Every great and commanding moment in the annals
of the world is a triumph of some enthusiasm.
—Ralph Waldo Emerson
“IF SHE CAN DO IT, WHY CAN’T I?”
Growing skill, as we’ve seen, requires deep practice. But deep practice isn’t a piece of cake: it requires energy, passion, and commitment. In a word, it requires motivational fuel,
the second element of the talent code. In this section we’ll see how motivation is created and sustained through a process I call ignition. Ignition and deep practice work together to produce skill in exactly the same way that a gas tank combines with an engine to produce velocity in an automobile. Ignition supplies the energy, while deep practice translates that energy over time into forward progress, a.k.a. wraps of myelin.
When I visited the talent hotbeds, I saw a lot of passion. It showed in the way people carried their violins, cradled their soccer balls, and sharpened their pencils. It showed in the way
The Talent Code
they treated bare-bones practice areas as if they were cathedrals; in the alert, respectful gazes that followed a coach. The feeling wasn’t always shiny and happy—sometimes it was
dark and obsessive, and sometimes it was like the quiet, abiding love you see in old married couples. But the passion was always there, providing the emotional rocket fuel that kept
them ﬁring their circuits, honing skills, getting better.
When I asked people in the hotbeds about the source of
their passion for violin/singing/soccer/math, the question
struck most of them as faintly ridiculous, as if I were inquiring when they ﬁrst learned to enjoy oxygen. The universal response was to shrug and say something like “I dunno, I’ve just always felt this way.”
Faced with these responses, it’s tempting to return the
shrug, to chalk up their burning motivation to the unknown
depths of the human heart. But this would not be accurate.
Because in many cases it is possible to pinpoint the instant that passion ignited.
For South Korea’s golfers, it was the afternoon of May 18, 1998, when a twenty-year-old named Se Ri Pak won the
McDonald’s LPGA Championship and became a national
icon. (As one Seoul newspaper put it, “Se Ri Pak is not the female Tiger Woods; Tiger Woods is the male Se Ri Pak.”)
Before her, no South Korean had succeeded in golf. Flashforward to ten years later, and Pak’s countrywomen had essentially colonized the LPGA Tour, with forty-ﬁve players who collectively won about one-third of the events.
For Russia’s tennis players, the moment came later that
same summer when seventeen-year-old Anna Kournikova
reached the Wimbledon semiﬁnals and, thanks to her supermodel looks, gained the status of the world’s most downloaded
athlete. By 2004 Russian women were showing up regularly in
major ﬁnals; by 2007 they occupied ﬁve of the top ten rankings and twelve of the top ﬁfty. “They’re like the goddamned Russian Army,” said Nick Bollettieri, founder of his eponymous tennis academy in Bradenton, Florida. “They just keep on coming.”
South Koreans on
Russians in WTA
Other hotbeds follow the same pattern: a breakthrough
success is followed by a massive bloom of talent. Note that in each case the bloom grew relatively slowly at ﬁrst, requiring ﬁve or six years to reach a dozen players. This is not because the inspiration was weaker at the start and got progressively stronger, but for a more fundamental reason: deep practice
takes time (ten thousand hours, as the refrain goes). Talent is...