on basketball-court-size patches of concrete, wooden floor, and dirt. Each side, instead of having eleven players, had five or six. In its rhythm and blinding speed, the game resembled basketball or hockey more than soccer: it consisted of an intricate series of quick, controlled passes and nonstop end-to-end action. The game was called futebol de salão, Portuguese for “soccer in the room.” Its modern incarnation was called futsal.

Futsal players touch the ball far more often than soccer players—six times more often per minute, according to a Liverpool University study. The smaller, heavier ball demands and rewards more precise handling—as coaches point out, you can’t get out of a tight spot simply by booting the ball downfield. Sharp passing is paramount: the game is all about looking for angles and spaces and working quick combinations with other players.

Futsal compresses soccer’s essential skills into a small box

Constrain your practice environment so you can only practice the specific sub-skill you’re trying to train.

The BART is one attempt at that.

If you want to practice keeping the ball away, do in a tiny room where there’s a lot of opportunities for someone to take it from you.

Myelin

Apparently myelin is really important. I didn’t binge a bunch of neuroscience papers, but I do wonder how much it explains intelligence.

The firing of the circuit is paramount. Myelin is not built to respond to fond wishes or vague ideas or information that washes over us like a warm bath. The mechanism is built to respond to actions: the literal electrical impulses traveling down nerve fibers. It responds to urgent repetition.

Myelin is universal. One size fits all skills. Our myelin doesn’t “know” whether it’s being used for playing shortstop or playing Schubert: regardless of its use, it grows according to the same rules. Myelin is meritocratic: circuits that fire get insulated. If you moved to China, your myelin would wrap fibers that help you conjugate Mandarin verbs. To put it another way, myelin doesn’t care who you are—it cares what you do.

“You learn only by doing” is apparently literally true.

Anders Ericsson

As he grew older, however, Ericsson’s dreams encountered difficulties. Most of the world’s frontiers appeared to have been explored, the blank spots on the map filled in. And unlike Hedin, Ericsson appeared to be mostly without talent. While he was decent at math, he was fairly hopeless at soccer and basketball, languages, biology, and music. When he was fifteen, Ericsson discovered he was good at chess, regularly winning lunchtime matches against his fellow students. It seemed he’d discovered his talent—for a few weeks. Then one of the boys—one of the worst players in the group, in fact—suddenly improved and started trouncing Ericsson every time. Ericsson was mad. He was also curious. “I really thought about this a lot,” he said. “What had just happened? Why could that boy, whom I had beaten so easily, now beat me just as easily? I knew he was studying, going to a chess club, but what had happened, really, underneath? From that point on I deliberately tried to avoid getting really good at something. I gradually became more obsessed with studying experts than with being one.”

I found this melancholy.

Apprenticeship

A few years ago a Carnegie Mellon University statistician named David Banks wrote a short paper entitled “The Problem of Excess Genius.” Geniuses are not scattered uniformly through time and space, he pointed out; to the contrary, they tend to appear in clusters. “The most important question we can ask of historians is, ‘Why are some periods and places so astonishingly more productive than the rest?’” Banks wrote. “It is intellectually embarrassing that this is almost never posed squarely … although its answer would have thrilling implications for education, politics, science, and art.”

I did a quick mental scan of all the societies I could think of and I think I agree with the basic point here. Talent doesn’t seem to be isolated, even ignoring the talented people who move to be at the center of it all.

Guilds worked like employee-owned corporations. They had management, dues, and tight policies dictating who could work in the craft. What they did best, however, was grow talent. Guilds were built on the apprenticeship system, in which boys around seven years of age were sent to live with masters for fixed terms of five to ten years.

This system created a chain of mentoring: da Vinci studied under Verrocchio, Verrocchio studied under Donatello, Donatello studied under Ghiberti; Michelangelo studied under Ghirlandaio, Ghirlandaio studied under Baldovinetti, and so on, all of them frequently visiting one another’s studios in a cooperative-competitive arrangement that today would be called social networking.

Compression

De Groot placed chess pieces into positions from a real game, gave the players a five-second glimpse of the board, and then tested their recall. The results were what one might expect. The master players recalled the pieces and arrangements four to five times better than the ordinary players did. (World-class players neared 100 percent recall.)

Then de Groot did something clever. Instead of using patterns from a real chess game, he set the chess pieces in a random arrangement and reran the test. Suddenly the masters’ advantage vanished. They scored no better than lesser players; in one case, a master chess player did worse than a novice. The master players didn’t have photographic memories; when the game stopped resembling chess, their skills evaporated.

De Groot went on to show that in the first test, the masters were not seeing individual chess pieces but recognizing patterns. Where novices saw a scattered alphabet of individual pieces, masters were grouping those “letters” into the chess equivalent of words, sentences, and paragraphs.

This sort of compression is called chunking.

Repeated compression forces you to figure out what’s actually important. To see the forest for the trees. True mastery is when you can jump between different abstraction levels easily.

Fast, Slow, Medium

“Just take it one step at a time.” But what I didn’t understand until I visited the talent hotbeds was just how effective that simple, intuitive strategy could be. In the talent hotbeds I visited, the chunking takes place in three dimensions. First, the participants look at the task as a whole—as one big chunk, the megacircuit. Second, they divide it into its smallest possible chunks. Third, they play with time, slowing the action down, then speeding it up, to learn its inner architecture.

Yegge said it first.

Here’s the relevant passage, heavily edited. It’s not exactly the same as Coyle, but you’ll get the idea.

Have you ever watched a professional concert musician practicing? I’m talking about those world-class ones, the kinds of musicians that were trained in academies in China and Russia and have all the technique of Japanese robots combined with all the musical soul of, well, Japanese robots.

Well, they practice like this: Fast, Slow, Medium. Fast, Slow, Medium. Over and over.

It’s kinda like Goldilocks. Too hot, too cold, just right. That’s how musicians practice.

You start with a passage. Anything at all. At first it’ll just be a single note. Later it’ll become a few notes, a phrase, a measure, a couple of measures. Anything you’re having trouble with and you want to master.

First you play the lick as fast as possible. You don’t care about making mistakes! The goal of this phase is to loosen your fingers up. You want them to know what raw speed feels like.

Next you play it as slow as necessary. In this pass you should use proper technique. In the slow pass you don’t care about speed at all. You care about accuracy. Perfect practice makes perfect, and all that. You want your fingers to know what it feels like to be correct. Doesn’t matter if it takes you 30 seconds per note. Just get it right. If you make a mistake, start over from the beginning, slower.

Finally, you play it “at speed”. If you’re practicing a musical instrument, you play it at the target tempo. You want your fingers to feel musical. Musicians generally agree that you don’t want to make mistakes in this phase, or you’re just practicing your mistakes. But realistically, most musicians are probably willing to make a few minor sacrifices here in the third pass, as long as the music shines through beautifully.

This way is exhausting, and is hard to stay motivated while doing, but works.

Fast

Absorbing a picture of the skill until you can imagine yourself doing it.

You want to get the big picture. See the forest for the trees.

Slow

You drill down into every crucial sub-skill until you’ve pretty much forgotten the higher-level task.

You start to notice patterns.

Medium

Now you chunk those patterns into larger atomic actions.

Don’t Have Nice Facilities

I asked Bargh about a curious pattern I’d observed at the talent hotbeds: they tended to be junky, unattractive places. If the training grounds of all the talent hotbeds I visited were magically assembled into a single facility—a mega-hotbed, as it were—that place would resemble a shantytown. Its buildings would be makeshift, corrugated-roofed affairs, its walls paint-bald, its fields weedy and uneven. So many hotbeds shared this disheveled ambience that I began to sense a link between the dented, beat-up state of the incubators and the sleek talent they produced. Which, in Bargh’s opinion, was precisely the case, and for a reason he readily explained.

“If we’re in a nice, easy, pleasant environment, we naturally shut off effort,” Bargh said. “Why work? But if people get the signal that it’s rough, they get motivated now. A nice, well-kept tennis academy gives them the luxury future right now—of course they’d be demotivated. They can’t help it.”

You’re not a hack. Only a cretin joins for the free food. If you want to get good, you don’t need distractions. As long as the task is interesting and the people around you are legit, that’s all you need.

Maybe Evans Hall being ugly isn’t so bad.

Until an earthquake hits and half the math talent in the West Coast dies.

Galamian had first settled the camp in nearby Elizabethtown but deemed the local girls to be too distractingly beautiful, a point he underlined by marrying one.

Purely out of scientific curiosity, I’m sure.

Remote, inexpensive, and extremely quiet.

Seymour Cray really took this one to heart.

Suffer No Jankiness

Fix your mistakes.

The absolute best programmers I’ve ever known, without exception, are radically intolerant of their software acting in any way that does not match their mental models. If something happens – no matter how small – that they do not understand, they stop and go “What just happened?”

Even if it takes them all day and even if it means that they fall behind in other areas.

John Carmack was absolutely intolerant of rendering errors – especially cracks, slivers and T-junctions in his BSP renderer. He was devoutly religious about it, and this is one of the reasons that the Quake games had such an immensely heavy, solid feel to them.

So of course one day we’re testing things, and we see the occasional flash of a crack or a sliver. This was pretty much an all-stop situation for him. He spent a long time (I want to say at least a day – and one Carmack Day is like Five Regular Dude Days) and finally narrowed it down to an issue specific to an ATI driver or card. Now, most of us would be content to be all “Whew, not my problem, let’s move on!” but of course Carmack had to know how the ATI driver was broken.

That diligence reaps huge benefits, because very often these small problems are the first cracks in the codebase. By chasing after these now you stop larger problems from erupting later. In addition, by ensuring that only the things that you expect to happen actually happen, you’re forced to keep a mental model of exactly what you think is happening in your head. If you become flippant about jankiness it’s easy to eject global understanding (“This is how the program works”) to focus on localized concerns (“Why is this function crashing?”). Once that mental model of your software is corrupt or vague, you’re in major trouble because you no longer know what to expect, and it becomes extremely hard to even detect non-crash bugs because you can’t tell the difference between a bug and expected behaviour any more!

I used to blow off this attitude as overengineering or intellectual wanking – if it worked, that’s what mattered, and I can be getting in a new feature while you’re sitting there obsessing over code that works (for the most part…) – but since then I’ve decided I’ve been doing it all wrong, and I need to have a solid understanding of all the code I write, if for no other reason than it makes things easier on me in the long run.

When you’re shipping software for a startup, that can be a waste of time. But if you’re trying to get great at something, this is crucial.

Come to think of it, now I know why the main piece of advice I hear about getting great at something is “be obsessed”.

Because you’d never do it if you knew how much work it entails.

“If people knew how hard I had to work to gain my mastery,” Michelangelo later said, “it would not seem so wonderful at all.”

If you hear a string out of tune, it should bother you.

Coaching

This’ll be the subject of another blog post. Basically, a good coach will keep you in the sweet spot of stretching for the next attainable milestone.

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