Sunday, May 02, 2010

Architecture of Talent: Myelin Makes Perfect

Skill is insulation that wraps around neural circuits and grows according to certain signals.

---Daniel Coyle, The Talent Code

Why do we admire talent?
Highly talented persons are awesome to behold. They fill our minds and bodies with joy, amazement, admiration, and quite often relief because they cracked the intractable problem we were facing for which we wanted their help. They make our lives easier, guide us through the jungle, entertain and uplift us with their prowess and often simplify the complex world in which we live. The superhighways in their brains sheathed in myelin, the insulator of nerve cells and facilitator of speedy transmission of impulses, enable their expertise to shine through unconsciously. This is not innate. They have built their skills step by step over many years through “deep practice” or “deliberate practice”, Anders Ericsson’s term for operating at the edges of our ability and reaching further through targeted practice.

Deep or deliberate practice which generates and sustains top talent is not yet in the “DNA” of organizations
We could do with more attention to “myelin-building” in organizations, especially in developing stronger managers and leaders or individual contributors who must participate in teams and relate well to customers and stakeholders. Most of us have experienced a “deep practice” world throughout our formal education. Through a succession of courses and multiple years of “training” our expertness in a particular professional or technical domain flourished. Thereafter, despite the continuing education requirements of our respective associations, a growing body of research indicates that we tend to plateau or deteriorate, unless the circumstances of our jobs enable the right kind of expertise development.

Scientists and educators have been tweaking the “deliberate practice” phenomenon for about 150 years
In the last ten years or so, a proliferation of popular press authors has brought academia out of the closet enriching our understanding of the nature versus nurture debate. They include Malcolm Gladwell (Outliers), Geoff Colvin (Talent is Overrated) and David Shenk (The Genius in All of Us) among others. It is now clear: we can “nurture” our talents if we attend to the process in a certain way. Our raw natural capabilities are much more malleable than hitherto believed in the 20th century.

It’s rather scary and exciting: the architecture of our brains is in our hands. The thoughts we choose and the practices we implement send signals to our “living brain”. Since nerves that fire together stay together, the more we fire a particular circuit, the more myelin optimizes the circuit.

The “deep practice” technique is straightforward, but execution cannot be done in isolation
The “sweet spot”, as Daniel Coyle calls the “uncomfortable terrain located just beyond our current abilities where our reach exceeds our grasp”, can be developed with four easy steps:

  1. Pick a target
  2. Reach for it
  3. Evaluate the gap between the target and the reach
  4. Return to step one.
Sounds simple, but what target? And, how can you truly evaluate what you are doing? The goal is always self-sufficiency and being your own coach. However, outside coaching is almost always necessary to “scaffold” a person to another deeper level of knowing and skill. Educators are well aware of impact of the “scaffolding” technique such that they routinely use it as a support structure to help their students master a task or concepts. In addition to educators, coaches of sports teams, elite musicians and artists, who intuitively “scaffold” their emerging prodigies, are soaking up the overflowing research on the “architecture of talent” and testing it in the playing field and the classroom. Thanks to the “bridge” writers between academia and the real world, the blueprint for expanding the talent pool is seeping into organizational life too. But, at a snail’s pace in comparison. Deliberate practice is a heavy investment in time and effort for any person. If you are a leader-manager, your commitment to “deep learning” can make a significant difference to your performance as a master coach and by association that of your team. To achieve such exceptional skill means terrible difficulties along the way. Are you ready for such a sacrifice? Related blogs:

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