A Sneak Preview — and a Question


Quick personal update: I’m working on a new book with a fairly audacious goal: to compile the world’s best talent-development advice into a short handbook for teachers, students, athletes, musicians, parents, coaches, and pretty much anybody.

The book will be called The Little Book of Talent, and it will contain around 75 rules — one rule per page. The rules will address how to improve your practice, increase your motivation, and make the most of the limited time you have.

Here’s a sneak preview:

  • Rule: Remove Your Watch

When it comes to measuring practice, we reflexively obey clocks. We naturally presume that an hourlong practice is twice as good as a half-hour practice. This reasoning is faulty, because it creates the false expectation that you will succeed merely by filling the allotted time. Deep practice is not about time passing, but about the number of times you stretch yourself to the edge of your ability, make mistakes, and fix them. Studies show you can accomplish more learning in a deep 10 minutes than a shallow two hours.

So instead of counting minutes or hours, count your reaches.  Instead of saying, “I’m going to practice piano for 20 minutes,” instead tell yourself “I’m going to do five reps of that new song.”  Instead of planning to hit golf balls for an hour, plan to make 25 quality swings with each club.

  • Rule: Practice in Short Segments

TV executives who schedule commercials have long known what scientists are just figuring out: your natural span of attention is around ten minutes. Therefore, it’s smart to organize your practice into short, intense sessions with a quick breather in between. Using short segments creates a clarity of target, and avoids the pitfall of mushy, vague practice. (This is one of the reasons coach John Wooden set up his drills to last around ten minutes each.)

Divide your practice into segments, with each segment focused on reaching for one particular goal — a new move in your repertoire.  Don’t worry if you don’t perfect the move in that time — you can always come back to it. The point is not to get it perfect the first time, but to build a system that helps you improve steadily and systematically.

  • Rule: Be Willing to Be Stupid

Being willing to endure the emotional burn of failure is a prerequisite for improvement, since without it we are cut off from the wellspring of our progress: reaching, failing, and learning from our mistakes. As baseball Hall of Famer Lou Brock said, “Show me a guy who is afraid to look bad, and I’ll show you a guy I can beat every time.”

  • Rule: “Practice Begins When You Get it Right”

This is a saying from violin teacher Kimberly Meier-Sims, director of the Suzuki program at the Cleveland Institute of Music. I like it because it addresses the common misconception that our first moment of success represents the finish line.  To the contrary: getting it right is not the finish, but the beginning. It marks the moment when the real work begins; the moment when you begin (through reaching and repetition) the process of taking ownership of your skill.

  • Rule: Try Sh*t

Practicing the same thing over and over in exactly the same way seems like a smart thing to do. Problem is, it’s usually not. Studies show that variable practice — where you move around, experiment, try new things and see how they work — is far more effective than “blocked” practice with no variance.  A good example is basketball free throws, where practicing from variable distances produces skill far faster than practicing from the same distance every time.

The reason this works is that embracing variability helps us sharpen our control — our ability to make small, crucial changes to adapt our performance to the situation. When we make a habit of experimenting — when we try sh*t, and do it systematically — we are increasing our ability to modulate our performance.


Now comes the question. One of the things I’ve enjoyed most about writing this blog is the consistently high level of discussion that it generates — the comments, the emails, the links you share with me and the rest of the readers of this blog. So I feel compelled to ask: what nuggets of practical advice have worked best for you or for someone you know?  What other kernels of proven wisdom belong in this book?

Feel free to email me or, better, share your thoughts and ideas in the comments section below so others can use them too.  If I end up including your ideas in the Little Book, you will have both my ardent, heartfelt thanks as well as an inclusion in the book’s not-so-little acknowledgements section. Thanks!

PS — Let me start by thanking the remarkable Dr. Peter Vint of the U.S. Olympic Committee’s Performance Services Division — the “Try Shi*t” rule came from him.

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71 Responses to “A Sneak Preview — and a Question”

  1. Cody Groves says:

    May you write the best book on practice ever written! I found this site because I am looking for ways to better myself at music and other areas of my life. I read in the book “One Day University Presents: Positive Psychology: The Science of Happiness (Harvard’s Most Popular Course)” that dopamine activates the learning center in the brain, and positivity can cause dopamine to be released. So what I have been doing, well just 2 days now, is when i play guitar or basketball, i ask myself, what was one way I improved during that shot, play, or song. This helps me stay positive, and hopefully is activating my learning brain, interestingly it seems to spur me to try new things, maybe that’s part of how we learn. Also sleeping on it seems to help, I guess so the myelin has time to grow. Um fish oil supplements might aide the myelin growth, so you could do a nutrition section for that. Practicing with intensity seems to help, but I got that from your book the talent code. And the last thing, is knowing how to measure your success and your failures. I got this idea from the book “How to Measure Anything: Finding the Value of Intangibles in Business” Summaries of both the books mentioned can be found on my blog, and also links to them on amazon. Once again, cant wait for the book. Oh one more thing, they say that confidence improves performance, so something I do is ask myself repeatedly, what would I be doing different if I was 10 times more confident. For some reason focusing on confidence and not getting rid of worry makes me more confident. Feel free to use any of my ideas. And if I find anything useful in the future, ill try to post it. BTW I hope its ok that I included a summary of your book “The Talent Code” on my site, if you want me to take it down I will 🙂

  2. CCXander says:

    Rule: Make Sense
    Oftentimes we direct our physical intensity toward a specific task, neglecting other sensory factors which may help intensify our focus. In the midst of a practice, isolate your other senses – the feel of the ball or strings, the sound of the bounce or note, the color differentiation between and object and its surroundings etc. Narrowing your focus to specificities inside of the task can make the overall task appear clearer and more defined. It is easier to find an ideal performance state when you can access it from more than one angle.

  3. Dale says:

    There Is No Magic | Deconstructing “Genius” http://deconstructinggenius.wordpress.com/2011/04/22/there-is-no-magic/ Gian-Carlo Rota wrote in his memorandum Indiscrete Thoughts that “Sitzfleisch” is often a much better predictor of an aspiring mathematician’s future success than any other factor. That’s the German word for “the ability to sit in one’s chair doing gruesome work for hours,” it is a perfect skill to be coupled with fervent curiosity.

  4. Dale says:

    There Is No Magic | Deconstructing “Genius” http://deconstructinggenius.wordpress.com/2011/04/22/there-is-no-magic/ In his TED Talk, Salman Khan explains how analytics tools for measuring children’s education showed most kids later to be deemed precocious spent an unusually long amount of time on certain basic concepts, then sped through the rest. As my advisor pithily puts it, “mathematics is not about understanding complex abstract ideas, but about understanding simple things well.” The rest is a corollary.

  5. Dale says:

    Racial achievement gap: Can it be narrowed in one easy session? – latimes.com http://www.latimes.com/news/opinion/commentary/la-oe-kirp-esteem-20110424,0,4748601.story Another experiment, this one carried out by psychologists Lisa Blackwell and Kali Trzesniewski, focused on students who were predicted to do badly in middle-school math. A survey found that many of them believed their brains were fixed at birth. When they enrolled in a four-hour class about how “effortful learning” rewires the brain, they set higher goals for themselves, were more highly motivated and more likely to think that making an effort could pay off. A year later their math grades were higher than students who hadn’t learned about brain development.

  6. Erik K says:

    I am reading the Talent Code now and find it refreshing. I would like a free copy of your new book, please. Since I am moving soon, your assistant can get my new address by emailing me at erikkristopherkrause@gmail.com.

    Thanks, Erik

    PS I won’t forget to repay the favor.

  7. Simon says:

    I have a good tip
    Taking a nap can give you the same learning benefits of a full night sleep. This includes improved motor skills.
    The nap benefits depends on the nap time and amount of time you slept. Good nap times are 20mins, 60mins and 90mins. 90mins gives the best results.

    For more information read Sara Mednick’s book “Take a naps! Change your life”
    There is also 2 videos of her on youtube.
    Both of these are an hour long and have roughly the same information in them.

    If you use this tip, no need to put me in the acknowledgements, put Sara Mednick in it for all her research.

    I would love to get an email when your book is released in the uk, if you are making a mailing list.

    Motivation is also a very hard thing for me to achieve. I can stare at my guitar and just not be able to pick it up.

    Motivation is one of the hardest things to find good and proven information on.

  8. Simon says:

    I read your tip on practising the same thing differently and it worked immediately for me(about 1 minute).

    I was having trouble switching between 2 chords on the guitar. I played the 2 chords one after the other as I normally do when practising, but this time I changed the rhythm. It helped.
    I also bounced my left hand’s fingers up and down with the rhythm to make more of a difference.
    I also tried switching to the new chord from several different chords which also helped a lot.

    I have done this for about 3 chords today and am able to switch to them quicker. I can tell that this has sped up my learning because it normally takes me a day or two to feel like I know a chord. I’m not much of a rhythm guitarist, so it’s something I want to improve on.

    I am please with the quick pay off from that tip. I am still not switching between chords amazingly quick, but it is up to the tempo of the rest of the song i’m practising. I’m currently practising a song at half the speed. I also still need to practice the chords every few minutes to keep my speed.

  9. Ángel Sanz says:

    Rule: Attitude is the beginning

    Having the right attitude is a basic element to be able to spend the time, effort and energy that takes to develop your own talent. I have learnt from working with top performance athletes that reason number one for them not to reach their highest is their lack of attitude usually caused by a lack of true motivation. I believe that having an open mind of taking a different approach of practice itself is the answer to most of athletes’ prayers and boosts the performance level as well as it generates the playful sense of learning that makes you love what you do!!! The system does not help (using your own analogy, athletes are more and more treated like Goliaths that treated like Davids) but… It is clear that having the David’s attitude increases your chances to be the best you can be.

  10. Kristine says:

    AHA! I’ve been systematically avoiding situations where I felt “on the spot” wheras I should have been seeking them out. I would like to see some documentation/explaination on why demoralizing students by berating them and yelling at them is actually counterproductive (let’s end this once and for all). I would like to know more about emotional states of students – what is best to be receptive to learning. Also, the chunking of the Meadowmount students….what are they focusing on when they play slowly? pitch? rhythm? intervals?

  11. djcoyle says:

    Hi Kristine, Those are terrific questions. As for the emotional state that’s most receptive to learning — I’ve heard many teachers talk about a “calm intensity” that characterizes the best states for learning. Calm as in controlled, not overly emotional; intensity as in focused keenly on perceiving what’s happening right now. As for the Meadowmount chunking and slow play — I don’t mean to be too vague here, but their focus tends to vary. It’s specific to the task. Sometimes it’s pitch (esp in warmups). Sometimes it’s intervals (esp when they’re learning a tough passage). Not rhythm so much. As for documentation that fear doesn’t help learning, I just came across a new study from Case Western that used brain scans to measure reaction to different kinds of teachers. The more effective teachers lit up the parts of the brain connected with positive thoughts, relationships, caring. So there you go. Here’s a video summarizing the research: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZFjgAxmRaYo

  12. Josef says:

    I found this text very interesting and at this moment I’m making a reconstruction of my ways of practicing and I’m using a lot of your thoughts. I’m a golfer and see my practice more like practicing on my life. I love to know things and learn new things and hate the feeling of not knowing. One of your rules “Remove Your Watch” stated that you should make your practice based on reps and avoiding using time. I find it great and something I will try to apply to my training. But the fact that we are living in a world where everything is based on time, makes me a little confused of how to apply it. Another rule “Practice in Short Segments” says that you should practice for 10 minutes and then rest. How do you convert 10 minutes to the “Remove Your Watch” way of thinking? I thought that you could use both methods and by using them for 3 weeks making the practice routine a habit, it would be possible to learn exactly what to do without thinking of the time.But that will maybe lead to the same result as using the time as a tool fore training achievement

  13. I’m really looking forward to this new book. I am a teacher, coach and new father at the age of 43 and am looking for more good advice on these aspects of my life. I read the Talent Code and it is one of the best books I have read in a long time, and recently read an article in NY Magazine that talks about the research of Dr. Dweck that you reference in TC. The sampling of the rules you give above is good stuff. Can’t wait for the finished product.

  14. robonstop says:

    I will buy your book, that’s for sure. Could you include tips like the DHA intake for high quality Myelin, too? Eating strategically for learning is important.

    I read that bacteria in the ground of woods, that you take in when you take a walk, can help you learn things. So does sleeping after studying, similar to muscle growth overnight. I think these topics should be included when writing a manual. I’m currently reading Talent Code.

  15. Chuck says:

    A suggestion for your ‘Rules’. My son plays guitar and his goal is to be a professional musician. He has been playing for six years now, early on he would learn a song or exercise skill and then move on. After some time had passed he would go back to that song or skill and ‘stumble’. He was practicing till he got it right. I said that was just the starting point. He needed to practice until he couldn’t get it wrong. No matter what happened while playing the piece he would not make a mistake. Playing was not thought out, it was all muscle memory.

    This way, when playing on stage, if a waiter drops a glass, people argue, or someone talks to him…he is playing the song as it should be played.

  16. Frank says:

    I’ve coached soccer for over 20 years at the club, high school and junior college level. I like a lot of what you’ve got so far & hope the finished product is easily translatable to real life.
    Here are a few things I’ve learned over the years:
    1. shorter is usually better. In HS most of the practices were 3 hours, in college I rarely go over 90 minutes (game length). Leave them wanting more, not dreading more.
    2. End drills & practice on a high note. While repetition is important, ending on a successful outcome builds confidence and enthusiasm. for example – when practicing corners, always try to end on a goal. By ending on success, they won’t remember that they failed the dozen times before.
    3. Transfer a tactical concept from something else. ‘Tactical awareness’ is something that is woefully missing in a lot of today’s athletes, in all sports. In baseball and softball every kid has a hitting coach, but they don’t know how to run the bases. I often use other sports to try and get across a particular concept – a variation of team handball, where the goal is to move a ball from one end of a field to the other with passes only (you can’t run with the ball) can be used to show the effectiveness of movement ‘off the ball’, the give and go, and effective communication. Since doing this by throwing and catching a ball is easier (for most players) than kicking and trapping it, they learn the learn the concepts quickly…and, it’s usually a lot of fun.
    I’m looking forward to seeing your top rules.

  17. djcoyle says:

    Great stuff, Frank — I really appreciate it. I esp like the “keeping it short” idea — too few people do that one, and it makes a huge difference, in my experience.

  18. cmwhite says:

    Us pool playing nuts have a whole thread dedicated to your book. Check it out if you have the time. It can be found here:


  19. djcoyle says:

    Nice! Thanks for the word — I’ll check it out. I need help at pool anyway! Best, Dan

  20. JenInAlaska says:

    KIDS BOOK! Write a Rules for Kids book too! Geared for ages 6-12…Zone 1

    What a tool that could be!!!!!

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