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1. The firing of the circuit is paramount. Myelin is not built to respond to fond wishes or vague ideas or information that washes over us like a warm bath. The mechanism is built to respond to actions: the literal electrical impulses traveling down nerve fibers. It responds to urgent repetition

2. Myelin is universal. One size fits all skills. Our myelin doesn't "know" whether it's being used for playing shortstop or playing Schubert: regardless of its use, it grows according to the same rules. To put it another way, myelin doesn't care who you are—it cares what you do.

3. Myelin wraps—it doesn't unwrap. Myelination happens in one direction. Once a skill circuit is insulated, you can't un-insulate it (except through age or disease). That's why habits are hard to break. The only way to change them is to build new habits by repeating new behaviors—by myelinating new circuits.

4. Age matters. In children, myelin arrives in a series of waves, some of them determined by genes, some dependent on activity. The waves last into our thirties,
creating critical periods during which time the brain is extraordinarily receptive to learning new skills. Thereafter we continue to experience a net gain of myelin until around the age of fifty, when the
balance tips toward loss. We retain the ability to myelinate throughout life—thankfully, 5 percent of our oligos remain immature, always ready to answer the call. But anyone who has tried to learn a language or a musical instrument later in life can testify that it takes a lot more time and sweat to build the requisite circuitry. This is why the vast majority of worldclass
experts start young. Their genes do not change as they grow older, but their ability to build myelin does.
What did Florentine artists do? How did they practice, and for how long?

As it turns out, Florence was an epicenter for the rise of a powerful social invention called craft guilds. Guilds (the word means "gold") were associations of weavers, painters, goldsmiths, and the like who organized themselves to regulate competition and control quality. Guilds worked like employee owned corporations. They had management, dues, and tight policies dictating who could work in the craft. What they did best, however, was grow talent. Guilds were built on the apprenticeship system, in which boys around seven years of age were sent to live with masters for fixed terms of five to ten years.

An apprentice worked directly under the tutelage and supervision of the master, who frequently assumed rights as the child's legal guardian. Apprentices learned the craft from the bottom up, not through lecture or theory but through action: mixing paint, preparing canvases, sharpening chisels. They cooperated and competed within a hierarchy, rising after some years to the status of journeyman and eventually, if they were skilled enough, master. This system created a chain of mentoring: da Vinci studied under Verrocchio, Verrocchio studied under Donatello, Donatello studied under Ghiberti; Michelangelo studied under Ghirlandaio, Ghirlandaio studied under Baldovinetti, and so on, all of them frequently visiting one another's studios in a cooperative-competitive arrangement that today would be called social networking.

In short, apprentices spent thousands of hours solving problems, trying and failing and trying again, within the confines of a world built on the systematic production of excellence. Their life was roughly akin to that of a twelve-year-old intern who spends a decade under the direct supervision of Steven Spielberg, painting sets, sketching storyboards, setting cameras. The notion that such a kid might one day become a great film director would hardly be a surprise: it would be closer to
unavoidable (see Ron Howard).
This means spending time staring at or listening to the desired skill—the song, the move, the swing—as a single coherent entity. People in the hotbeds stare and listen in this way quite a lot. It sounds rather Zen, but it basically amounts to absorbing a picture of the skill until you can imagine yourself doing it. "We're prewired to imitate," Anders Ericsson says. "When you put yourself in the same situation as an outstanding person
and attack a task that they took on, it has a big effect on
your skill."

Another example is Ray LaMontagne, a shoe-factory worker from Lewiston, Maine, who at age twenty-two had an epiphany that he should become a singer-songwriter. LaMontagne had little musical experience and less money, so he took a simple approach to learning: he bought dozens of used albums by Stephen Stills, Otis Redding, Al Green, Etta James, and Ray Charles, and holed up in his apartment. For two years. Every day he spent hours training himself by singing along to the records. LaMontagne 's friends assumed he had left town; his neighbors assumed he was either insane or had locked himself inside a musical time capsule—which, in a sense, he had. "I would sing and sing, and hurt and hurt, because I knew I wasn't doing it right," LaMontagne said. "It took a long time, but I finally learned to sing from the gut." Eight years after he started, LaMontagne's first album sold nearly half a million copies. The main reason was his soulful voice, which Rolling Stone said sounded like church. LaMontagne 's voice was a gift, it was agreed. But the real gift, perhaps, was the practice strategy he used to build that voice.
We're all familiar with the adage that practice is the best teacher. Myelin casts the truth of this old saying in a new light. There is, biologically speaking, no substitute for attentive repetition. Nothing you can do—talking, thinking, reading, imagining—is more effective in building skill than executing the action, firing the impulse down the nerve fiber, fixing errors, honing the circuit.

What's the simplest way to diminish the skills of a superstar talent? The answer: don't let them practice for a month. Causing skill to evaporate doesn't require chromosomal rejiggering or black-ops psychological maneuvers. It only requires that you stop a skilled person from systematically firing his or her circuit
for a mere thirty days. Their muscles won't have changed; their much-vaunted genes and character will remain unaltered; but you will have touched their talent at the weakest spot in its armor. Myelin, as Bartzokis reminds us, is living tissue. Like everything else in the body, it's in a constant cycle of breakdown and repair. That's why daily practice matters, particularly as we get older. As Vladimir Horowitz, the virtuoso pianist who kept performing into his eighties, put it, "If I skip
practice for one day, I notice. If I skip practice for two days, my wife notices. If I skip for three days, the world notices."

Repetition is invaluable and irreplaceable. There are, however, a few caveats. With conventional practice, more is always better: hitting two hundred forehands a day is presumed to be twice as good as hitting one hundred forehands a day. Deep practice, however, doesn't obey the same math. Spending more time is effective—but only if you're still in the sweet spot at the edge of your capabilities, attentively building and honing circuits. What's more, there seems to be a universal limit for how much deep practice human beings can do in a day. Ericsson's research shows that most worldclass experts—including pianists, chess players, novelists, and athletes—practice between three and five hours a day, no matter what skill they pursue.
The second example of ignition originates a little closer to home. In our family of six, our daughter Zoe is the youngest and, for her age (seven), the speediest. Her foot speed seems perfectly natural, and yet since I started learning about myelin, I began to wonder how much of Zoe 's foot speed is innate, and how much of it stems from the combination of practice and motivation she gets from being the youngest? I undertook a highly unscientific survey of my friends' children. The pattern seemed to hold: the youngest kids were frequently the fastest runners. It became more interesting when I broadened the sample group slightly. Here are the
birth-order ranks of the world-record progression in the 100- meter dash, with the most recently set world record first, the previous world record second, and so on.
1. Usain Bolt (second of three children)
2. Asafa Powell (sixth of six)
3. Justin Gatlin (fourth of four)
4. Maurice Greene (fourth of four)
5. Carl Lewis (third of four)

This pattern strikes us as surprising, because speed looks like a gift. It feels like a gift. And yet this pattern suggests that speed is not purely a gift but a skill that grows through deep practice, and that is ignited by primal cues. In this case the cue is: you're behind—keep up!

This is not to say that being born late into a big family automatically makes someone fast, any more than having a parent die early in life automatically makes one prime minister of England. But it does say that being fast, like any talent, involves a confluence of factors that go beyond genes and that are directly related to the intense, subconscious reaction to motivational signals that provide the energy to practice
deeply and thus grow myelin.
But it came mostly from the data they collected in their notebooks. Gallimore and Tharp recorded and coded 2,326 discrete acts of teaching. Of them, a mere 6.9 percent were compliments. Only 6.6 percent were expressions of displeasure. But 75 percent were pure information: what to do, how to do it, when to intensify an activity. One of Wooden's most frequent forms of teaching was a three-part instruction where he modeled the right way to do something, showed the incorrect way, and then remodeled the right way,
a sequence that appeared in Gallimore and Tharp's notes as M+, M-, M+; it happened so often they named it a "Wooden." As Gallimore and Tharp wrote, Wooden's
"demonstrations rarely take longer than three seconds, but are of such clarity that they leave an image in memory much like a textbook sketch."

While Wooden's practices looked natural and unplanned, in fact they were anything but. The coach would spend two hours each morning with his assistants planning that day's practice, then write out the minute-by-minute schedule on three-by five cards. He kept cards from year to year, so he could compare and adjust. No detail was too small to be considered.

Gradually a picture came into focus: what made Wooden a great coach wasn't praise, wasn't denunciation, and certainly wasn't pep talks. His skill resided in the Gatling-gun rattle of targeted information he fired at his players. This, not that. Here, not there. His words and gestures served as short, sharp impulses that showed his players the correct way to do something. He was seeing and fixing errors. He was honing circuits. He was a virtuoso of deep practice, a one-man Link trainer.
The eyes are the giveaway. They are usually sharp and warm and are deployed in long, unblinking gazes. Several master coaches told me that they trained their eyes to be like cameras, and they share that same Panavision quality. Though the gaze can be friendly, it's not chiefly about friendship. It's about information. It's about figuring you out.

During the team's preseason meeting each year, Wooden would say, "I am not going to treat you players all the same. Giving you the same treatment doesn't make sense, because you're all different. The good Lord, in his infinite wisdom, did not make us all the same. Goodness gracious, if he had, this would be a boring world, don't you think? You are different from each other in height, weight, background, intelligence, talent, and many other ways. For that reason, each one of you deserves individual treatment that is best for
you. I will decide what that treatment will be."

On the macro level, the coaches I met approached new students with the curiosity of an investigative reporter. They sought out details of their personal lives, finding out about family, income, relationships, motivation. And on the micro level, they constantly monitored the student's reaction to their coaching, checking whether their message was being absorbed. This led to a telltale rhythm of speech. The coach would deliver a chunk of information, then pause, hawkeyeing the listener as if watching the needle of a Geiger counter. As Septien put it, "I'm always checking, because I need to know when they don't know."
"Shock" is an appropriate word. Most master coaches delivered their information to their students in a series of short, vivid, high-definition bursts. They never began sentences with "Please, would you" or "Do you think" or "What about"; instead they spoke in short imperatives. "Now do X" was the most common construction; the "you will" was implied. The directions weren't dictatorial in tone (usually) but were delivered in a way that sounded clinical and urgent, as if they were being emitted by a particularly compelling GPS unit navigating through a maze of city streets: turn left, turn right, go straight, arrival complete.

Patience is a word we use a lot to describe great teachers at work. But what I saw was not patience, exactly. It was more like probing, strategic impatience. The master coaches I met were constantly changing their input. If A didn't work, they tried B and C; if they failed, the rest of the alphabet was holstered and ready. What seemed like patient repetition from the outside was actually, on closer examination, a series of subtle
variations, each one a distinct firing, each one creating a worthwhile combination of errors and fixes that grew myelin.

Of the many phrases I heard echoing around the talent hotbeds, one stood out as common to all of them. It was: "Good. Okay, now do____." A coach would employ it when a student got the hang of some new move or technique. As soon as the student could accomplish the feat (play that chord, hit that volley), the coach would quickly layer in an added difficulty. Good. Okay, now do it faster. Now do it with the harmony. Small successes were not stopping points but steppingstones.
The answer lies in at the nature of the skill circuits that each technique is trying to develop. From the myelin point of view, the two coaches only look as if they are doing the opposite thing. In fact, they are both doing precisely what good coaches should do: they are helping the right circuit to fire as often as possible. The difference is the shape of the circuits each is trying to grow.

In skill circuits, as in any electrical circuit, form follows function. Different skills require different patterns of action, thus differently structured circuits. For instance, visualize what's happening inside the nervous system of a soccer player as she moves downfield on a breakaway. The ideal soccer circuitry is varied and fast, changing fluidly in response to each obstacle, capable of producing a myriad of possible options that can fire in liquid succession: now this, this, this, and that. Speed and flexibility are everything; the faster and more flexible the circuit, the more obstacles can be overcome, and the greater that player's skill. If ideal soccer circuitry were rendered as an electrician's blueprint, it would look like a gargantuan hedge of ivy vines: a vast, interconnected network of equally accessible possibilities (a.k.a. fakes and moves) leading to the same end: Pele dribbling downfield alone.

Now visualize the circuitry that fires when a violinist plays a Mozart sonata. This circuit is not a vinelike tangle of improvisation but rather a tightly defined series of pathways designed to create—or more accurately, re-create—a single set of ideal movements. Consistency rules; when the violinist plays an A-minor chord, it must always be an A-minor chord, and not a smidgen off. This circuit of precision and stability serves as the foundation on which other, increasingly complex patterns can be constructed to form that Mozart sonata. If ideal violin-playing circuitry were also rendered as an electrician's blueprint, it would look like an oak tree: a solid trunk of technique growing straight upward, branching off into realms of pure fluency—Itzhak Perlman flying through high canopies of sixteenth notes.
Thirty years ago Toyota was a middling-size car company. Now it is the world's largest automaker. Most analysts attribute Toyota's success to its strategy of kaizen, which is Japanese for "continuous improvement" and which just as easily could be called corporate deep practice. Kaizen is the process of finding and improving small problems. Each employee,
from the janitor on up, has authority to halt the pro- duction line if they spot a problem. (Each factory has pull cords on the factory floor, called andons.) The vast majority of improvements come from employees, and the vast majority of those changes are small: a one-foot shift in the location of a parts bin, for instance. But they add up. It's estimated that each year Toyota implements around a thousand tiny fixes in each of its assembly lines, about a million tiny fixes overall. Toyota, moving in these fitful baby steps, is like a giant,
car-making Clarissa.

This sounds like a simple thing to do. But in fact, like all deep practice, one first has to overcome the natural tendency to smooth over problems—something particularly difficult in business. James Wiseman, who's now Toyota's vice president for corporate affairs, told Fast Company magazine about his first days at the company. At his previous jobs, he said, "there was always a lot of looking for the silver bullet, looking for the big, dramatic improvement." When he arrived at Toyota, he realized things were different. "One Friday I gave a report of an activity we'd been doing [a plant expansion], and I spoke very positively about it, I bragged a little. After two or three minutes, I sat down. And Mr. Cho [Fujio Cho, now the chairman of Toyota worldwide] kind of looked at me. I could see he was puzzled. He said, `Jim-san. We all know you are a good manager, otherwise we would not have hired you. But please talk to us about your problems so we can all work on them together."