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TALENT CODE SUMMARIES *Future belonging is a primal cue: a simple, direct

signal that activates our built-in motivational

Chapter 5 – Primal Cues
triggers, funneling our energy and attention toward
Deep practice requires motivation, the second a goal. The idea makes intuitive sense—after all,
element of the talent code. Motivation is created we've all felt motivated by the desire to connect
and sustained through a process called ignition. ourselves to high-achieving groups.
Talent hotbeds follow the same pattern: a With regard to talent hotbeds: they tended to be
breakthrough success is followed by a massive junky, unattractive places.
bloom of talent. In each case, the bloom grew
The Scrooge Principle: our unconscious mind is a
relatively slowly at first. The fundamental reason
stingy banker of energy reserves, keeping its
was: deep practice takes time (ten thousand hours,
wealth locked in a vault. Direct pleas to open the
as the refrain goes).
vault often don't work; Scrooge can't be fooled that
* One of the useful things about this breakthrough- easily. But when he's hit with the right combination
then-bloom pattern is that it makes it possible to of primal cues—when he's visited by a series of
forecast the rise of future talent hotbeds. primal-cue ghosts, you might say—the tumblers
Ignition works by having athletes respond to click, the vault of energy flies open, and suddenly
something outside them rather than having change it's Christmas Day.
come from the inside. We usually think of passion If the conceptual model for deep practice is a circuit
as an inner quality. But, in the talent hotbeds, there being slowly wrapped with insulation, then the
was something that came first from the outside model for ignition is a hair trigger connected to a
world. high-voltage power plant. Accordingly, ignition is
The Ignition Process determined by simple if/then propositions, with the
then part always the same - better get busy.
In observing children studying music, it was
observed that progress was determined by “a tiny, First example of ignition
powerful idea the child had even before starting There’s a long list of successful people who were
lessons”: particularly, how long they planned to play orphaned at an early age. Parental loss is a signal
their new musical instrument. hitting a motivational trigger. Losing a parent is a
*The idea/perception of one’s self is primal cue: you are not safe. The list of people who
important. The idea is like a snowball rolling were orphaned at an early age are the logical
downhill. extensions of the same universal principles that
govern all of us: (1) talent requires deep practice;
McPherson investigated why certain children (2) deep practice requires vast amounts of energy;
progress quickly at music lessons and others don't. (3) primal cues trigger huge outpourings of energy.
He came up with a graph which showed a
relationship between the perceived length of one’s Second example of ignition
commitment and the progress of his skill in playing A pattern seemed to hold: the youngest kids in a
the instrument. McPherson’s graph is a picture of family were frequently the fastest runners. This
ignition. What ignited the progress wasn't any pattern suggests that speed is not purely a gift but
innate skill or gene. It was a small, ephemeral, yet a skill that grows through deep practice, and that is
powerful idea: a vision of their ideal future selves, a ignited by primal cues. In this case the cue is:
vision that oriented, energized, and accelerated you're behind—keep up!
progress, and that originated in the outside world.
People are talented not only because they were
Flipping the Trigger born that way but also because at some mysterious
We speak of motivation as if it's a rational point they caught on to a powerful idea, an idea
assessment of cause and effect, but in fact it's that originated in the flow of images and signals
closer to a bet, and a highly uncertain one at that. around them, those tiny sparks that set them alight.
Skill is insulation that wraps neural circuits and
Each case of ignition was a response to a signal grows according to certain signals.
that arrived in the form of an image. What do these
signals have in common? each has to do with
identity and groups, and the links that form between
them. Each signal is about future belonging. Other useful primal cues
Aside from safety and future belonging, another Curacao's success wasn't caused solely by the
useful primal cue for igniting talent is scarcity in primal signals that created ignition. The matrix of
terms of resources in a learning environment other causes includes disciplined culture, top-notch
(specially when coupled with belonging). Note the coaching, supportive parents, national pride, the
case of PS 233, an urban public school which can love of the game, and of course, a wealth of deep
afford only 50 violins. It became the more practice. (From what I saw, Jones's style of training
successful program over Wadleigh which has an is the rule, not the exception.)
arts-focused curriculum, a brand-new auditorium,
A Tale of Two Islands: Aruba and Curacao
and a budget that permitted the school to purchase
violins for every student who wanted to play. Aruba is another town similar to Curacao, but didn’t
develop much talent. It fielded quality Little League
Ignition doesn't follow normal rules because it's not
teams that can match those of Curacao, and even
designed to follow rules. It's designed only to work,
had a major league player, Sidney Ponson.
to give us energy for whatever tasks we choose—
or for whatever tasks fate chooses for us. However, why didn’t Aruba became like Curacao?
They were twins right down to the motivational
spark, and yet Curacao IGNITED and Aruba did
not. Why?
The Curacao Experiment
Curacao, like other talent hotbeds and unlike
Curacao: the Little Island that Could. Aruba, has found a way to do a very important and
tricky thing: to keep the motivational fire lit. Curacao
Every August at the Little League World Series in
forms, quite by accident, a natural case study on
Williamsport, Pennsylvania, a team of eleven- and
the science and practice of sustained ignition.
twelve-year-old boys from Curacao stages a vivid
reenactment of “David versus Goliath”. For the last Sidney Ponson, turned out to have a drinking
eight years, they have been to the Finals six times, problem. He became overweight, bounced around
winning the title in 2004 and finishing second in to several teams, and was arrested for assault on
2005; despite having only two Little League fields Christmas Eve 2004.
and their baseball season lasting only five months
Meanwhile, Andruw Jones of Curacao became a
with practices on a scarce three times a week, and
five-time all-star and ten-time Gold Glove
games only on weekend.
centerfielder. Curacao possessed a set of tools to
First IGNITION keep the ignition of Jones's success lit. Curacao
grew talent because the message of Jones's
A single moment of IGNITION happened on
success was translated and amplified into a reliable
October 20, 1996, in the opening game of the
combination of primal cues. Frank Curiel Field, after
World Series between the Atlanta Braves and the
all, only looks like a beat-up baseball diamond.
New York Yankees. Andruw Jones, an unknown
19-year old Curacaoan rookie beat Andy Petttite in It is in fact a million-watt antenna steadily
a pitch showdown of a canny veteran versus a transmitting a powerful stream of signals and
naïve rookie. images that add up to a thrilling whisper: Hey, that
could be you.
Media praised him as having a gift from God. But it
was not, in fact, Jones had been swinging a bat The SISTINE CHAPEL Effect
since two years old, coached by his father. When
Ignition, in Curacao or anywhere, doesn't come
he was older, he was swinging a sledgehammer
with guarantees. For every breakthrough
three times a week.
performance that ignites a talent bloom, there are
The Curacao Phenomenon dozens of breakthroughs that peter out.
A few weeks after Jones’ win, four hundred new Talent hotbeds possess more than a single primal
kids signed up at the Little League in Willemstad, cue. They contain complex collections of signals—
Jones’ hometown. These kids were all motivated people, images, and ideas—that keep ignition
because the legendary Jones wasn’t even one of going for the weeks, months, and years that skill-
the best players on the island. (If he can do it and growing requires. Talent hotbeds are to primal cues
become a legend, why can’t we?) But this, like what Las Vegas is to neon signs, flashing with the
Russia’s tennis players and South Korea’s golfers kind of signals that keep motivation burning.
took time to develop. Myelin doesn’t grow
Michelangelo would have seen in Renaissance when we get a clear cue, a message that sends a
Florence a lot of the great artists’ workshops spark, then boing, we respond."
bustling with competition and teeming with
Dweck’s experiment: “You must be smart at this”
discovery of new patterns and technique. He would
vs. “You must have worked really hard”
have seen dazzling works of art, painting,
sculpture; and this extraordinary sight was part of Its goal was to see how much a tiny signal—a
everyday life and such would have inspired him - or single sentence of praise—can affect performance
anyone - to “better get busy”. and effort, and what kind of signal is most effective.
Similar situations in other Talent hotbeds: First Test: Dweck gave every child a test that
consisted of fairly easy puzzles. Afterward the
1. Mermaid Tavern in London during
researcher informed all the children of their scores,
Shakespeare's day, where the major writers of the
adding to one set “You must be smart at this
[Intelligence Group]”, and the other set [Effort
Jonson, Donne, Raleigh—gathered to talk shop Group] “You must have worked really hard”.
and match wits.
Second Test: A choice between a hard test and an
2. Aristotle’s “ACADEMY” and Plato’s “LYCEUM in easy test. 90% of the Effort Group chose the hard
ancient Polis (City-state) of Athens. test; while the Intelligence Group chose the easier
3. Sao Paolo which was thriving with stuff related to
Soccer: (Author lost track after counting to fifty) “When we praise children for their intelligence, we
tell them that's the name of the game: look smart,
Curacao has a lot of cues as well. An example
don't risk making mistakes."
would be Frank Curiel’s room: a riotous flood of
trophies, plaques, equipment, and photos, which Third Test: Uniformly hard. All failed.
threaten to overrun the bed and the television. For
*Effort Group responded by being more involved
the kids at Frank Curiel Field, these are not gauzy
and dug-in deeper into the problems, trying
dreams or glossy posters; they are tangible steps
solutions and testing strategies. They liked the test.
on a primal ladder of selection. Distinct possibilities
reflected in the crackle of the radio, the clutter of *Intelligence Group responded by taking the failure
the trophies, and the chrome glint off the major- as proof that they weren’t smart enough. They
league scout's sunglasses. To be a six year-old at hated the test.
this field is, motivationally speaking, sort of like Fourth Test: Same difficulty as initial test.
standing in the Sistine Chapel. The proof of
paradise is right here: all you have to do is open *Effort Group improved their scores by 30%
your eyes. *Intelligence Group declined by as much as 20%
The LANGUAGE of IGNITION Each of the hotbeds used language that affirmed
Ignition Switch: 1) May be on or off; 2) Can be the value of effort and slow progress rather than
triggered by certain signals, or primal cues, innate talent or intelligence.
Most common primal cues we use everyday: Motivational language - language that speaks of
WORDS. hopes, dreams, and affirmations ("You are the
best!"). May also be called high motivation.
Skip Engbloom – Motivational Psychologist. Story
of Jay, a rookie and smallest surfer against “The BUT! Dweck’s experiments tell us that high
Guy”, who was supposed to be a pro-surfer. motivation is not the kind of language that ignites
Engbloom tells the guy, “Don’t worry bud, you don’t people. What works is precisely the opposite: not
stand a chance” which was heard by Jay. Jay reaching up but reaching down, speaking to the
eventually slaughters the guy in competition, ground-level effort, affirming the struggle.
marvelling everyone. Dweck's research shows that phrases like "Wow,
“What skill-building really is, is confidence-building. you really tried hard," or "Good job, dude," motivate
First they got to earn it, then they got it. And once it far better than what she calls empty praise.
gets lit, it stays lit pretty good.”
Dr. Karol Dweck, another motivational psychologist
explains the Boing phenomenon: "Left to our own
devices, we go along in a pretty stable mindset. But