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'Want to learn about comfort zones and talent? Watch a six-year-old step onto the ice rink'

Douglas Kruger Picture

By Douglas Kruger

IT takes a certain masochism. Many of us do it, though. Sometimes a new job forces it on us.

We commit to learning a new skill over the course of the year. Whether it’s mastering the piano, understanding AI, chatting in Spanish or juggling Pomeranians, I’ll bet you anything that your biggest challenge will not be a matter of talent, per se. That comes in time. Instead, it will be a matter of head cramps. The monsters in your mind versus your capacity to endure long enough to overcome them.

I get head cramps myself. It’s been a lifetime project wrangling the darn things into some semblance of submission. That’s why it’s so fascinating to watch them rising, gremlin-like, to the surface, in a new generation. There are few places where you can more immediately study “how talent works” than at our ice rink.

We stepped onto the ice down at Weighbridge Place, and the comedy began. Six-year-olds are emotional creatures at the best of times, but a first foray out onto the ice is the stuff of TikTok clips.

Pep talks aside, during the course of a single hour, the little guy descended into tears easily three times. That’s in addition to the uncharacteristic yelling at dad: “Don’t hold me! Let me go!” Then, five seconds later: “Don’t let me go! Hold me!” I do not believe the chiropractor lives who can fix the damage to my back.

Funny thing was, at the end of it, I asked him what he thought of ice skating and he said: “I loved it.” He said this with conviction. The tear stains were still visible on his cheeks.

Now, isn’t that strange? As adults, if attempting something new makes us cry, that tends to be the end of it. Not so for kids. Tears and bruises do not even factor into his evaluation, as he asks: “Can we come tomorrow?”

It turns out, there is a well-researched formula for talent. It’s a complex topic, with a lot of nuance, but the basics are broadly accepted. You can apply it to anything you want to learn or master, so long as, like a wobbly six-year-old, you genuinely want to do so. As adults, we think tears are a full stop. Six-year-olds simply don’t. Therein lies their ability to learn faster than us.

Let’s start with the recipe. The formula for developing talent, in any field, is basically this: 

Talent = yearning + input + deliberate practice, sustained. 

This formula grew out of decades of study. Here’s what you need to know. 

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The first ingredient is yearning. That’s what kids have by the boatload.

If you have no desire to try, to play with it, to fall and get back up again, over and over, the other factors will remain irrelevant.

Yearning is the magical ingredient at the core of it all. And it does not hinge on how good you are when you start out.

Ask any deeply frustrated six-year-old. On their first few tries, they’re hopeless. But quitting does not even occur to them. The yearning outweighs the struggle.

If you’re open to self-development – basically willing – you’re already at a distinct advantage over anyone who is being dragged into learning something new against their will.

Input

Now you will need the next factor: input. 

Input is any form of teaching or coaching. You need specific information about your pursuit, which you can usefully act upon. If you have yearning but no input, you may fizzle fast. Your development can only progress so far.

It’s worth noting that self-teaching isn’t as effective as having another person coach you, particularly in the early stages of developing proficiency. Master practitioners may know enough about their fields to coach themselves but, starting out, we don’t know what we don’t know, and that’s why training and personal mentoring can be so important. Not only that, but they tend to be motivating, which strengthens the yearning.  

Deliberate practice 

This occurs when you break a thing down to its constituent parts, then work on improving each part in isolation. In ice-skating terms, it’s “push and glide, and push and glide”. Now repeat, times several thousand.

Deliberate practice is subtly different to what most people think of as “practice”. The distinction explains why some people can put in the fabled 10,000 hours playing golf and not improve one jot, while others will soar to the professional ranks with the same amount of time.

The difference lies in how they practise. An average golfer may spend x amount of time merely playing a full game of golf. There may be yearning but there is no input and no “break-it-down” deliberate practice. Just generic play. Hence, his time teaches him less. 

 A great golfer might spend the same number of hours practising just one thing: how to get a ball out of a bunker. He focuses on one element, over and over, mastering it before moving on to another.

That is deliberate practice. He may also employ self-talk throughout, or practise in conjunction with the input of a coach, both of which would greatly enhance his efficacy. 

Now let’s take off our skates and abandon our golf clubs. Leaving them in a pile on the floor, let’s consider how it all works in a corporate setting. Say you’re learning about sales…

Most salespeople will only get to practise live, in the course of carrying out real sales calls. It’s hit or miss, with no training or feedback. In a sense, they are merely “playing a game of golf”, and not studying the elements of golf in any meaningful way. They might never improve. 

A better approach is to work with a coach or mentor. Break the process down into its constituent parts. Workshop and practise each part, with feedback from your mentor. Repeat over and over. Master the elements, one by one, before moving on.

Naturally, even such corporate skills must begin with yearning. Are you willing to fall on the ice several times and still come back for more? Do you want it badly enough?

It’s frustrating starting out. Guaranteed. Everything feels disproportionately difficult. But the individual who can master their own head cramps, and keep at it long enough, while receiving meaningful feedback on their deliberate practice, will certainly get there. And it takes less time if you follow the formula.

I was amazed at the level of improvement among several small kids, my own included, after just one hour. Four or five such hours, and they’re up and running, allowing for a wobble here and there.

As adults, we can learn a lot from that. There will be wobbles. There will even be tears. But if the yearning outweighs the head cramps, well, you can master anything.

  • Douglas Kruger lives in St Helier, and writes books to keep himself out of mischief. When the seagulls aren’t shrieking, he records them too. They’re all available from Amazon and Audible.

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