Monday, August 20, 2012

Short, Sweet Steps to Build Talent at Any Age

Daniel Coyle, The Little Book of Talent: 52 Tips for Improving Your Skills

Current society worships child prodigies and assumes that, if you had the potential to excel at something, you already would excel. I can’t count the number of times I tried to persuade my students that they need not rely on some “gift” to improve their writing and reasoning skills. I often failed to convince them, because they were immersed in the cult of innate talent. Plus, I lacked the skills to ease them through the process of self-improvement.

In his prior book, The Talent Code, Daniel Coyle traveled to several different schools, camps, and academies that exist to cultivate talent in particular areas. He observed a wide variety of fields, from music and art to sports to technical trades. And he found that most of these schools used the same small handful of techniques. Now, in this follow-up volume, Coyle distills those techniques to a handful of brief lessons that fit inside a pocket-sized volume for easy reading.

Talent, says Coyle, is not the exclusive domain of prodigies to whom success comes easily. Such crackerjacks tend to burn out early, or get discouraged when what seemed easy turns increasingly difficult. Instead, the best talent, and most impressive success, tends to accrue to those willing to work hard, make incremental gains, seek out the best teachers, and invest aggressively in their own growth. Coyle shows how that’s done.

Some of Coyle’s pointers seem obvious. When he tells us to “Learn Hard Skills First” or “Break Every Move Down Into Chunks,” he says little our grade school teachers didn’t try to tell us first, if we’d cared enough to listen. Yet how many of us actually do this? It’s easy, for instance, to want to skip the “hard” technical skills and race headlong into the “soft” expressive skills before we have a firm foundation. I know how common this is, because I have both seen and done it.

But others of Coyle’s pointers seem to come from out of left field. How many of us would think to “Embrace Struggle” or “Pay Attention Immediately After You Make a Mistake”? Most of us avoid struggle, which is painful, or flee mistakes, which we regard as failure. Considering how many of our schoolteachers made us feel stupid if we had to work hard, holding our flubs up for public scorn (or was that just me?), we probably have much to unlearn.

I especially appreciate Coyle’s insistence on risk-taking as a learning endeavor. Too often, we associate risk with imminent failure, and retreat into our shells. I've written before on the importance of taking risks and being willing to look dumb as necessary to our growth. But Coyle backs this up with evidence from diverse experiences and difficult discoveries, explaining not just why risk is good, but how to tell valuable risk from wasted time.

If your school days were anything like mine, your life followed two parallel tracks. In the “school track,” you faced hours seated in a chair, facing forward like a soldier in a regiment, while an authority figure talked past you, then rendered judgment on your ability to perform “skillz drillz.” In the “life track,” you pushed yourself to improve at something you loved, even if it meant giving up something else, working through pain, or practicing in solitude.

Like me, you associated the tedious “school track” with learning, and the exciting “life track” with fun. You never thought of your “life track” activities as a form of study and practice, because study was boring, and life made you feel alive. But Coyle describes how the best schools don’t allow you to follow two separate tracks, keeping life and learning hand in hand. This means that, as long as you remain alive, you still have the opportunity to learn and improve.

Coyle does not bother with windy explanations of how and why his pointers work. Though he throws in real-life examples where it helps, he keeps his pointers brief and energetic (only a handful run over two pages). If you must understand the process, recent books like Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit or Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers: The Story of Success explain the science and sociology, but you don’t really need them.

Rather than explicate how learning works, or why learning matters, he delivers short, workable guides to how you can learn any skill, at any age. You’re never too old, too established, or too creaky to improve your skills. You just need the opportunity, which Coyle provides in spades.

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