Jiu-Jitsu Letter

Daniel Coyle

Daniel Coyle wrote The Talent Code1, which is one of the most important books I’ve read. He also wrote a follow up called The Little Book of Talent2. It’s one of those books that you can open randomly for a tip about how to improve. It’s very re-readable because the chapters are just one to two pages. Here are some of my highlights:

What matters is not the precise form. What matters is that you write stuff down and reflect on it. Results from today. Ideas for tomorrow. Goals for next week. A notebook works like a map: It creates clarity.

When it comes to developing talent, remember, mistakes are not really mistakes—they are the guideposts you use to get better.

CHOOSE SPARTAN OVER LUXURIOUS luxury is a motivational narcotic: It signals our unconscious minds to give less effort. It whispers, Relax, you’ve made it. The point of this tip is not moral; it’s neural. Simple, humble spaces help focus attention on the deep-practice task at hand: reaching and repeating and struggling.

Precision especially matters early on, because the first reps establish the pathways for the future. Neurologists call this the “sled on a snowy hill” phenomenon. The first repetitions are like the first sled tracks on fresh snow: On subsequent tries, your sled will tend to follow those grooves. “Our brains are good at building connections,” says Dr. George Bartzokis, a neurologist at UCLA. “They’re not so good at unbuilding them.”

Go slowly.

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.

No matter what skill you set out to learn, the pattern is always the same: See the whole thing. Break it down to its simplest elements. Put it back together. Repeat.

EMBRACE STRUGGLE Most of us instinctively avoid struggle, because it’s uncomfortable. It feels like failure. However, when it comes to developing your talent, 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.”

“Practice on the days that you eat.”

The other advantage of practicing daily is that it becomes a habit. 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. Give it time. According to research, establishing a new habit takes about thirty days.


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.

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

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.

Learning is reaching.

The equation is always the same: More reaching equals more learning.

To learn something most effectively, practice it three times, with ten-minute breaks between each rep.

HAVE A BLUE-COLLAR MIND-SET Their mind-set is not entitled or arrogant; it’s 100-percent blue collar: They get up in the morning and go to work every day, whether they feel like it or not.

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


“Doers who teach do better.”


KEEP YOUR BIG GOALS SECRET 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.

  1. The Talent Code ↩︎

  2. The Little Book of Talent ↩︎

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