In last weeks outfit post I offered up a quote about the creative journey. This quote described the difficulties that come with creative pursuits. How we often struggle with our inability to produce work that meets the standard we desire. This can also be applied to academia, sports and business.
On my first week in my new job, I took some time in my break to go to the on-site library. Most of the books were scientific journals, but as I scanned the shelves, one book caught my eye. It was called The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle. There is no better way to describe this book other than neuro-porn. I read it in two days. What the author describes, is the neuroscience behind why focused practice makes perfect.
When we take in information from our surroundings and think a thought, an electrical signal moves between a chain of neurons in the brain. If that wasn’t magical enough, we also have a substance called myelin that acts as an insulator wrapped around the nerve fiber. This coating – also referred to as the myelin sheath – ‘increases strength, speed and accuracy’ of the signal. As we practice a thought, action, or experience over and over, myelin wraps around the nerve fiber, continuously improving the communication of our brain cells.
I shall use golf as an example. Purely because when I first tried to hit a ball at the driving range – I was crap at it. On my first swing, I missed. I furrowed my brow and analysed my technique – I was swinging too high. So next time, I swung a little lower and hit the ground. Oops, too low. The next time, I hit the ball square on, but it skidded out about 10 metres. I anaylsed my technique again, adjusted my weight and realised I needed more power. I needed to swing my club back further to give me more drive. After a few more pitiful attempts, the club collided with the ball with a thwack that sent it flying out into the paddock. Each time I analysed my technique and changed my behaviour accordingly, I was strengthening the ‘golf swing’ signal in my brain.
Now, hours of practice alone is not enough. Just aimlessly swinging away, hoping for a miracle will not a Tiger Woods make. Instead, what I was engaged in, was what Daniel Coyle describes as deep practice – or, the sweet spot. My goal was not impossibly out of my reach. But I was falling short just enough to have me tapped in, focused and analytical.
Any creative pursuit is no different. If we are too far from our expectation, we often don’t put 100% focused energy into our practice. Instead, we sabotage ourselves. We throw up our hands, say it’s too hard and side-step the sweet spot. But if we make it to that sweet spot, there is this painful, yet delicious gap. A space between where we are and where we want to be. It’s that thing that gets us out of bed in the morning to chase our dreams. The place where we have to do a bit of reaching.
That is why it is much easier to become a master at the things we love to do. Simply, we do not mind spending the hours required to wrap our nerve fibers in myelin. We are able to make it through the tough beginning stage when we suck. We relish being in the sweet spot – even when it has us tearing out our hair. We are close enough to taste success.
There is another very important caveat to this process. We have to become ok with making mistakes. To get into the sweet spot – to wrap our cells in insulator, we have to be willing to analyse what isn’t working for us – and improve accordingly. It was my analysis of what wasn’t working during my golf practice that allowed me to better my technique. This neuroscience is not only proof that practice makes perfect, but that making mistakes and getting things wrong is a truly profound form of learning.
Although, we must remember to analyse with kindness, not a perfectionist eye. If we constantly berate ourselves for not being good enough, we will yank ourselves straight out of the sweet spot.
I get a lot of people saying to me aren’t you so clever with all your neuroscience degrees. To which the answer is this…
I’m no cleverer than anyone else, it didn’t always come easily. There were times when I found my career choice really difficult. Times when I contemplated giving up. But I fight for the things I want and love. And eventually…eventually…I get there. The next mountain is blogging and starting a business. Will I make it? I don’t know – but I’m definitely in the sweet spot. And it’s exciting as hell.
I’ve devoted my life to deep practice. I am proof that talent can be manufactured with focused, dedicated work. This science also provides proof that if we find what makes us happy and do that, we have a better shot at success.
So off you go and have a tinker in your sweet spot. Make some fuck-ups. Do better next time. And enjoy your creative journey. If anyone has a go at you for making mistakes, tell them you’re on your way to greatness. A fashion blogging neuroscientist told you so…
Hat -Ricochet Jumper – Helen Cherry Tee – Alexander Wang Jeans – Topshop
Shoes – Cabin & Cove Bag – Deadly Ponies
Much love xx