It's a cliche that it takes 10,000 hours of intense practice to become truly proficient at a new skill, such as playing the piano.

What happens during that time? Suddenly, we don't have to think about where to press the piano keys, we can act instinctively. And at the higher levels, we can smoothly move from rote playing to creative musicianship.

It's called "muscle memory," but it involves a kind of rewiring the brain.

Now a new book helps to describe the science behind this. And it shows us why it takes hard work to become proficient at something.

You need to love playing the piano during those early periods when just playing chopsticks is a chore. And it helps to have a firm but gentle push when the sounds are not very musical.

Author Daniel Coyle describes this in a fascinating new book titled The Talent Code. Skill development is a "highly targeted, error-focused process. Something is growing, being built."

"All actions are really the result of electrical impulses sent along chains of nerve fibers," Coyle writes. "The simplest skill involves a circuit made up of hundreds of thousands of fibers and synapses."

Those nerve fibers are wrapped in a substance called myelin that works like insulation.

When enough myelin is built, skills feels automatic.

"Practice doesn't make perfect. Practice makes myelin, and myelin makes perfect," Coyle writes.

Everyone has it

This human trait is available to just about everyone. This helps explain why great abilities are being spawned in the most unlikely places.

Which is why coaches and teachers that foster the right kind of deep practice develop students at much higher rates than others.

Perhaps unconsciously, their techniques work.

The deep practice that Coyle describes involves slowing down, mastering principles in small segments, then gradually combining those segments. Famous golf coach Harvey Penick, for instance, taught players to groove a good golf swing in slow motion, to feel what it's like to put the swing "in the slot."

As Coyle writes, being forced to slow down, make errors and correct them makes you skillful and graceful without at first realizing it.

Once a solid foundation of fundamentals is built, speed picks up, dexterity improves and an effortless grace is the result.

That is why European basketball players often have better skills than Americans, since they spend more time on boring drills than on more interesting scrimmages.

Hard work works

Anders Ericsson, the Swedish psychologist, wrote that every expert in every field is the result of about 10,000 hours of deep practice.

He defined this as working on technique, seeking critical feedback and shoring up weaknesses.

This validated the so-called "10-year rule," which dated to 1899, which states that world class expertise required about a decade of committed practice.

How do you get to those 10 years? During the Renaissance period, artists served in apprenticeships. In certain fields today, workers start small and build their skills, gradually moving up.

Coyle writes that this brain development can explain the development of wisdom as people age. Impulsive, dangerous behavior of youth is less often seen in the elderly because their brains have processed the impact of making mistakes.

Talent isn't enough

Of course, talent is inherited. But it can't be developed without hard work. And all of us have more talent than we imagine. That's where good teachers come in, who can tell their students with confidence that if they practice the proper way, they will develop skills.

Coyle also shows that long-term commitment makes a difference in development of skills. You literally get what you put into something.

Motivation is a fuel that powers increased development in the brain of the circuits.

He writes that talent requires deep practice, deep practice requires great energy and primal cues trigger energy. That creates a positive feedback loop.

To make this work during those early, slow, halting periods, teachers use encouraging words that reward effort and slow progress.

Students aren't told they're great before they have even developed the skill.

Self-esteem is earned

Pure intelligence is not the best indicator of academic performance; self-discipline is.

Teachers get through those early phases of learning by turning it into a game, by giving lots of positive reinforcement and rarely criticizing during the early phases.

Coyle ends the book by quoting his daughter Zoe, playing her violin.

"I'm going to practice it a million million times. I'm going to play super good."

That's literally what it takes.


Source: Florida Times-Union –