Building Skill – The Magic of Myelin

Today we begin getting into the subject of what is going to get you ahead in work and hopefully other areas of life – the building of skill, and eventually expertise. A skill is any action that you make your body undertake; that can be shooting a basketball, speaking a phrase in a foreign language, an accountant adjusting someone’s tax return, a clerk typing up a document, or a guy at the gym doing a squat. Expertise is when you have built an amalgam of skills in a specific area and can apply them to the point that it is an unconscious process.

So how do we build skill? Well, to build it, we first need to know how it works. Whenever you wish to perform any skill, your brain fires an impulse down a nerve, which causes you to kick a ball, for example. That nerve impulse, however, has to fire at exactly the right time. When it doesn’t that’s when you kick the ball wrong, and instead of it flying into the top corner of the goal, it flies straight over. Every time you perform the skill correctly, the sheath surrounding the nerve, known as myelin, insulates that nerve to make it fire more accurately. The easiest way to think of it is that the nerve is an internet connection, and myelin is a crew upgrading that connection. During that first period where learning a skill is awkward and frustrating, you’re on a 14.4kb modem connected to the internet. Your nerve impulses are constantly misfiring, much like your crappy internet connection timing out or being interrupted, and when you actually do something well it feels like a fluke.

As you keep practicing, however, something magical begins to happen. The myelin sheath around the nerve impulse grows like the rings in a tree stump, insulating it and causing it to fire more efficiently and accurately. Soon enough with practice, the upgrade crew of myelin has turned your 14.4kb connection into a 56kb connection, and you are performing the skill more accurately and efficiently. Practice for years and years, to the point of mastery, and you’ll have people marveling at your skill. They are marveling because they are on a 14.4kb connection, and you’re on a 100mb broadband connection. The skill has become second nature to you because those nerve impulses fire so quickly and accurately, while the others are still misfiring or firing much more slowly.

We can see this played out on the video below. The Japanese guy sparring with the class is Kosei Inoue, a 3 x World Champion, 3x All Japan Champion, and Olympic Champion. At a conservative estimate, by this stage he has about 23,000 hours of practice up his sleeve (a large portion of which is against world class judoka). By comparison, the guys he is fighting have anywhere from 3,000-8,000 hours of practice. It actually looks like the example I gave above on internet connections – he is on a 100mbit connection and they are still on 56kb. He could have 10 beers in him and it would still be easy to kick their ass.

Building skill is obviously done through practice, but not just any practice. I could go out and play 100 games of chess and improve my skill noticeably, but that improvement would be a drop in the ocean compared to if I spent that time on something called deliberate practice. Deliberate practice is practice that is designed to improve your skill in the most efficient way possible. Much of this is in reinforcing a skill when it is done well. When it is done poorly, the person is stopped, shown where they went wrong, and then told to perform it correctly. This eliminates bad habits forming because the skill is built correctly from the very beginning.

This is where things like upbringing, genetics, socio economic status and any number of influences pale into significance in any field, because the number 1 determinant of a person’s level of expertise

is how much they have practiced, and how well they have practiced. Talent and other such concepts become remarkably silly when you look objectively at how skill is built and the time it takes. When you start to look at skill in this manner, it all of a sudden becomes much easier to map out a path to expertise in any field because you know what’s required to get there. In future posts we are going to look at the different stages of skill, deliberate practice, specific examples of skill and eventually the concept of deep work.

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