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Jun 10

Growing Talent



The subtitle of Daniel Coyle’s intriguing book The Talent Code is “Greatness Isn’t Born. It’s Grown. Here’s How.” The Talent Code proceeds to layout a theory of how expertise can be cultivated through specific practices that encourage the growth of myelin in the brain. Myelin is a material that is produced and wraps around heavily used circuits in the brain, making them more efficient.

Coyle uses an analogy that geeks will appreciate. When a circuit in the brain is used a lot (i.e. a specific action is repeated), the myelin insulates that circuit, increasing its bandwidth from telephone over copper to high speed broadband. This leads to the funny phenomenon of effortless expertise. Although highly skilled, the best players make it look easy.

Coyle provides some biological backing for the long held theory that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to achieve mastery over a given subject. 10,000 hours or 10 years, as in, Teach Yourself Programming in Ten Years and others. However, it is not just that more hours equals more mastery. The other factors that Coyle identifies includes deep practice, practice which crucially involves drills that are challenging without being impossible. Another way to put it is that every day you spend doing only tasks you find monotonous and automatic, you are literally stagnating your brain’s development!

Perhaps Coyle’s subtitle,needs one more phrase,”Greatness Isn’t Born. It’s Grown. Here’s How. And oh yeah, it’s not easy.” Challenging yourself, continuing to persist in the face of repeated failures, practicing every day is not easy.

As consultants, we sell our expertise, so it makes sense that we plan projects so that people can play to their strengths. At the same time, an important part of our culture is constant improvement, challenging yourself to be better. And the balancing contest ensues.

I just finished working on a proof of concept (POC) we did for a project we are bidding on. Completely time boxed, so our team naturally split responsibilities amongst ourselves according to who was better at what. I must have been pretty bad at the other components, as I found myself working on the user interface, not my usual strength.

The POC had a website frontend, and one thing I do know is HTML. After starting out in pure ASP.NET WebForms, I got frustrated as time was ticking, I knew what I wanted in HTML, but I couldn’t coax the right output out of the ASP.NET controls.

I needed two or three elements on the screen that were identical in layout, with different content. With a backup plan in  of writing the HTML into the response by hand, I decided to challenge myself a bit and see what I could do in an hour or two using the Microsoft submitted jQuery micro-templating JavaScript library.

This “risk” paid off. I was able to quickly get the user interface up and running, responsive to the JSON data we were working with. I felt energized by the double win of getting the POC ready and learning something new. Opportunities  specifically like this POC don’t come around often, but the takeaway is that while it won’t be easy, there are ways to generate your own opportunities to grow towards greatness.

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