I grew up with the 10,000 hour rule. The idea that there’s a magical threshold upon which you enter the kingdom of mastery was comforting. Want to be a genius coder? Practice 10,000 hours. Want to be a piano virtuoso? Practice 10,000 hours.
But like all catchy ideas, there’s more to the story.
I recently read the book, The Talent Code, which covers research showing skills are born and improved through targeted practice. The key is to focus on areas just beyond your abilities: struggle, make mistakes, and seek feedback. Quality practice beats quantity. For those interested in finding a shortcut to mastery, this is it.
Our brains are designed to be flexible. What we do determines who we become.
The starter ingredient for growth
There’s an interesting lesson from soccer that applies to modern-day careers.
Brazil has been a legendary incubator for soccer players. People claim that poverty and passion fuel the tanks of young aspiring Ronaldos. But many other countries have the same ingredients without the same outcomes. What’s unique about Brazil is that the kids don’t play soccer, they play futsal.
It’s soccer on hard mode: smaller and heavier ball, smaller space, hard floor. Given these constraints, the players touch the ball 5X more than in soccer, and footwork becomes even more important. It’s a practice that drastically increases the players’ learning velocity.
The concept behind futsal applies to any domain. We expect experience to be correlated with skill level. This is only true insofar as experience means you’ve had more opportunities to try things, make mistakes, and learn. Therefore, absolute time is an imperfect indicator of skill level. The true indicator is learning velocity.
You can have 10 years of experience composed of merely 2 years of experience repeated 5 times. Repetition builds confidence, iteration builds competence.
Years are not made equal. If you’re interested in continuing to level up, it’s important to find and create “futsals” that speed up the game you’re trying to master, compress your learning, and continuously give you stretch goals. It’s unlikely these opportunities fall into your lap, so it’s on you to gauge what you need, and either seek them out or create your own.
Startups tend to be great venues for rapid-fire learning. Same goes for building your own business. There is no speed limit because you set the pace. I would not have been able to race up the product learning curve in 2 years without having had the opportunity to launch hundreds of experiments.
The same time spent at a larger company, however, may only result in a handful of launches focused on a very specific slice of the product experience. There are more rules in place because there’s more to lose. However, you do tend to have access to better coaching. If you can have someone at the top of their game show you the way, it can significantly accelerate your learning velocity. Just how invaluable this is depends on the skill at stake.
When coaching is critical
To answer this, we need to examine the central seat of skill development: your brain. Every skill can be mapped to a mental circuit: a series of neurons that fire in a specific pattern and lead to action. Myelin is a substance that wraps these circuits and helps them reliably conduct faster signals. The more you fire the circuit, the thicker the myelin, the better your skill. Your brain is a muscle that gets stronger with practice!
Mental circuits can be flexible or fixed. Fixed circuits serve skills that require a very precise sequence of actions for peak performance like gymnastics, skating, piano. It’s very difficult to reach peak performance here without a coach. Technique is king, and a coach helps you refine technique faster than purely putting in the reps.
Flexible circuits, on the other hand, serve skills that do not have a defined path to peak performance like writing, designing, launching a product/business. While a top-notch coach can help you avoid pitfalls and show you shortcuts, putting in the reps is the best teacher of all. This is because peak performance here is finding a unique way forward, not following a well-travelled path.
Flexible circuit skills tend to create the most value. If the entirety of what you do can be easily taught to someone else, you don’t have a differentiated talent stack.
Choosing where to focus
People talk about the importance of being “well-rounded”. While it’s good to not have fatal flaws, it’s essential to have at least 1-2 strengths that set you apart. When you don’t have strengths, there are no problems you’re particularly well-suited to solve, which means no opportunities to create outsized value. You may be well-liked, but you won’t be loved.
The very act of engaging in targeted practice means you can only focus on doing a few things very well. Spread yourself too thin and you don’t progress.
I’ve previously written about how to craft your talent stack. The TLDR is to focus on skills that align with your curiosities, what’s valued in your domain, what’s rarely found with your other skills, and what compounds with time. If we had to rank these options, I would put curiosity at the top. It’s hard to predict what will be valuable in the future, but it’s easy to know if you like something once you start doing it.
The curiosity piece is critical when you consider just how much effort goes into attaining peak performance. Consistent, targeted practice is brutal. Working on something new may trigger a fresh batch of motivation, but it runs out faster than what’s required to get really, really good. Genuine interest is the only sustainable fuel that helps you unlock escape velocity.
“You can do this too”
Motivation is contagious. Whenever there’s a breakthrough, a renewed spirit follows.
When Roger Bannister broke the 4-minute mile, a record considered biologically impossible, dozens of runners subsequently followed suit. When Barbara Walters became the first woman to anchor a news show, she inspired many young girls to pursue a TV career. One of them was Oprah. When an older student at my high school in Canada went to an Ivy League college, it set a new bar for attainable challenges for me and many others.
“You can do this too” is the most powerful message to receive. It shows us what we once thought was impossible is actually within reach. It’s why surrounding yourself with capable, motivated people helps you level up. They create a confidence network effect for you.
Many of us grow up with the notion that people at the top of their game are naturally gifted and were destined for greatness. Yet the more we learn about the brain, the more we come to understand that we have a lot of agency over who we become.
Talent emerges through the growth of myelin, which is triggered by practicing at the edge of your abilities, getting feedback, and perfecting the circuit. Over time, slope overpowers your starting y-intercept. It’s behind every story of mastery.
"If you want to look good in front of thousands, you have to outwork thousands in front of nobody." - James Clear