THE BLOG

Talent Matters: Deliberate Practice Leads to Greatness

06/12/2015 01:57 pm ET | Updated Jun 12, 2016

"I am slow to learn and slow to forget what I've learned. My mind is like a piece of steel, very hard to scratch anything on it and almost impossible after you get it there to rub it out." -- President Abraham Lincoln per his friend Joshua F. Speed in a letter dated December 6, 1866

Do you consider yourself one of the lucky few who was born to be great, or are you struggling to discern or unleash your passions? Do you feel like your chance at greatness has passed you by?

Do you sometimes feel like you missed out on the grand lottery of talent assignment?

What if you weren't "born with it"? Do you still stand a chance at mastery?

"I am not what happened to me, I am what I choose to become."
-- Carl Jung, Swiss psychiatrist and founder of Analytical Psychology

In his groundbreaking book, The Talent Code, author Daniel Coyle describes the actual source of the prodigious talent demonstrated by people who we have long imagined were imbued with natural gifts at birth. It's a long list, and it includes Michelangelo, Leonardo Da Vinci and the great Brazilian soccer players, among others.

According to Coyle, talent is not necessarily innate; even Michelangelo was not a random, lucky genius. Rather, he was destined to be a great artist, in large part because he was raised in the "talent hotbed" of Florence, Italy during the Renaissance.

Due to his mother's illness, Michelangelo was placed with a stonecutter's family as a very young boy, where he learned to handle a hammer and a chisel long before he attended school. After a brief, unsuccessful attempt at schooling, his father gave him permission to apprentice with one of the great artists of the day, who eventually recommended that Michelangelo live with the powerful and influential Medici family. Michelangelo not only studied classical sculpture in the famous Medici Gardens, but also gained access to the social elite of the time, allowing for interactions and mentorships with some of the most talented artists in the world. He was so well associated that he obtained permission from the Catholic Church to study cadavers; this is where he learned to create the exquisite body detail for his sculptures and paintings.

It is difficult to imagine a more fertile training ground, or envision more practice opportunities for a budding artist. Michelangelo received hands on practice at sculpture and art almost constantly from the age of 6. By the time the 25-year-old artist completed the Pietà, his famous statue of the Virgin Mary holding the body of Jesus, Michelangelo had engaged in tens of thousands of hours of deep, deliberate practice in art.

Deep practice, defined by Coyle as repetitive, concentrated efforts in the "sweet spot" at the outer edge of your abilities, actually changes your brain in a very specific way. It improves the speed and effectiveness of the neural pathways by stimulating the growth of myelin, the white matter in our brains that insulates neural circuits.

All of the current research on talent points to the conclusion that you really don't need to be born with it. You don't have to be gifted to become good at something. This is great news for most of us, but there is a catch.

You've got to be sure you are engaged in positive deep practice, because you can insulate neural circuits that are not beneficial.

You can become excellent at procrastination or worry. You can develop a talent for thinking obsessively about an inconsequential problem, or a problem outside of your influence, allowing a worry about the world economy, for example, to take up your entire day.

If you don't know who you are, if you haven't developed your identity, you might end up in deep practice with something that doesn't matter to you, or even worse, something that might harm your chances for success.

So, take a good look at yourself and your time.

Are you practicing distracting yourself with social media? Or are you deliberately choosing a talent that you want to develop and going for it?

Remember, developing the capacity to improve your talents can help you in all areas of life. You can become better at conversations, or business planning, or creating art.

You can develop just about any talent with deep, consistent practice.

So what are you waiting for? Start today.

Be you, practice hard, and go for great.

"If people knew how hard I worked to gain my mastery, it would not seem so wonderful after all." -- Michelangelo, Italian Renaissance artist