Daniel Coyle, author of The Talent Code The Talent Code: Greatness Isn't Born. It's Grown. Here's How., a best-seller, now comes out with The Little Book of Talent: 52 Tips for Improving Your Skills. It is a small book that can be carried easily in a pocket, instrument case, or gym bag. Because I haven't read The Talent Code, I will try to discuss the current book on its own merits.
It's written for those who dream of becoming really good--expert, in fact--at something they are interested in, whether it is music, sports, writing, acting, selling, etc. According to Coyle, the book took shape out of notes he took while traveling around observing "talent hotbeds"--highly successful training programs (e.g., The Spartak Tennis Club in Moscow) as well as reading reports by researchers who studied them. The result is a "collection of simple, practical tips for improving skills, taken directly from the hotbeds I visited and the scientists who research them."
The book is divided into three parts: (1) Getting Started: ideas for igniting motivation and building a blueprint for the skills you want to build; (2) Improving skills: methods and techniques for making the most progress in the least time; (3) Sustaining Progress: strategies for overcoming plateaus, keeping motivational fires lit, and building habits for long-term success. Each section contains a series of tips: Section one: Tips 1-12; Section two: Tips 13-42; Section 3: Tips 43-52. Many of the tips were familiar to me, both from my own teaching and learning, as well as from having seen them in a number of other books I've read on practicing and developing expertise. Still, it's nice to have so many of them in a little "handbook" or ready reference.
The first section is really about how to begin realizing your dream, once you have decided what you want to do with your life. He talks about finding a role model (or more than one) and studying what he or she does, and emulating that. It also involves imagining yourself doing what they are doing. Tip #5, "Be Willing to Be Stupid," means being "willing to risk the emotional pain of making mistakes, [which is] essential, because reaching, failing, and reaching again is the way your brain grows and forms new connections." Tips #7-10 contrast "hard" and "soft" skills. Hard skills are the skills you MUST have in order to be expert at what you are doing, and you have to be able to perform them consistently at the highest level, over and over again. (Here's an example I was told once: According to legend, Fritz Reiner, the conductor of the Chicago Symphony, once stopped a rehearsal and asked First Trumpet Bud Herseth to play a passage alone--Reiner wasn't satisfied with it. Herseth did so. Reiner asked him to play it again, then again. After a few more times, Herseth said, "Maestro, I'm glad to play it as many times as you want, but I'm NOT going to mess up!")
"Soft" skills, by contrast, are skills that enable you to roll with the punches, adapt quickly and instinctively to changing situations (such as being able to continue to perform if the lights go out), and try creative new ways of doing something on the spot (improvising). The key word is "flexibility." I think he could have emphasized that one must master the "hard" skills in order to be able to apply the "soft" skills well, however. You need automatic technical mastery in order to let go and fly free. There is nothing worse than someone trying to improvise whose technique is inadequate.
The second part contains the bulk of the tips and is oriented toward effective practice. It begins with "finding the sweet spot" in your practice. Coyle considers this supremely important. He means that in order to get good, you have to work at the limit, and reach slightly beyond, your current level of ability. In other words, constantly challenge yourself with material that is a little bit (not a huge amount) beyond you. Get out of your comfort zone. Some of the tips in this section seem pretty obvious to me, like "Pay attention immediately after you make a mistake," but they need to be emphasized partly because so many persons don't do it! Same thing with slow practice. He quotes one teacher as saying, "if the people in the street can tell what song you're playing, you're practicing it too fast!" He recommends naps as a way of recharging the brain. (I wonder if meditation would work also.) Tip #42 is for teachers, and gives some suggestions for better teaching: "Use the first few seconds to connect on an emotional level; [and what I think is the best:] "Aim to create independent learners."
Part 3, "Sustaining Progress" encourages us to "Embrace repetition, cultivate grit, and keep big goals secret." All good advice. Here he offers ways to be "flexible one moment and stubborn the next, to deal with immediate obstacles while staying focused on the horizon." Tip #43 "Embrace repetition" might seem to conflict with Tip #19 "Don't do drills". But I think he would argue that you might turn the drill into a game (if you are younger) and to keep in mind the idea that each rep is strengthening your skill and moving you to your goal (if you are more mature). I liked Tip #44 "have a blue-collar mind-set", because as he points out, top performers (actors, sports figures, musicians, etc.) may seem to have a pretty cushy life (remember the Dire Straits song "Money for Nothing?"), but in reality they work very hard every single day to get where they are and stay where they are. To them it is a craft above all.
Finally, he includes a very brief glossary of terms, a list of books "for further reading," and an Appendix on myelin, the substance that forms insulating sheaths around axons in the brain, which is important for brain function in skilled performers. Apparently he discusses that in much greater detail in The Talent Code.
Whom is this book for? Anyone who sincerely wants to get good at something but needs an inspirational push to keep them on track (and that includes most of us). It's not a perfect guide--there are deeper and more detailed books covering much of the same material--but it's handy and good to have around.
Now if you'll excuse me, I have to get back to my practicing!