The Little Book of Talent: 52 Tips for Improving Your Skills - by Daniel Coyle


Stare at Who You Want to Become. We each live with a "windshield" of people in front of us; one of the keys to igniting your motivation is to fill your windshield with vivid images of your future self, and to stare at them every day.

Steal Without Apology. When you steal, focus on specifics, not general impressions. Capture concrete facts. Ask yourself: What, exactly, are the critical moves here? How do they perform those moves differently than I do?

Buy a Notebook. What matters is that you write stuff down and reflect on it. Results from today. Ideas for tomorrow. Goals for next week. A notebook works like a map: It creates clarity.

Be Willing to Be Stupid. Being willing to risk the emotional pain of making mistakes is absolutely essential, because reaching, failing, and reaching again is the way your brain grows and forms new connections. Establish rules that encourage people to make reaches that might otherwise feel strange and risky--in effect, nudging them into the sweet spot at the edge of their ability.

Choose Spartan Over Luxurious. Simple, humble spaces help focus attention on the deep-practice task at hand: reaching and repeating and struggling. When given the choice between luxurious and spartan, choose spartan. Your unconscious mind will thank you.

Before You Start, Figure Out If It's a Hard Skill or a Soft Skill. Hard skills are about ABC: Always Being Consistent. Soft skills are about the three Rs: Reading, Recognizing, and Reacting.

To Build Hard Skills, Work Like a Careful Carpenter. When you learn hard skills, be precise and measured. Go slowly. Make one simple move at a time, repeating and perfecting it before you move on. Pay attention to errors, and fix them, particularly at the start.

To Build Soft Skills, Play Like a Skateboarder. When you practice a soft skill, focus on making a high number of varied reps, and on getting clear feedback. Don't worry too much about making errors--the important thing is to explore. Soft skills are often more fun to practice, but they're also tougher because they demand that you coach yourself. After each session ask yourself, What worked? What didn't? And why?

Honor the Hard Skills. Picture your talent as a big oak tree--a massive, thick trunk of hard skills with a towering canopy of flexible soft skills up above. First build the trunk. Then work on the branches.


Find the Sweet Spot. Seek out ways to stretch yourself. Play on the edges of your competence. Sensations: Frustration, difficulty, alertness to errors. You're fully engaged in an intense struggle--as if you're stretching with all your might for a nearly unreachable goal, brushing it with your fingertips, then reaching again. Percentage of Successful Attempts: 50–80 percent.

Break Every Move Down Into Chunks. No matter what skill you set out to learn, the pattern is always the same: See the whole thing. Break it down to its simplest elements. Put it back together. Repeat.

Each Day, Try to Build One Perfect Chunk. One useful method is to set a daily SAP: smallest achievable perfection. In this technique, you pick a single chunk that you can perfect--not just improve, not just "work on," but get 100 percent consistently correct.

Choose Five Minutes a Day Over an Hour a Week. The act of practicing--making time to do it, doing it well--can be thought of as a skill in itself, perhaps the most important skill of all.

Pay Attention Immediately After You Make a Mistake. Develop the habit of attending to your errors right away. Don't wince, don't close your eyes; look straight at them and see what really happened, and ask yourself what you can do next to improve. Take mistakes seriously, but never personally.

Slow It Down (Even Slower Than You Think). Super-slow practice works like a magnifying glass: It lets us sense our errors more clearly, and thus fix them.

Take a Nap. Napping is good for the learning brain, because it helps strengthen the connections formed during practice and prepare the brain for the next session.

To Learn a New Move, Exaggerate It. Don't be halfhearted. You can always dial back later. Go too far so you can feel the outer edges of the move, and then work on building the skill with precision.

Make Positive Reaches. There's a moment just before every rep when you are faced with a choice: You can either focus your attention on the target (what you want to do) or you can focus on the possible mistake (what you want to avoid). This tip is simple: Always focus on the positive move, not the negative one.

To Learn From a Book, Close The Book. One of deep practice's most fundamental rules: Learning is reaching. Passively reading a book--a relatively effortless process, letting the words wash over you like a warm bath--doesn't put you in the sweet spot. Less reaching equals less learning. On the other hand, closing the book and writing a summary forces you to figure out the key points (one set of reaches), process and organize those ideas so they make sense (more reaches), and write them on the page (still more reaches, along with repetition). The equation is always the same: More reaching equals more learning.

Invent Daily Tests. To invent a good test, ask yourself: What's one key element of this skill? How can I isolate my accuracy or reliability, and measure it? How can I make it fun, quick, and repeatable, so I can track my progress?

To Choose The Best Practice Method, Use The R.E.P.S. Gauge. Each letter stands for a key element of deep practice. R: Reaching and Repeating E: Engagement P: Purposefulness S: Strong, Speedy Feedback.

  • ELEMENT 1: REACHING AND REPEATING. Does the practice have you operating on the edge of your ability, reaching and repeating?

  • ELEMENT 2: ENGAGEMENT. Is the practice immersive? Does it command your attention? Does it use emotion to propel you toward a goal?

  • ELEMENT 3: PURPOSEFULNESS. Does the task directly connect to the skill you want to build?

  • ELEMENT 4: STRONG, SPEEDY FEEDBACK. Does the learner receive a stream of accurate information about his performance--where he succeeded and where he made mistakes?

Stop Before You're Exhausted. When it comes to learning, the science is clear: Exhaustion is the enemy. Fatigue slows brains. It triggers errors, lessens concentration, and leads to shortcuts that create bad habits. It's no coincidence that most talent hotbeds put a premium on practicing when people are fresh, usually in the morning, if possible. When exhaustion creeps in, it's time to quit.


Don't Waste Time Trying to Break Bad Habits--Instead, Build New Ones. To build new habits, start slowly. Expect to feel stupid and clumsy and frustrated at first--after all, the new wires haven't been built yet, and your brain still wants to follow the old pattern. Build the new habit by gradually increasing the difficulty, little by little. It takes time, but it's the only way new habits grow.

Give a New Skill a Minimum of Eight Weeks. 1) Constructing and honing neural circuitry takes time, no matter who you are; and 2) Resilience and grit are vital tools, particularly in the early phases of learning. Don't make judgments too early. Keep at it, even if you don't feel immediate improvement.

When You Get Stuck, Make a Shift. A plateau happens when your brain achieves a level of automaticity; in other words, when you can perform a skill on autopilot, without conscious thought. The best way past a plateau is to jostle yourself beyond it; to change your practice method so you disrupt your autopilot and rebuild a faster, better circuit. One way to do this is to speed things up--to force yourself to do the task faster than you normally would. Or you can slow things down--going so slowly that you highlight previously undetected mistakes. Or you can do the task in reverse order, turn it inside out or upside down. It doesn't matter which technique you use, as long as you find a way to knock yourself out of autopilot and into your sweet spot.

Keep Your Big Goals Secret. Telling others about your big goals makes them less likely to happen, because it creates an unconscious payoff--tricking our brains into thinking we've already accomplished the goal. Keeping our big goals to ourselves is one of the smartest goals we can set.