If you are obsessed with peak performance, achievement and psychology, then you will eventually find yourself thinking about talent. And most importantly, how to build talent.
Talent, in its essence, is the performance of skill with natural ease and sense of invincibility. It’s like watching a professional play against amateurs. Or like watching a normal human being perform feats that appear to be superhuman.
Talent is the ability to execute a skill in a way that makes you an expert.
After my detailed summary of The Talent Code, I decided to read it’s companion book The Little Book of Talent: 52 Tips for Improving Skills. I thought the companion book was much more precise and to the point, explaining in bits of information the research behind building talent. Essentially, the meat & potatoes of how to become better.
All of the tips listed in the book made sense to me, but trying to incorporate 52 different things into a daily practice seems a bit disobliging.
I decided to filter it down to 10 of the most actionable tips listed. These 10 precise tips are much more manageable, and I can easily fit them into my plan for World Domination.
The vision of a champion is someone who is bent over, drenched in sweat, at the point of exhaustion, when no one else is watching. – Anson Dorrance, North Carolina women’s soccer coach
1. Stare at who you want to become — Simply, intently and keenly observe the person you want to become by watching their actions. The 5th Special Forces Group once sent Soldiers to follow executives at GE around with no other responsibilities except to simply observe. Use pictures to visualize the person you want to become. Keep YouTube videos bookmarked and re-watch before practice or before going to bed. Imagine yourself as that person, then do the work to make it happen.
2. Spend fifteen minutes engraving the skill on your brain — Watch a skill being performed intently before trying it out. The key is to create an intense connection so that you can imagine performing the skill (visualization). For physical skills, project yourself inside the performer’s body. Try to feel and mimic each movement and action. Build the skill in your mind.
For mental skills, simulate the skill by re-creating the expert’s decision patterns. Try giving a great speech or replaying a great chess game. It takes time to build talent and there is a process where you have to physically construct that talent.
The Talent Code talks more about the building of myelin, which is essentially the physical accumulation of talent receptors.
3. Be willing to look stupid — In order to build talent, you have to operate at the edges of your capabilities; essentially, you have to work on weaknesses and you have to do them slowly and deliberately. An outsider watching this unfold may think that you look stupid, but that is okay because that is part of the process to build world-class talent.
Top tier companies often encourage their employees to take chances and to not be afraid of failure; failure is where new connections are made and where we learn to navigate towards the correct outcomes. Embrace it.
4. Choose spartan over luxurious — Luxury stagnates motivation. It signals to our subconscious that we made it, that we can relax. Simple spaces provide the requisite environment for deep practice, one that doesn’t signal to our minds to be comfortable and one that doesn’t promote unnecessary distractions.
5. Before you start, figure out if it is a soft skill or a hard skill — Hard skills require high precision that should be repeated over and over again; a golf swing or tennis serve; a child performing basic math; an athlete shooting a free throw; a worker on an assembly line.
Hard skills require neurons in the brain to fire repeatedly and consistently. It helps to be careful and attuned to errors, like a careful carpenter.
Respect the hard skills. Some talents are a unique combination of both hard and soft skills. Think of a quarterback making a throw (hard skills) after reading a defense (soft skill). Prioritize the hard skills because in the long run, they are more valuable to overall talent; they take more time to build and are more dependent on deep practice.
Hard skills require ABCs: Always Be Consistent.
Soft skills require high flexibility that is broader and less specialized; a stock trader spotting a hidden opportunity; a soccer player sensing an opening in the defense; a CEO reading a room during a negotiation; a novelist sculpting a dramatic plot.
Play and explore inside complex and ever-changing environments. Be aggressive and experimental, always looking for new ways to challenge yourself. The most creative skills require the longest periods of clumsiness.
They are all about being able to quickly recognize a pattern or possibility using the Three Rs: Reading, Recognizing, and Reacting.
6. Don’t fall for the prodigy myth — Many people believe talent is innate and that natural ability is a signal for continued success. This assumption is false and early success is a weak indicator of long-term success.
Prodigies, or those that have early success, often try and protect their reputation by avoiding failure or harder tasks that they are not good at. This stifles growth and they fail to fully develop their talents; they become afraid of operating at the edge of their abilities.
7. Find the sweet spot — The space just beyond your ability, the sweet spot, is where you must reach. The sweet spot consists of certain sensations: frustrating, difficult, fully engaged in an intense struggle with about 50-80% of all attempts being successful, meaning it’s not too easy or too difficult.
Don’t keep track of time and don’t set out to practice for a set amount of time. Measure your progress by reaches and reps. Ignore the clock and focus on practice attempts.
→ Break every move down into chunks. Every skill is built out of smaller “chunks.”
How to do it; (1) What is the smallest single element of this skill that I can master? (2) What other chunks link to that chunk? Practice one chunk until it is mastered then link chunks together.
→ See the whole thing. Break it down into its simplest elements. Put it back together. Repeat.
→ Each day, try to build one perfect chunk. Set a daily SAP: Smallest Achievable Perfection and work to complete it. Talent is built little by little, connection by connection, and rep by rep.
8. Embrace Struggle — Struggle feels like a failure and it is uncomfortable. As a result, it is often avoided. To build talent, it must be embraced, as it represents the building of skill; it looks like someone is working at the edges of their capabilities.
Choose five minutes a day over an hour a week. The act of practice can be thought of as a skill itself. Choose consistent practice every day to build a habit as it is more effective than long bouts of work overtime.
Doing something every single day is hard and it is much easier to give yourself a day off every once a while but that kind of mindset is a detriment to building talent. It is important to be consistent. Embrace the process.
9. Practice alone (some of the time) — Practicing alone works for two reasons; (1) It helps you to find that sweet spot at the edge of your abilities; (2) Develop discipline because it is up to you to find the desire and drive to practice and it is up to you to determine the efficacy of that practice.
→ Think in Images. Create a vivid image for a chunk of information you want to learn. Think of “let the soccer ball kiss your foot” versus “stop the soccer ball with your foot.” Our brain is programmed to process information in the form of images; it is quicker and more abstract, which was necessary for survival in a prehistoric world.
→ Pay Attention Immediately After You Make a Mistake. People who pay attention to error learn more from their mistakes. Do this right away. Don’t shy away from your mistakes, face them head-on. Don’t take them personally. Learn from them, embrace them, and do it quickly. It is best to go through this process alone, focusing on building your skills and talents, piece by piece.
There is also the fact that building skills take a lot of practice, most of which must be done alone simply due to logistics.
10. Visualize the wires of your brain making new connections — Visualizing the physical process of building new brain connections (aka myelin) is a helpful tool for embracing and accepting mistakes. When you strive to operate at the edge of your abilities, you will be forming and strengthening new connections in your brain; visualize the process as it is happening.
→ Visualize the Wires of Your Brain Getting Faster. When you are in deep practice, the wires of your brain get faster. It is helpful to visualize the process happening. The faster your wires become, the more talent you build.
It is useful and motivating to think about it unfolding; like the visual process of seeing your body change during physical transformation.
Check out The Outwork Book Club for more on the process of talent building.