-“The master has failed more times than the beginner has even tried.”- Stephen McCranie -
I am reading a book called The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle and it has introduced me to something called Myelin. Myelin matters. First off I’ll tell you briefly what Myelin is, and then why it is important, how to develop more of it, and see where we end up after all that.
Myelin is a fatty substance which wraps around the circuitry of your brain, and is a component of the brain’s white matter. Your brains white matter is responsible for making connections between different parts of the brain, and some experts hold that the amount of white matter in a persons brain is greatly linked to I.Q. . When Einstein’s brain was studied, it was shown to have an abnormally high amount of white matter, and he was a pretty smart fellow. Myelin can be though of as insulation that forms around the circuits of your brain that are fired often. As the amount of Myelin builds up around your brains circuitry it increases the efficiency of the connection.
Trying to make a connections across non-myelin-insulated parts of your brain might feel like walking through a forest without a trail. Think back to the first time you tried a snatch or an instrument, it can feel little like bush-wacking. However, after you practise and practise and practise, the myelin starts cutting a proverbial path through your brains wiring. You go from bush-wacking to gliding down a clear-cut path. Eventually it takes less and less effort to navigate the path and someday you’ll be able to walk that path with your eyes closed.
When it really comes down to it, practise is about forming Myelin around the “wires” of your brain, and the only way to make that happen is to do the thing over and over and over again until the myelin forms. The cool thing about Myelin is that once it is formed, it doesn’t go away. Whereas a forest may grow over a path after years of misuse, the myelin insulated pathways in your brain are etched into your being forever. Most people have said, “Some activity or action is like riding a bike”. Myelin is why. Once you have insulated the connections making up that path in your brain, you will always be able to smoothly travel down it. Here are some related quotes from this section of the book that stood out to me...
“Struggle is not an option: it’s a biological requirement”
“Why are passion and persistence key ingredients of talent? Because wrapping myelin around a big circuit requires immense energy and time. If you don’t love it, you’ll never work hard enough to be great.”
"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 error, honing the circuit.”
“A group of American and Norwegian researchers did a study to see what made babies improve at walking. They discovered that the key factor wasn’t height or weight or age or brain development or any other innate trait, but rather (Surprise!) the amount of time they spent firing their circuits, trying to walk.”
Now if we think about those babies trying to walk, its important to think about what the practise of walking would actually look like. It would involve a lot of time spent trying to stand, then falling. Then it would involve a lot of time spent successfully standing, taking one step, then falling. Then it would involve a lot of time spent successfully standing, successfully taking one step, then falling on the second. Then it would likely continue in one or two step increments until walking occurred, but the practise would involve mostly failing and falling. So, in the world of babies, you must spend a lot of time failing at walking if you don’t want to crawl into kindergarten.
Unfortunately for adults and teens, we are a bit smarter than babies, and we have been conditioned to view failing as a negative despite its necessary place in the journey of growth. We are taught failing is wrong, red x’s on tests make us shutter, and we don’t like to be seen failing. But failure is the catalyst of change, and far more influential in your journey than success is.
If you really want to get good at something you are going to have to practise. You are going to have to fail. You are going to have to want it, because it is going to take a lot of time. Now practise alone isn't going to allow everyone to hang with Lebron James on the court, BUT, if you want to get good at something Myelin formation is more important than immense and innate talent. Everyone can form Myelin if they are willing to fail a bunch of times, and do it over and over and over.
Want to get good at something?
It better be for the right reasons, because it is going to take a lot of time, effort, and failure to get there.
Bonus: I found this interview a couple days ago and found it to be extremely relevant to the book I am reading.
When we witness success, a prodigy, or immense talent, we often want to throw out terms like overnight success, prodigy, gifted, etc. Sure these all have their place, but when you investigate successful people you usually find out that they have put in WAY more time than their competition. Here is a fantastic interview of a man who coaches a "prodigy". See what he has to say about whether Nicky Ryan (Brazillian Jiu Jitsu) is a prodigy or not.
“He’s a very mature, hard-working person, who knows exactly what he wants to be.”
Grit Human Performance