I’m reading a brilliant book, The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle, which was recommended by one of my students. (Thanks, Sarah Elizabeth.) The author explores what accounts for those people who possess extraordinary talent. How do the greats get great? This book points toward an unexpected answer which just might be the Holy Grail for anyone who wants to be world class, who wants to get really, really good at something.

There is some fascinating science explained in the book, and a previously mysterious and lightly regarded substance in our bodies, myelin, takes the spotlight. Just being aware of this substance and how it works could change your life. Go read the book, but I will tell you that the more myelin you develop in your body, the more awesome you will become. LeBron, Tiger, Yo-Yo Ma… those guys and anyone who are masters of their crafts are loaded with myelin.

You want the shortcut, the quick recipe for loading up on myelin and generating the kind of awesomeness that has made masters out of regular humans for centuries? Here you go:

Practice.

You knew this, right? Most of us have now heard of the 10,000 hour rule: it takes 10,000 hours of practice to get really good at something. But there’s a bit more to it. Masters practice in a certain way that makes all the difference. “Deep practice” is necessary to get great. It’s the kind of practice where you keep bumping up against your limitations and sticking with it till you overcome and move on to a higher level.

I learned to juggle when I was a teenager, thinking girls would be impressed. They were not. (Toddlers, though, are wowed. Who knew?) It was a struggle when I was learning. I dropped a lot of bean bags, got frustrated, but kept going until I mastered the basic three bag juggle. But, from then on, whenever I practiced juggling I just did the same trick over and over. And I never got better. Never learned anything more than how to juggle three items in the same pattern. A master juggler would have kept going, pushing past the basics, failing again and again with new moves and tricks until finally gaining mastery.

Deep practice requires facing struggle and persevering. And repeating. Over and over. Don’t just practice the easy stuff, the stuff you’ve already got. Push yourself to conquer the hard stuff.

And practice daily. Myelin, which is created by this repetitive, deep practice, is living tissue and needs to be nurtured and replenished

You want to be a writer? Write every day, even when, especially when you don’t feel it flowing. Want to perform? Seek out every opportunity to perform, to stand before audiences. See what works and what doesn’t, and then hone in on getting every little detail sharpened.

What’s the Kryptonite that can weaken the skills of a master? Don’t let them practice. From Coyle’s book:

As Vladimir Horowitz, the virtuoso pianist who kept performing into his eighties, put it, “If I skip practice for one day, I notice. If I skip practice for two days, my wife notices. If I skip for three days, the world notices.”

Same for the great Louis Armstrong:

“You can’t take it for granted. Even if we have two, three days off I still have to blow that horn a few hours to keep up the chops. I mean I’ve been playing 50 years, and that’s what I’ve been doing in order to keep in that groove there.” -Louis Armstrong via Kottke

I’ve been guilty in the past of almost pridefully disdaining preparation and practice, confident I could wing it and still be good. I’ve been learning, though, that practice, deep practice, makes the difference between being good enough and being awesome.

How great do you want to be? Target the skills that you want to strengthen and get busy practicing. Embrace frustration and struggle and pain as the signs you’re on the right path to mastery. If it’s easy, you’re doing it wrong. But if it were easy, everyone would be a master.

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