Little Book of Talent: 52 Tips for Improving Your Skills

There is a place, right on the edge of your ability, where you learn best and fastest. It’s called the sweet spot.

[Comfort Zone]
Sensations: Ease, effortlessness. You’re working, but not reaching or struggling.

Percentage of Successful Attempts: 80 percent and above.

[Sweet Spot]
Sensations: Frustration, difficulty, alertness to errors. You’re fully engaged in an intense struggle—as if you’re stretching with all your might for a nearly unreachable goal, brushing it with your fingertips, then reaching again.

Percentage of Successful Attempts: 50–80 percent.

[Survival Zone]
Sensations: Confusion, desperation. You’re overmatched: scrambling, thrashing, and guessing. You guess right sometimes, but it’s mostly luck.

Percentage of Successful Attempts: Below 50 percent.

Each time she made a mistake, she was 1) sensing it and 2) fixing it, welding the right connection in her brain. Each time she repeated the passage, she was strengthening those connections and linking them together. She was not just practicing. She was building her brain. She was in the sweet spot.

Seek out ways to stretch yourself. Play on the edges of your competence.
If you tried your absolute hardest, what could you almost do? Mark the boundary of your current ability, and aim a little beyond it. That’s your spot.

Deep practice is not measured in minutes or hours, but in the number of high-quality reaches and repetitions you make—basically, how many new connections you form in your brain.

Instead of counting minutes or hours, count reaches and reps. Instead of saying, “I’m going to practice piano for twenty minutes,” tell yourself, “I’m going to do five intensive reps of that new song.”

Ignore the clock and get to the sweet spot, even if it’s only for a few minutes, and measure your progress by what counts: reaches and reps.


Every skill is built out of smaller pieces

1) What is the smallest single element of this skill that I can master?

2) What other chunks link to that chunk?

See the whole thing. Break it down to its simplest elements. Put it back together. Repeat.

The real goal isn’t practice; it’s progress.

Never mistake mere activity for accomplishment.

Set a daily SAP: smallest achievable perfection

The point is to take the time to aim at a small, defined target, and then put all your effort toward hitting it.

You are built to improve little by little, connection by connection, rep by rep.

Don’t look for the big, quick improvement. Seek the small improvement one day at a time. That’s the only way it happens—and when it happens, it lasts.


struggle isn’t an option—it’s a biological necessity.

The struggle and frustration you feel at the edges of your abilities—that uncomfortable burn of “almost, almost”—is the sensation of constructing new neural connections, a phenomenon that the UCLA psychologist Robert Bjork calls “desirable difficulty.” Your brain works just like your muscles: no pain, no gain.


Practice on the days that you eat.

establishing a new habit takes about thirty days.

The act of practicing—making time to do it, doing it well—can be thought of as a skill in itself, perhaps the most important skill of all.

If it can be counted, it can be turned into a game.

For example, playing a series of guitar chords as a drill is boring. But if you count the number of times you do it perfectly and give yourself a point for each perfect chord, it can become a game. Track your progress, and see how many points you score over a week. The following week, try to score more.

Solo practice works because it’s the best way to 1) seek out the sweet spot at the edge of your ability, and 2) develop discipline, because it doesn’t depend on others.

your brain spent millions of years evolving to register images more vividly and memorably than abstract ideas.
Whenever possible, create a vivid image for each chunk you want to learn. The images don’t have to be elaborate, just easy to see and feel.


mistakes are our guideposts for improvement

People who pay deeper attention to an error learn significantly more than those who ignore it.

Develop the habit of attending to your errors right away. Don’t wince, don’t close your eyes; look straight at them and see what really happened, and ask yourself what you can do next to improve. Take mistakes seriously, but never personally.

Mistakes aren’t really mistakes, then—they’re the information you use to build the right links.
The more you pay attention to mistakes and fix them, the more of the right connections you’ll be building inside your brain. Visualizing this process as it happens helps you reinterpret mistakes as what they actually are: tools for building skill.

Every time you practice deeply—the wires of your brain get faster.

Smaller practice spaces can deepen practice when they are used to increase the number and intensity of the reps and clarify the goal.

What’s the minimum space needed to make these reaches and reps? Where is extra space hindering fast and easy communication?

“It’s not how fast you can do it. It’s how slowly you can do it correctly.”

Super-slow practice works like a magnifying glass: It lets us sense our errors more clearly, and thus fix them.

Closing your eyes is a swift way to nudge you to the edges of your ability, to get you into your sweet spot. It sweeps away distraction and engages your other senses to provide new feedback. It helps you engrave the blueprint of a task on your brain by making even a familiar skill seem strange and fresh.


Removing everything except the essential action lets you focus on what matters most: making the right reach.


Practice begins when you get it right.

One of the most fulfilling moments of a practice session is when you have your first perfect rep. When this happens, freeze. Rewind the mental tape and play the move again in your mind. Memorize the feeling, the rhythm, the physical and mental sensations. The point is to mark this moment—this is the spot where you want to go again and again. This is not the finish—it’s the new starting line for perfecting the skill until it becomes automatic.
Napping is good for the learning brain, because it helps strengthen the connections formed during practice and prepare the brain for the next session.


Think of the way parents teach their babies new words—they stretch out each sound, overemphasize it, overdo it.

There’s a good reason for this. Going too far helps us understand where the boundaries are.

Don’t be halfhearted. You can always dial back later. Go too far so you can feel the outer edges of the move, and then work on building the skill with precision.
There’s a moment just before every rep when you are faced with a choice: You can either focus your attention on the target (what you want to do) or you can focus on the possible mistake (what you want to avoid). This tip is simple:

Always focus on the positive move, not the negative one.

Psychologists call this “positive framing,”

The point is, it always works better to reach for what you want to accomplish, not away from what you want to avoid.

Learning is reaching. Passively reading a book—a relatively effortless process, letting the words wash over you like a warm bath—doesn’t put you in the sweet spot. Less reaching equals less learning.

On the other hand, closing the book and writing a summary forces you to figure out the key points (one set of reaches), process and organize those ideas so they make sense (more reaches), and write them on the page (still more reaches, along with repetition). The equation is always the same: More reaching equals more learning.

What’s the best way to make sure you don’t repeat mistakes? One way is to employ the sandwich technique. It goes like this:
1. Make the correct move.
2. Make the incorrect move.
3. Make the correct move again.

The goal is to reinforce the correct move and to put a spotlight on the mistake, preventing it from slipping past undetected and becoming wired into your circuitry.
our brains make stronger connections when they’re stimulated three times with a rest period of ten minutes between each stimulation

The real-world translation: To learn something most effectively, practice it three times, with ten-minute breaks between each rep.

To invent a good test, ask yourself: What’s one key element of this skill? How can I isolate my accuracy or reliability, and measure it? How can I make it fun, quick, and repeatable, so I can track my progress?


This tip provides a way to measure practice effectiveness. It’s called the R.E.P.S. gauge. Each letter stands for a key element of deep practice.
R: Reaching and Repeating Does the practice have you operating on the edge of your ability, reaching and repeating?
E: Engagement Is the practice immersive? Does it command your attention? Does it use emotion to propel you toward a goal?
P: Purposefulness Does the task directly connect to the skill you want to build?
S: Strong, Speedy Feedback. Does the learner receive a stream of accurate information about his performance—where he succeeded and where he made mistakes?

Does the learner receive a stream of accurate information about his performance—where he succeeded and where he made mistakes?

The idea of this gauge is simple: When given a choice between two practice methods, or when you’re inventing a new test or game, pick the one that maximizes these four qualities, the one with the most R.E.P.S. The larger lesson here is to pay attention to the design of your practice. Small changes in method can create large increases in learning velocity.

Exhaustion is the enemy. Fatigue slows brains. It triggers errors, lessens concentration, and leads to shortcuts that create bad habits. It’s no coincidence that most talent hotbeds put a premium on practicing when people are fresh, usually in the morning, if possible. When exhaustion creeps in, it’s time to quit.

“I always achieve my most productive practice after an actual round. Then, the mistakes are fresh in my mind and I can go to the practice tee and work specifically on those mistakes.”

Just before falling asleep, they play a movie of their idealized performance in their heads. A wide body of research supports this idea, linking visualization to improved performance, motivation, mental toughness, and confidence. Treat it as a way to rev the engine of your unconscious mind, so it spends more time churning toward your goals.


A practice session should end like a good meal—with a small, sweet reward.

Use the First Few Seconds to Connect on an Emotional Level

Effective teaching is built on trust, and when it comes to trust, we humans are consistent: We decide if we’re going to trust someone in the first few seconds of the interaction.

Communicate with precise nouns and numbers—things you can see and touch and measure—and avoid adjectives and adverbs, which don’t tell you precisely what to do.

Make a Scorecard for Learning

The solution is to create your own scorecard. Pick a metric that measures the skill you want to develop, and start keeping track of it. Use that measure to motivate and orient your learners. As a saying goes, “You are what you count.”

Reachfulness is the essence of learning. It happens when the learner is leaning forward, stretching, struggling, and improving.

Sustaining Progress

Repetition is the single most powerful lever we have to improve our skills, because it uses the built-in mechanism for making the wires of our brains faster and more accurate

Embracing repetition means changing your mindset; instead of viewing it as a chore, view it as your most powerful tool.
They get up in the morning and go to work every day, whether they feel like it or not.

As the artist Chuck Close says, “Inspiration is for amateurs.”

The presence of other people diminishes an appetite for risks, nudging you away from the sweet spot.

Games encourage players, coaches, and parents to judge success by the scoreboard rather than by how much was learned.

The solution is to ignore the bad habit and put your energy toward building a new habit that will override the old one.
* Override bad habits

One of the first workouts for a Shyness Clinic client is to walk up to a stranger and ask for the time. Each day the workout grows more strenuous—soon clients are asking five strangers for the time, making phone calls to acquaintances, or chatting with a stranger in an elevator.

To build new habits, start slowly. Expect to feel stupid and clumsy and frustrated at first—after all, the new wires haven’t been built yet, and your brain still wants to follow the old pattern. Build the new habit by gradually increasing the difficulty, little by little. It takes time, but it’s the only way new habits grow. For more insights on this process, read The Power of Habit, by Charles Duhigg.

when you communicate a skill to someone, you come to understand it more deeply yourself.

“Doers who teach do better.”


1) Constructing and honing neural circuitry takes time, no matter who you are; and 2) Resilience and grit are vital tools, particularly in the early phases of learning. Don’t make judgments too early. Keep at it, even if you don’t feel immediate improvement. Give your talent (that is, your brain) the time it needs to grow.


A plateau happens when your brain achieves a level of automaticity; in other words, when you can perform a skill on autopilot, without conscious thought.

The best way past a plateau is to jostle yourself beyond it; to change your practice method so you disrupt your autopilot and rebuild a faster, better circuit.

Preventing plateau
– speed things up—to force yourself to do the task faster than you normally would.
– slow things down—going so slowly that you highlight previously undetected mistakes
– do the task in reverse order, turn it inside out or upside down.

Grit is that mix of passion, perseverance, and self-discipline that keeps us moving forward in spite of obstacles. It’s not flashy, and that’s precisely the point.

Grit isn’t inborn. It’s developed, like a muscle, and that development starts with awareness.

For instance, when you hit an obstacle, how do you react? Do you tend to focus on a long-term goal, or move from interest to interest? What are you seeking in the long run? Begin to pay attention to places in your life where you’ve got grit, and celebrate them in yourself and others.


Telling others about your big goals makes them less likely to happen, because it creates an unconscious payoff—tricking our brains into thinking we’ve already accomplished the goal. Keeping our big goals to ourselves is one of the smartest goals we can set.

Think patiently, without judgment. Work steadily, strategically, knowing that each piece connects to a larger whole.
Deep practice (n), also called deliberate practice: The form of learning marked by 1) the willingness to operate on the edge of your ability, aiming for targets that are just out of reach, and 2) the embrace of attentive repetition.

Ignition (n): The motivational process that occurs when your identity becomes linked to a long-term vision of your future. Triggers significant amounts of unconscious energy; usually marked by the realization That is who I want to be.
Reach (v): The act of stretching slightly beyond your current abilities toward a target, which causes the brain to form new connections. Reaching invariably creates mistakes, which are the guideposts you use to improve the next attempt.
Rep (n, abbreviation for repetition): The act of attentively repeating an action, often with slight variances at gradually increasing difficulty, which causes the brain’s pathways to increase speed and improve accuracy.

Rule of Ten Thousand Hours (n): The scientific finding that all world-class experts in every field have spent a minimum of ten thousand hours intensively practicing their craft. While this number is sometimes misinterpreted as a magical threshold, in reality it functions as a rule of thumb underlining a larger truth: Greatness is not born, but grown through deep practice, no matter who you are.

Shallow practice (n): The opposite of deep practice, marked by lack of intensity, vagueness of goal, and/or the unwillingness to reach beyond current abilities. Often caused by an aversion to making mistakes; results in vastly slowed skill acquisition and learning.

Sweet spot (n): The zone on the edge of current ability where learning happens fastest. Marked by a frequency of mistakes, and also by the recognition of those mistakes (see Tip #13).

Notes from The Little Book of Talent: 52 Tips for Improving Your Skills by Daniel Coyle

Read on: December 2014

2020 © Jerico Aragon