How to Build Skills (Using Myelination of Neurons!)

How do we develop skills? What is the best way to practise and develop our talents? In this blog I look at how to build skills using the myelination of neurons. If that means nothing to you, watch the video….


Hello and welcome. Excuse the pale and wan look today. For those that you don’t know, I suffer from Postural Tachycardia Syndrome, or PoTS for short, and it can wipe me out on occasions; but I really wanted to talk to you about something today, and that is how the understanding of how our neurons work, and especially how myelin works. How it can help us achieve what we want, improve and develop our skills.

Myelin is the casing that goes round the neurons, and it works a little bit like insulation tape in the fact that it makes the firing of the neurons more efficient, and the signal that goes down them more efficient, and faster.

Some of you will have heard of deliberate practice, others may not have done. For those of that you haven’t, deliberate practice is a form of practice where you work on the things you need to in a very deliberate way. This involves breaking down the task or skill, and chunking it down into sections, then, initially slowly, repeating those sections until you master them, and they can be really small sections. It also involves having a plan for practice, and at the end of the practice reviewing how effective that plan, and the different elements of that plan, were so that your next practice can be as effective or more effective than the previous one; and then identifying the next area you want to work on, so that you are always pushing yourselves to the edge of your comfort and skill zone, and pushing at the edge of your comfort and skill zone to expand that zone.

The researcher Anders Ericsson whose work led to the famous 10,000 hours to become an expert idea, distinguishes between Deliberate Practice and what he calls Purposeful Practice. What he would call Deliberate Practice, is practice with a coach, an expert who has taken other people to a greater level of skill than you currently have, and Purposeful Practice is the practice that you do in private. The reason he distinguishes between the two is that you can’t always notice things in yourself, and you don’t always have the skills to know how to develop to the next level, because it’s not always obvious what is the best way to develop to the next level. He gives the example of learning how to dunk in basketball which is not just a question of repeatedly dunking, dunking, dunking. It may be going to the gym to build up your leg muscles, it may be doing the opposite of dunking to work out to work muscles in a certain way that develop that function. So it’s not always obvious, and repetition is not always the answer. But you can do this to a certain extent in your own private practice by having a purpose, and working towards that purpose.

Whether you’re looking at deliberate practice or purposeful practice, the one thing they are not is what he would refer to as “Naïve Practice” which is the blind, broad repetition, where you just go in and practice and repeat without specific aim or specific points to work on. Deliberate Practice has been researched and established that it is more effective than Naïve Practice. They’ve even put a figure on it, it’s over 20% more effective than blind practice. So if you spend certain amount of time on Deliberate Practice that can be less time than you would need to spend on Naïve Practice.

The theory as to why Deliberate Practice works is based around myelin. As I said myelin is wrapped around the neurons and it improves the speed at which the signals speed down the neurons. The more myelin, the faster the speed, and myelin increases with the repeated firing of that particular pattern or that pathway. So specific repetition of an action increases the myelin, which increases the efficacy of that firing and the speed of that signal, and that’s how you build a skill. You become more and more skilful the more speed and efficiency you can get in that particular pathway, and this increases the automaticity of the process.

So the more we do it, the more we can do it automatically. This can involve simple visualisation. Research has been done that shows simply visualising the same act can increase the skill almost as much as doing the act.

Fundamentally I think we all know this that repetition is the answer. So what gets in the way of us committing to this sort of deliberate practice, of repeating those little sections again, and again and, again? Identifying our mistakes and areas we can improve, then working on them, is something we all know is important in the quest for improvement, and Deliberate Practice research proves this incontrovertibly.

I think for me the key to successfully doing this is in our mental approach to it. If we view our mistakes as weaknesses, as things that prove that we’re ‘no good’ – “There I go, there I go and do it again, I always do this,” – then focusing on them would simply make us feel bad, like there’s no point – “What’s the point in doing this I always mess it up?!” “Here I go again!” If we beat ourselves up in the process, practicing and coaching can be almost painful. As I’ve said before, it can become a self-defeating process, it can become negatively self-perpetuating. If we’re always beating ourselves up then practice and coaching becomes uncomfortable, so then we subconsciously avoid it….. and then we beat ourselves up some more.

The more we feel bad about ourselves the worse we do in the less likely we are to do this deliberate practice.

If instead we view our mistakes as the key to our success, we view areas to improve as simply tools in getting better, and if we know that we’re always going to be pushing the boundaries of our skill set, pushing at the boundaries of our comfort zone, always seeking improvement, but that doesn’t make us no good right now, or destined to fail, then we can more effectively and more dispassionately identify our areas to work on, identify our errors and work on them.

We can then measure them in these small incremental improvements and feel satisfaction at that process. As Tim Gallwey would say, to practice non-judgmental observation, identifying errors with interest and seek out new ways to play around with them and eliminate them, and progress so that we’re better. In this way practice will still be, at times, frustrating but it can become an interesting process of discovery, exploration, and improvement.

By chunking down what we do into really small elements it does five things:
1. We have a better chance of removing that particular error, or improving that particular thing, the issue focused on.
2. It will increase the myelination of the appropriate neurons by firing repeatedly that section, again and again, which is what causes the improvement, and
3. This then increases the automaticity of that process, and that increases our chances of success.
4. It means that we’re likely to enjoy the process because we are more likely to get positive feedback from our improvements if we’re looking at them in small sections, and
5. That will increase our motivation to do it again so hopefully it will become a more positively self-perpetuating scenario.

So my three bits of advice today are:
1. Practice deliberately and purposefully by identifying areas of improvement and chunking them down into really small sections.
2. Approach your areas of improvement dispassionately, using them as tools to improve not as markers of your inability, in your incapacity to be any good,
3. Use curiosity and interest to try different ways to master those elements, those chunks, and enjoy those small successes.

Never forget that success is generally made up by the accumulation of marginal gains, and almost never those giant leaps of miraculous progress that we hope for, and that we seek. Have a wonderful day, and I hope to see you soon.