Notes on The Little Book of Talent: 52 Tips for Improving Your Skills

Below are the notes I made while reading ‘The Little Book of Talent: 52 Tips for Improving Your Skills’. As its title accurately states, this is a brief book filed with 52 tips on skill-building. The author, Daniel Coyle, shares his findings from over 5 years of interviewing successful coaches and observing how the world’s greatest talent hotbeds cultivate talent. These tips are divided into three main sections: one on igniting motivation to decide what skills to improve, one on improving those skills, and one on sustaining progress once you hit a plateau.

Section I: Ideas for Igniting Motivation

  • Soft skill versus hard skill: Figure out if the skill you are trying to build is a soft skill or a hard skill. In hard skills, the focus is on precision. In soft skills, the focus is on the 3R’s: Reading, Recognizing and Reacting. A good rule of thumb is that skills that need a coach or a teacher in their early stages are generally hard skills, while the other ones are soft skills.
  • To build hard skills, work like a carpenter – work hard and be precise. To build soft skills, work like a skateboarder – experiment, explore and be curious.
  • Steal without apology: take ideas from everywhere and continuously see how you can improve on them.
  • Buy a notebook: use it jot down things like reflections from the day, ideas for tomorrow and goals for the next week.
  • Be prepared to be stupid and to fail: to really learn, one needs to push boundaries, which results in a high probability of failure and making mistakes. These are “productive mistakes” and need to be seen as such
  • What to look for in a high quality teacher or coach: someone who scares you, someone who focuses on the fundamentals, someone who gives you clear and concise instructions.

Section II: Improving your skills

  • Sweet spot: This is the region on the edge of your ability where you can improve your skills the most. The chances of success in the sweet spot is 50-80%, and it is characterized by feelings of frustration but full engagement.
  • Deep practice: This is vital for improving your skills. Don’t look at the clock. Count in reps and not in minutes. Break down the skill into small chunks, and try to build on the chunks each day. In other words, try to master a chunk a day.
  • Embrace struggle: Struggle is a necessity for improving.
  • Practice alone: Studies show that the only difference between amateur and professional musicians is that the professional ones spent 5x the amount of time practicing alone vs. in groups
  • Pay attention immediately after making a mistake: The quarter of a second immediately after you make a mistake is vital. You can either choose to ignore the mistake, or learn from the mistake. Don’t wince or look away the next time you make a mistake – choose to learn from the mistake instead.
  • Shrink the space: Another great way to improve your skills is to shrink the environment in which you practice. FC Barcelona, known to have one of the best youth academies in club Football (Soccer), puts two players into a small room, and challenges them to keep the ball away from the other. Similarly, Comedians use the somewhat restrictive medium of Twitter to hone their skills.
  • Slow it down: Try to perform the skill at the slowest possible pace. It helps you focus on the technique, and it makes the mistakes more apparent.
  • To learn from a book, close the book: You retain information much longer if you read 10 pages of a book and then close it and summarize those pages than if you read those 10 pages four or five times in an attempt to memorize it. The reason is simple: The key to learning is reaching. You make very few reaches while passively reading a book. However, to summarize those pages you have to think through and figure out the key points (one set of reaches), organize those points (another set of reaches) and then write them down (more reaches). This results in much better retention.

Section III: Sustaining Progress

  • Embrace repetition: It makes wires in our brain faster and more accurate
  • Practice, practice, practice: A good rule of thumb is five hours of practice per hour of competition
  • To learn more deeply, teach it.
  • When you get stuck, make a shift – change the environment, vary the conditions you practice in.
  • Keep big goals secret: Talking about goals makes them less likely to happen because it creates an unconscious payoff and tricks your brain into thinking you have already succeeded.
  • Cultivate your grit: Grit is that mixture of passion, perseverance and self-discipline that helps us get past obstacles. As Coyle says, “In a world in which we’re frequently distracted by sparkly displays of skill, grit makes the difference in the long run.”

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