Making Beautiful Minds

This is from an excitingly wonderful interview that will inspire every family  raising children, and every person wanting to achieve their dreams: Practice makes perfect? Here is my summary.

It takes 10,000 hours of deliberate practice / deep practice to make an expert;

All greats have to work really hard and working really hard is not rational, it’s not a common sense thing to do. It takes a certain amount of irrationality, a certain amount of sort of call it passion, call it love, call it craziness but that is part of the ignition process and it flows from our sense of identity.

When the action of their sport, or their passion or their art becomes linked to their identity you can tap into all kinds of energy that they can put into practice that they can put into building that skill.

Practice in the right way and be motivated in the right way.

When you operate from the edge of your ability, learning velocity increases greatly when you operate in what scientists call the sweet spot on the edge of your ability. On the very uncomfortable razor edge of your ability your learning goes up and it doesn’t go up just a little it increases quite a lot. And that means reaching for a specific target, for a certain type of motion, or a certain chord on a musical instrument, whatever task you’re trying to do, reaching, failing and reaching again.

Our brains are built to learn, evolution has built us to learn when we’re in this heightened intensity reaching and failing and reaching again, that’s the construction act, that’s new wires connecting in your brain, that’s faster circuitry being built.

Napping is important when ‘hotbedding’ practice.

Three to five hours a day seems to be the limit for the amount of hard intense and deliberate practice that you can do

It is a construction process in which we’re building wires in our brain, we’re connecting, we’re building something that is actually there inside your brain and that takes a certain amount of energy which implies something is going to limit it.

We are wasting our time if we’re not working in the deep practice zone.

Australian music psychologist Garry McPherson, calculated that a clarinettist did 10 times as much practice in a brief minute of a song in deep practice than in ‘sloppy’ practice. And he said she really should go out and play, she should go out in the yard and kick a ball around because she’s wasting her time just sort of going through the motions and not stretching herself.

Deliberate practice starts with about 10 to 15 minutes. The ability to sustain the time that you can engage in deliberate practice increases as a function of how much training and your skill level in that particular domain.

The more expert you become at your skill the more expert you become at this deliberate practice.

The kind of cognitive ways that you process what’s happening is actually the key for you to be able to engage in very complex training: Learn what to pay attention to;Learn what to kind of perceive eg as a doctor you’re more aware of the connections between different types of symptoms when you see them but it also allows you to know a way here reflecting on when you run into problems, how you basically need to change the way you’re thinking about something in order to improve your performance.

All the musicians said that they much preferred to kind of make music with their friends than actually sitting by themselves actually engaging in improving their performance. Top performers, those identified by their teachers as potential international soloists who reported spending more time doing solo intensive / deliberative practice right from early on in their careers. They really want to get better so having the sense that you’re actually improving your performance and thereby increasing your chances to become a professional musician that’s what drives the engagement and deliberate practice as opposed to that it’s a great feeling to do it.

All music students said that they could only sustain that concentration for about 45 minutes to an hour. So basically at that point they felt exhausted so that they now took a break and we found nobody who was able to sustain kind of this level of focussed concentration for more than four hours.

The 10,000 hours figure came from asking them going back and we had a biographical interview where we asked them when they started playing music and had them estimate them year by year how many hours of practice that they engaged in.

Jacqui Cooper: Aerial skiing is somersaults done at the height of four storey buildings skiing off a ramp at 60 70kph, you’re in the air about three seconds performing multiple flips and twists and you come down and land on a gradient of 38 degrees on a sloped landing hill. It’s a complex movement that takes 15 years of work behind it. It’s high risk and so every element of it needs to be perfect. You start every day trying to make small improvements and the improvements we are taking about only the coach might be able to see it but as an athlete you’re doing so much that you can’t even see gradual improvement, it takes that long to get so good at any one element, it’s just constant repetitive, repetitive work. When I tell people that I believe that I wasn’t that much of a talented athlete they are like ‘Oh, don’t be ridiculous, you won so many things’. And I’m like yes, that was maybe from a little bit of talent but it’s the stuff that I had inside me that you can’t learn like the heart, and the drive, and the desire, the persistence and determination – all of that is what gave me a big pool of maybe talent but the actual talent for acrobatics I wasn’t talented at all.

Expert athletes ability is the remarkable achievement to actually analyse and control their bodies, acquiring all sorts of control structures that allow them now to engage in the appropriate training to get the benefits of that training that will accumulate to their superior performance.

There’s hardly any studies that have looked at high level performance and related it to genetics. The evidence is not available at this point. Even if there were some genes that were correlated with performance perhaps there are other ways in which you can achieve that same performance in just a different way with a different training approach.

Constructing a skill does mean sculpting the structure of your brain. As we learn and remember new skills the connections between relevant neurons is strengthened ‘neurons that fire together wire together’.

Myelin is a sheath around nerves that makes the electricity move faster to the next synapse.  When we practice we get more of it. Myelin is a sort of broadband for our brain. Every beautiful skill is actually a circuit that’s in our brain. Myelin is how we build fast accurate circuits. All the speed that we see in motion, all the speed of thought that we see, all the beautiful fluency that’s created by very fast, very accurate electricity is due to the myelin. Myelin growth is proportional to the hours of practice.

Developmentally it arrives in a natural wave throughout our childhood from the back of the brain in the front beginning with kind of motor units and moving towards higher functions. So there are these ideal periods which is one of the reasons why you don’t see any top soccer players for instance who started playing soccer when they were 15, they don’t exist, because when you’re younger you’re able to myelinate and grow these fast great circuitry that you simply don’t have the opportunity to when you’re older.

Myelination doesn’t stop either as we age, it’s just that fresh young brains have an advantage.

Once you learn about the way the brain actually works and what you learn about the way skill is actually constructed you begin to pay attention to other parts of life, you begin to pay attention to things you didn’t notice before, you begin to pay attention to little differences in passion, you begin to pay attention to little differences in the way people practice. When you stop seeing it as a possession and start seeing it as something that we all can build it’s sort of more of a democratic vision and more of an exciting vision in a way.

It’s beautiful and exciting because it speaks to the potential that we all have. The human brain is very, very big 100 billion neurons in the brain which makes for 100 trillion possible connections, more than there are stars in the sky so this idea that we can grow this thing and figure out how it grows and grow it in our families, in our sports teams, in our schools.

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4 thoughts on “Making Beautiful Minds

  1. Grace

    Thank you for this summary Owen – it brings to mind the act of thinking deliberately – when I become aware of that in myself, I feel a ‘veil’ lift from my mind. It’s as if I can see things very clearly – my thinking becomes sharp and ideas come quickly. I also feel a sleepiness leave my mind. The sleepiness is a heavy fog and is vastly different from the clarity that comes with daydreaming.

    1. Yes, it seems even training the way we think about our thinking would also result in an enhanced ‘wiring’ of the brain. The other side of that story is to deliberately cease thoughts of a certina type, so that those neural loops begin to fall into disuse and de-bonded for other use.

  2. This really speaks to the potential we ALL have to be effective human beings. Change and improvement is achievable through hard work and lots of practice, but even just some conscious effort each day to think positively can make a large impact on the wiring of our brain. Good work Owen!

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