I’ve just finished reading two books that I’m pretty certain are going to change my life. In my continued research on achievement and deliberate practice, I’ve discovered more than I ever expected to find. I started my research to help my children. I’m ending it on a road of healing.
It starts with an understanding of how we develop skill (all skill, whether it be throwing a baseball or playing chess, writing a story or engaging in conversation [this is a big one for me, because I often feel tongue tied and anxious in social situations.]) In the book The Talent Code, author Daniel Coyle describes a neuroligical substance called myelin which is responsible for the speed at which neurons in the brain communicate. By wrapping itself around neurons, myelin “adds vast amounts of speed and accuracy to movements and thoughts.” It’s likened to the difference between dial-up and broadband internet connection – the more myelin wrapped around a neuron, the faster the connection. The faster the connection, the more skill we have. One of the fascinating things about myelin is that it isn’t fixed at birth – it grows, and “like anything that grows, it can be cultivated and nourished.” So how does myelin grow?
Myelin grows when we engage in struggle. I touched on this before, in my article on deliberate practice, but what really fascinated me as I read this book was the realization that it’s only in struggling to achieve something that we develop the critical brain matter that helps us to achieve our goals. In other words, when we do something that is easy for us, we are not contributing to the growth of myelin. We can practice every day, for hours at a time, and still contribute nothing toward developing our skill. But when we struggle, when we’re forced to work hard, when we try extremely hard and fail more often than we succeed, we’re literally causing our brain to alter its circuitry. We’re growing myelin.
This understanding has given me a completely new outlook on struggle, and on failure. I understood before that deliberate practice was important, but what I didn’t fully grasp is that deliberate practice is important because it forces us to struggle. It forces us to keep trying to do something we can’t yet do. In that sense, failure – and even repeated failure – becomes a necessary part of learning.
But here’s the thing: What if I don’t want to fail? What if who I am (or, rather, who I perceive myself to be) is so bound up with success that to fail at something would mean that I am a failure? That’s where the second book, and my fourth blog post on this subject, comes in. Because I’ve come to see that my so-called “perfectionism” is really a false mindset I’ve been a slave to for years without ever knowing it. More on this soon.