The Ignition of Talent: How do we become obsessive about something?

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I have been thinking quite a lot recently about what Dan Coyle refers to as ‘ignition’ – the spark that motivates that obsessive, deep engagement with a subject or activity that leads to the development of expertise. Ten thousand hours is a huge amount of time to dedicate to something, and if you only give your attention to it during the formal or dutiful parts of learning you’re not going to clock up enough experience to get beyond mere competence. Going to your lessons and doing your practice isn’t enough: you also need to squander great big chunks of your life on it.

This relates to thoughts from a couple of years back on the relationship between formal and informal learning – but it asks the specific question of what sets someone off. For those of us operating as educators and/or choir leaders, is there anything we can do (or should avoid doing) to maximise the chance that the learners/singers we interact with will run home from our sessions to go and play with the new musical/intellectual/practical toys they have picked up with us?

It’s quite a big subject, so I’m going to split it into two posts. Today’s is going to consider the typical characteristics of ignition, and the next one will look more specifically at what this will imply for educators.

So, I’ve gone about this by thinking about my own ignition experiences, and by getting various friends to talk about theirs too for comparison. Dan Coyle’s account is also lurking at the back of my brain, though as I’ve lent my copy of the Talent Code to a friend, I’ve not been referring to it explicitly this week.

These conversations have identified moments of ignition as those instances where we suddenly start investing a lot of our free time and attention into something. For instance, until I was 11 or so, piano was something I did diligently (I went to my lessons and did my practice) and quite happily, but I basically stuck to the instructions.

Somewhere between the ages of 11 and 12, I developed a whole new additional relationship with the instrument: using it creatively. I would still do my regular practice before school, but I’d come back to the instrument after school, or after dinner, and play what was in my head rather than what was on paper. (As an aside, I’m sure that the story middle-class children’s achievement is not just about the parental means to provide things like piano lessons, but also the search for parentally-sanctioned ways to mis-spend your youth.)

In talking round the various examples from our lives, we found three recurrent themes:

  1. The interest rarely came from completely out of the blue. The moment of ignition sometimes felt like a Damascene conversion, but the ground had usually been prepared previously with some kind of contact with or awareness of the activity in question. The coup de foudre is rarely an encounter with something entirely new; it is typically a sense of revelation as something about which you might have been absent-mindedly intrigued suddenly comes into focus. Less of ‘Where have you been all my life?’; more of ‘Oh, now I see what the point is!’
  2. There is nearly always a strongly social dimension to the discovery. It’s about a sense of identification with someone who does this thing as much as with the thing itself. Or possibly it’s that the fascination with the activity becomes possible through an intuitive empathy with somebody who’s already lit up by it. ‘I want to do that’ is inextricably linked with ‘I want to be like you’. My brother was key to my becoming a musician; Jonathan (my webmaster and life’s companion) had his introduction to computers from an older cousin.

    It doesn’t have to be a close acquaintance of course. Sometimes this social dimension is mediated by tv or radio or whatever. You can see the ‘I want to be like you’ response every summer over Wimbledon when suddenly the nation’s public tennis courts are full.

  3. Beginner’s luck plays a big part. Our expectations of ourselves are formed far more strongly by our first experience of something than our subsequent ones. Early success instils self-image of capability that carries us through all the inevitable ineptitude of initial skill-acquisition.

The other thing that sheds light on the process is the case of the ones that got away. Enthusiasms that were sparked but fizzled out, or – possibly more interesting still – potential and actual enthusiasms that were extinguished. These are also linked with a sense of identity – but in a negative way, in a sense of alienation. People can usually put their finger exactly on the moment when they became someone who doesn’t do that thing. It may be criticism of their attempt (as in the many tales of people who become ‘non-singers’ as children), or it may be a more general alienation. The sense of ‘I’m not like you’ translates directly into, ‘and therefore I don’t do your thing’.

More on this in my next post...

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