Close up picture of violin with strings

The Lie We've Been Told: You Have Natural Talent

A Story About How I Peaked

I remember learning to sing when I was younger. I loved it. I would listen to the same few lines of a song I was learning over and over and over again. I would sing it back, slowly at first, repeating the lines until it was finally right and I sounded like the voice on the tape I was listening to.

As I got older, I didn’t have time to sit in my room and do this. I was busy with school, busy with other lessons, busy with my friends. Just busy. I didn’t feel like I was learning fast enough, so assumed I wasn’t that great at it. I was good, but I wasn’t great. I really enjoyed it, and continued taking singing lessons because it was fun, but I definitely wasn’t amazing.

I figured I would be an amazing singer by that point if I had a real talent for it.

Granted, I was a cantor at my church, and was always in the college choir as well as the auditioned choir. But there were a lot of people that were a lot better than me.

Eventually, I stopped doing this deliberate practice because I thought I’d hit my peak. I’d gotten as good as I could get.

I still sing in the shower, I still sing in choirs sometimes, and I still record covers on my computer. But until recently I had no desire to improve, because I really thought I’d plateaued.

Now this happened with other things in my life as well. I knew that with practice I could get better, but I always assumed there was a wall out there in the distance somewhere, and that eventually I would walk right into it. And when that happened, I couldn’t progress anymore. I would have reached my talent limit.

Then I Learned I Have Untapped Talent

So after assuming I’d gotten as good as I could get I stumbled on the Talent Code. And it blew my mind. Bam. Kapow. Holy shit.

Now that I’ve read it, I’ve started dedicating a lot more time to intentional, deliberate practice.

So There’s This Stuff Called Myelin

The whole book is about myelin. This is the tissue in your brain that helps you make connections and learn.

With myelin, those repetitions I did when practicing voice made me markedly better. What I hadn’t realized was that the entire time I was repeating a line I couldn’t do over and over until I got it I was actually doing what Coyle calls deep practice.

Knowing that I was learning something, however slowly, gives me hope of future progress. Had I known that sooner, I might not have stopped.

And Myelin is Amazing Because It Lasts Forever

And even better, myelin can’t be undone. Which makes sense when we think about how hard it is for us to break bad habits that we’ve learned.

I originally learned how to sing with a classical background. It was great training, but that’s not my real voice. My real voice has more of a blues undertone instead of that clear, clean sound of classical music.

So, now that I’ve gone to a voice teacher to help bring out my voice, I basically had to undo a lot of technique I learned to begin with. I had to stop myself from restricting my sound by keeping it contained. I had to allow myself to sing in a lower register where I really sound my best. Basically, I had to un-train a whole lot of habits that were now deeply ingrained.

And since the myelin can’t be undone, I’ll remember what I learned forever, now that those pathways have been formed. It’s kind of like muscle memory. I’ll remember how to climb up to that high A and also how to let my own voice come through and really emphasize my low blues-y notes. And each time I practice, I can basically pick up where I left off.

Practicing a Certain Way Will Always Make You Better

When something finally “clicks,” that’s your brain learning through deep and deliberate practice.

You might know that feeling. It’s that, “Oh my god I get it,” moment when you’ve been trying to solve a problem or perform a task. It suddenly just makes sense.

The problem is that the overall progress is so slow and unremarkable, that a lot of times you don’t realize it’s happening.

It’s kind of like working out. You go to the gym a few times a week for a month, and you think, Oh yeah, I’m looking a little bit better I guess. Maybe. I don’t know. You consistently go to the gym for 6 months and all of a sudden you’re busting out chin-ups, mastering the ever elusive pull-up, and deadlifting more than you weigh.

And the longer we practice, the easier it is to forget where we started. So there we are, ten years later, singing an aria, and we forget that we haven’t always been able to do that. Then, when you can’t get something that seems exceptionally hard, you assume that you’ve reached your talent limit.

But you don’t have a talent limit… only a limit to how hard you’re willing to practice.

Deep down I think we know this. Deep down we all know that everything we do, from walking, to dressing ourselves, to eating, are things that we learned. Things that we practiced again and again until we got it right.

How to Practice

Daniel Coyle talks specifically about Deep Practice in his book, but I think it’s too unclear and non-specific how to put it in action.

So instead, I want to talk about Deliberate Practice, as researched and explained by K. Anders Ericsson, because it’s much more actionable: if your practice meets these four conditions, it’s Deliberate Practice:

1. You have to be motivated enough to attend to the task and exert effort to improve your performance. So don’t practice when you’re tired, grumpy, or hungover. You won’t get as much out of it.

For example, I’ve noticed that I do my best creative writing practice in the morning, about 30 minutes after I wake up.

2. The design of the task should take into account your pre-existing knowledge so that the task can be correctly understood after a brief period of instruction. This is where a little bit of reach comes in. I’ve been practicing code for a while now, and when I do this, I make sure that I’ve got an end goal in mind for the practice session. Say I’m going to build a page with pictures. And I know enough to build most of the page, but don’t know how to correctly format and add the pictures. It’s just a little bit past my current knowledge.

I use my 10% rule as a rough guideline for this. I already know how to do about 90% of the work, but 10% is a challenge because I don’t know how to do it yet.

3. You should receive immediate informative feedback and knowledge of the results of your performance. If you’re practicing with a coach, then this is easy. If you’re practicing by yourself, then you’re going to need to set up some parameters. When I write, I have someone else read what I’ve written and give me feedback. When I sing, I record it so I can pick out the errors. When I code, well, you get a red, irritating, repeating, error message that says you did it wrong.

4. You should repeatedly perform the same or similar tasks. This is pretty self explanatory. Practice creating similar websites, repeating songs ad nauseam, and writing every day.

You Can Learn Anything — Also Known as a Growth Mindset

So don’t ever assume that you can’t learn. Don’t buy the “I’m just not good at that” bullshit. Don’t assume that you’ve reached your talent peak.

Instead, have a growth mindset, where you know that making slow progress is more important than perfection, and that anything can be learned. And remember that consistent, deliberate practice is the key to learning.

If you have a skill you are working on — any skill, from socializing to becoming an athlete — you can continue to improve by having a growth mindset as well as a dedicated and deep practice that makes you continue to reach just beyond your comfort zone.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realize that I can actually learn to do anything well as long as I keep myself in this growth mindset and make Deliberate Practice a priority.

What I didn’t realize until now was that there is “good” practice and “bad” practice, and only good practice holds the key to improving a skill.

So next time you’re up against that illusory wall, wondering if you’re maybe not cut out for writing, or coding, or singing, or whatever that thing is that you love, just remember that you’re practicing, and getting better.

And the only way to get better is to reach for it.