24 Rules for Becoming an Adult Prodigy

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growing-trees-hiChild prodigies get a lot of attention because they seem magical. But do you know who’s even more impressive?

Adult prodigies.

I’m talking about people in their thirties, forties, and beyond — people who are miles past any of the “learning windows” for talent, and who yet succeed in building fantastically high-performing skill sets.

People like Dr. Mary Hobson, who took up Russian at 56, and became a prize-winning translator. Or Gary Marcus, a neuroscientist who took up guitar at the age of 38 and taught himself to rock, or pool player Michael Reddick, or Dan McLaughlin, a 31-year-old who took up golf for the first time four years ago and now plays to an outstanding 3.3 handicap (and who also keeps track of his practice hours — 4,530 and counting, if you wanted to know).

We tend to explain adult prodigies with the same magical thinking as we use to explain child prodigies: they’re special. They always possessed hidden talents.  

However, some new science is shedding light on the real reasons adults are able to successfully learn new skills, and exploding some myths in the process.  You should check out this article from New Scientist if you want to go deeper. Or read Marcus’s book Guitar Zero, or How We Learn, by Benedict Carey (out next week).

The takeaway to all this is that adult prodigies succeed because they’re able to work past two fundamental barriers: 1) the wall of belief that they can’t do it; and 2) the grid of adult routines that keep them from spending time working intensively to improve skills. In other words, it’s not so much about your “natural talents,” as it is about your mindset and your habits. From the New Scientist piece:

“A child’s sole occupation is learning to speak and move around,” says Ed Cooke, a cognitive scientist who has won many memory contests. “If an adult had that kind of time to spend on attentive learning, I’d be very disappointed if they didn’t do a good job.”

With all that in mind, I thought I’d try to fill in a gap by offering a few basic rules on how to apply these ideas to regular life.

Namely:

Rule 1. Pick a skill you were always fascinated by — one that you’ve already spent lots of time thinking about and admiring. Because all those hours is not just a sign of motivation; it’s also your head start to high-quality practice. You’ve already built some good circuitry, so use it.

Rule 2. Don’t pick something completely insane. Trying to become the next Steve Jobs or Peyton Manning probably doesn’t make sense for most adults. Focus on ambitious, reachable skills that make sense for you, and will add to your life.

Rule 3. Write down a big-picture plan. It doesn’t need to be too elaborate; it needs to contain some targets and strategies. Most important: figure out a daily routine, see if it’s working, then adapt it as you go along.

Rule 4: Don’t be so freaking conscientious about your plan. One of the traits that makes kids such good learners is their inherent looseness in approach; that is,  they don’t get hung up on doing everything 100-percent perfectly every single time. They do the opposite: they try bits and pieces, and if something doesn’t work, they try something else. They’re experimenters, innovators, entrepreneurs of the brain. Do likewise.

Rule 5. Keep it quiet early on. The quickest way to kill motivation is to tell Facebook that you’re developing a new talent — because that creates high expectations, which are the ultimate motivational buzzkill.

Rule 6. Be secretly and irrationally arrogant. Fear is what keeps people from learning new things, and getting rid of that fear however you choose is a good idea. So be cocky, gutsy, and willing to go to the edges of your ability even if (especially if) that means you sometimes look a little foolish. In other words, channel your inner Kobe Bryant.

Rule 6. Practice every day, in short bursts.

Rule 7: Long bursts too.

Rule 8: Also, medium bursts. Dream all you want, but frequent, intensive, high-quality practice is the path forward.

Rule 8: Interleave your practice, which is a fancy word for switching it up a lot. For example, if you want to improve your toss on your tennis serve, don’t just toss 50 balls in a row. Instead, toss 5 while focusing on one element of the move. Then do something else for 5 minutes. Then come back to the toss — this time focusing on a different element. Then go do something else, and so on. Interleaving forces your brain to make connections, and learn faster.

Rule 9: Find the best teacher you can afford. One of the advantages of being an adult is that, unlike a kid, you can choose your own  teacher. This is not a small thing. Find someone you like, and who maybe scares you a little (that is often a good sign).

Rule 10: Seek a training group. No matter what skill you’re trying to build, you are more motivated when you are part of a tribe working toward a goal.

Rule 11: Every once in a while, ignore your training group and stay home. The downside of training with people is that you tend to overlook problem areas that you really need to fix — and some things can only be solved alone.

Rule 12. Set aside a space to practice. This doesn’t need to be fancy — in fact, the less fancy the better. But it needs to exist and be convenient, and preferably located in your home, because you’ll use it more often.

Rule 13.  Get good tools. If you’re learning guitar, get a quality one. If you’re doing something on a computer, don’t buy one from Radio Shack.

Rule 14: Keep your tools handy, not stored away in some closet. When they’re around, you tend to pick them up more often.

Rule 15. Be opportunistic. Use the little quiet spots in your day to work in some spontaneous practice. A good five minutes can have a huge impact.

Rule 16. Keep a notebook, and track what works and what doesn’t. The notebook is your map: it keeps track of the stuff you forget, the goals you want to track, and (most crucially) the progress you make.

Rule 17. Steal from other people. Even if you’ve picked a wildly obscure talent to develop, there are thousands of other people out there who are doing exactly the same thing as you are, right now. They’re solving the same problems, finding possible solutions. Seek them out (on YouTube, for starters) and go to school on them.

Rule 18. Teach someone else. You might think you know how to perform a skill. But trying to accurately, concisely explain how that skill works to someone else? That’s a deeper level of understanding entirely.

Rule 19. Keep expectations moderately low.

Rule 20: Keep hopes moderately high.

Rule 21.  In your self talk, use “You” and not “I.” Research shows that self-talk is significantly more effective when you use the second person.

Rule 22. Practice early in the day. This is when your brain is fresh, and when you’ll make the most progress. Not coincidentally, this is also when there are the fewest interruptions.

Rule 23. Seek to become a world-class napper. This is a skill you likely already possess — and improving it can ratchet up your learning speed.

Rule 24. Plan on showing off, once you get good enough. Even the patron saint of adult prodigies, the painter Grandma Moses, wasn’t discovered until she got brave and started selling her artwork in local galleries. There’s nothing like an upcoming event or performance to direct your work and create a sense of energy. And besides, you earned it.

Two last questions: 1) Are there any stories/ideas you want to share about adult learning? 2) What other rules belong on this list? I’d love to hear what you have to say.

 


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27 Responses to “24 Rules for Becoming an Adult Prodigy”

  1. Craig says:

    Perfect timing as the new school year has started, I will begin taking piano lessons, along with my kids, at the age of 52!! As always, Dan, great work!!

  2. Paul says:

    Nice piece Dan,

    I’d edit out rule 2. Replace with ‘aim for the stars’. You used a great analogy – baby walking and talking – they have no idea what their current (or future) limitations are……they just wanna get there. And I may have missed it in translation ….I’d have put in a rules about ‘controlling the controllables’ and diving into the processes (growth mindset)….as well as your BRILLIANT ‘Reach/Loop/Mix.

    I started Masters Athletics at 50 (sprinting) and probably do everything on the list above……it works!

  3. TR says:

    Picking a practice space “preferably located in your home” is not necessarily ideal for everyone. The problem is that practice at home can easily be interrupted by your kids or spouse and by temptations like the TV, computer, etc. I find that practicing outside the home is better for me as I can concentrate for longer periods of time, and I tend to take shorter breaks. It also helps to turn the phone off or put it on airplane mode.

    In my opinion, the important thing is to have a practice space exclusively dedicated to the task at hand and as distraction-free as possible, especially if you are the type of person whose mind tends to wander.

  4. Alex says:

    I find that experimentation helps a lot. I am learning to play the bass, and though I haven’t picked up the key fundamentals quite yet, I have trained my ear to hear specific notes.

  5. Dave Epstein says:

    A few tidbits to share in response to Dan’s request for sharing:

    Babe Didrikson Zaharias excelled in basketball, baseball, both track and field, and didn’t take up golf–where she became most famous–until her mid-20s. At that was at a time when mid-20s was considered older for an athlete, and especially for a female athlete. (Neurologist Harold Klawans gives a fascinating take on Zaharias in his book, “Why Michael Couldn’t Hit.”)

    A friend of Norman McLean told me that Norman would always tell stories, and only after he retired did his kids convince him to actually write something down. So he wrote his first fiction at the age of 74, and it was A River Runs Through It.

    Herschel Walker, an incredible person and athlete, turned pro as mixed martial artist at age 47!

  6. djcoyle says:

    Thanks for that, Dave — it feels like the beginning of a powerful list. In sports, I would add PGA Championship winner Y.A. Yang (who started golf in his late teens) and Jim Thorpe, who played pretty much every sport at a crazy-high level despite starting fairly late.
    Who else belongs on this list?

  7. djcoyle says:

    Thank you for that — and I appreciate your point on ignoring perceived limitations — and you’ve clearly done that to great success in sprinting. But there is a line there — similar to the line between stupidity and courage — that defines the difference between reaching really high and being naive. Where’s that line? Is it about aligning goals with physical limits?

  8. Great post. As someone who teaches adults how to salsa dance (and who is continuing to learn myself), I know first hand that adults can not only learn new skills, but also attain a high degree of mastery within a few years.

    Although children may have greater brain plasticity, adults have many advantages that children don’t:

    1) Resources
    As an adult you (hopefully) have a job and can afford to spend money on quality teaching (related to rule #9). Kids are often stuck with whoever is in their local neighborhood.

    2) Maturity
    If you’ve ever tried to teach kids anything, you know that kids are often ADD and hard to motivate. Adults have the maturity and discipline to stick to a regular training program (especially if you follow rule #10).

    3) Experience
    Adults have a lot more experience that they can connect new bits of knowledge to, whereas kids are a blank slate. I’ve found that many things are easier to learn as an adult because I can link them to things that I already know.

    The key obstacles, like you mentioned, are finding the time to put in the practice and having the right mindset. Related to mindset is not being afraid to look like an idiot. Adults tend to have a lot of accomplishments under their belts, which feeds their egos and makes them afraid to fail, whereas children are often less self-conscious. The key is to let go of your ego, and not be afraid to be a beginner again.

  9. Rich Kent says:

    “Rule 16. Keep a notebook…” Vital suggestion. Writing is a powerful way to learn; it provides opportunities for reflection, analysis, and planning. In his book “Writing to Learn,” William Zinsser says,
    “Writing organizes and clarifies our thoughts. Writing is how we think our way into a subject and make it our own. Writing enables us to find out what we know—and what we don’t know—about whatever we’re trying to learn.” This is exactly why scientists, mathematicians, athletes, historians, artists, writers… keep notebooks.

  10. Debi Gaunt says:

    I returned to learning the cello five years ago aged 52. 35 years of not playing meant virtually starting from scratch (literally in the beginning!. Within 2 years I was a grade higher than when I stopped playing.
    Now I play regularly with amateur string orchestras and chamber groups.
    I practice every morning in my restaurant before it opens for business. Good acoustics there and a large mirror to observe my technique. When staff arrive and the front door is open I regularly get people stop to listen. This has been invaluable in helping me to get over playing in front of other people.
    I think I put most of your tips into practice – but not the notebook…I will give that a go.
    I am so enjoying playing and particularly the ongoing process of learning – constantly amazed at the different ways in which I can influence that process (practical repetition – ‘osmosis’ from listening to and watching other players – just thinking about that which I am currently trying to acheive – ‘sleeping on it’…….)
    Many thanks for you book and your constant insights.

  11. RedNed says:

    Great article. I’ve been unintentionally doing much of what is suggested over the past couple years in my middle age adventures into a totally new sport – ice hockey. I’ve taken up a blog for use as my ‘notebook’, it adds a necessary time dimension to the process after the initial buzz has worn off. The concept of a ‘quiet arrogance’ is also very necessary, especially when playing a team sport where one’s team mates are half one’s age (their ageism fades quickly once you earn your stripes and evade the stereotype). Much food for thought.

  12. Alex says:

    Sorry to disappoint you, but this thing about “you don’t need talent, hard work will suffice” is out of date: http://digest.bps.org.uk/2014/06/exploding-10000-hours-myth-its-no.html

  13. Mark Connolly says:

    The calender tells me I’m 55…born in 1959 to Olga Connolly. I thank her for bringing me into this world in her mid to late twenties. My kids are 6 and 8 now. I was looking for hammer throw advice and direction from Martin’s site when I got chauffeured myself to this forum. It is a pleasure getting aboard with big thinking, mature aged people. I am going to follow the suggestion of keeping quiet and starting a notebook. Thank You and hope to interact with you folks again soon.

  14. Claudio says:

    Daniel, great content, as usual. I copied it into my “learning” folder in Evernote, and made personal notes according to my individual situation. Anyway, there are 26 rules in there, not 24. All the best.

  15. Heidi says:

    I couldn’t agree with you more, I retired from a job that was just a job, to go back to school and become a Personal Trainer. I kept it quiet until I was sure, because I was 48 at the time. I love it, and can’t believe how much difference it is to love what I do. The joke is, I was the one who was last picked in gym class….who knew.

  16. Dennis says:

    Alex, after enduring the article’s loud bells and whistles, the last sentence gives its bottom line: “People can avoid wasting time on futile dreams, say Hambrick et al, and “gravitate towards domains in which they have a realistic chance of becoming an expert through deliberate practice.”

    Hambrick, et al: uh, thanks for next to nothing.

    Back to learning…does anyone know the research behind: Rule 21. In your self talk, use “You” and not “I.” Research shows that self-talk is significantly more effective when you use the second person.

    Thanks in advance.

  17. doc says:

    From the movie Gattaca:

    1. “I didn’t save anything for the swim back.
    2. “There is no gene for the human spirit.”

  18. Paul Maloney says:

    I love every rule. But 24 of them? All of which merit deep practice and thoughtful reflection? I’ll push myself and work on two..

  19. I am kind of confused about Rules 6,7,8 they are somewhat contradicting each other. Are you saying that we should switch up bursts (practicing certain aspect) between short, medium and long?

  20. djcoyle says:

    Thanks, Kamil — you’re right, those probably could be clearer. The larger point is that practice is the path forward, and that however you do it (short, med, long, or mixed up) will be the way to get progress.

  21. Chad says:

    Hi Dan,
    Does this hold true for reading multiple books at once? Does it grow our capabilities to read many books at the same time?

  22. Dano says:

    At 37, I took up Kung Fu (kids needed discipline so I signed up the whole family). Now, as a 39 year old man I can do full splits to the floor and shit like that. So . . . Heck Ya! Good article.

  23. Alison says:

    I disagree in part with Rule #5 about ‘Keep it quiet early on’. Without saying “I am about to become a cartooning ninja,” we encourage our students to post their daily practice as a Facebook album in a very matter-of-fact way. They improve so rapidly that they are soon receiving affirmation for their work and that is extremely motivating.

    Interestingly, those who don’t go public early on find it harder to do so later – possibly because when you start from nothing, you can only go up!

    I teach an adult cartooning class based entirely on Talent Code ‘doctrine’ and it works like a bomb. The book is required reading before anyone starts the course (thanks for that, Daniel!)

  24. Shelli says:

    After many years of teaching keyboards, I have observed that the reason children learn faster than adults is twofold.
    First when they are at their lesson, they are mentally at their lesson, not thinking about what they have to do when they leave,etc.
    Second, they don’t compare themselves to others but only to what they have done. Adults tend to compare themselves to someone already
    accomplished in this field.

  25. Jane says:

    My mum now in her 80s took up competitive skiing in her 70s. Won in her age group quite a few times. As a younger woman in her mid 30s she started learning recorder and at the same time started teaching what she was learning to all the children at our local primary school. This began a lifetime of learning for her as well as a music program at the school. She still learns recorder with one of Australia’s best teachers and plays all types of recorder and belongs to several wind orchestras and music groups. She along with one of the more elite groups was recently invited to perform in the Czech Republic. What a gal!

  26. Alia says:

    Hi Mr Coyle

    Your work has been a big help to me as a teacher and a learner. I use your principles in my classes and assign it to my students. I love how attractive and do-able you make the principles and practices. The students find them compelling and accessible.
    Thank you!

    I’ve assigned an improvisation class this blog post–and some affirmations. (These use a Tiny Habits format, and the affirmation in question comes from Kenny Werner’s book, Effortless Mastery.) The basic text of the affirmation is, “I am a master. I am great.” I find this plays nicely with Rule 6 (Be secretly and irrationally arrogant.).

    However, one of my students pointed out that it conflicts with Rule 21. “In your self talk, use “You” and not “I.”

    When I do the affirmation in the third person, it feels empty and lifeless. With “I” it feels intense and real. “I” feels realer than “you.” At least to me ;-)

    Fun fact, every affirmation I have ever seen is in the first person.

    Are affirmations self talk?

    What do you think?

    Many thanks for your thoughtful consideration of this dilemma,

  27. Ed says:

    Rule #14 strikes a chord with me. When my wife is away, I leave my guitar wherever I played it last, and pick it up frequently for some intense playing. When she comes home, the guitar is locked away in it’s case, too inconvenient to play regularly, and my technique suffers. Now, at the age of 65, I intend to learn piano, and I will leave my electronic keyboard set up in my workshop so I can spend a few minutes, at different times of the day, practicing what I have learned. Thanks for the article.

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