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  • Writer's pictureShreya Gopalan

Genes or myelin?

Updated: Nov 9, 2020

“Hard work always pays off in the end.”

“She is blessed with natural talent.”

These are two paradoxical statements that we hear in life very often. But really, what does it take to succeed? Hard work or genes? Is hard work the curd that you add to the already existing milk? People seemed to believe that you needed both to succeed. Hard work is necessary for people who have the potential to become successful. But, without the zeal and potential, excellence is impossible. Honestly, this ideology isn’t very motivating as it leads us to believe that success is predetermined. And I was relieved to find that everybody has an equal chance to succeed. It depends on how people tap on that potential.

So why are some people not getting good at what they’re doing even though they are working hard? Is it the lack of better genes? No, it isn’t. More likely, the lack of myelin. What is myelin? Movements (any skill) in our body involve the transmission of a signal from the brain to the muscles via nerve fibers in the form of tiny electrical impulses. The efficiency and accuracy of the movements depend on the strength and speed of the signal. It, in turn, depends on myelin. Myelin is the insulation that wraps itself on the nerve fibers. The more we practice, the more myelin wraps around the nerve fibers, and the more efficient our movements become. Skills are controlled by the amount of myelin around the neurons. As Daniel Coyle says, "Skill is myelin insulation that wraps neural circuits, that grows according to certain signals."

An ideal practice would be one that increases the growth of myelin. The main trick to grow myelin is to practice deep. A deep practice has one rule. Make mistakes, as many as you can. Not willingly but choose to practice in areas where you are prone to making mistakes. Pay attention to each mistake that you commit and work towards rectifying them. So, what is deep practice? Let us take the example of a person solving a math problem where he forgets the formula. He has two options. Either he could look up for the solution, or he could try to figure it out on his own. If he does the latter, he is more likely to remember the formula for a much longer duration. Now he also has an understanding of the whole concept that he would not have had if he has looked up for a solution. It is a deep practice. “One real encounter is far more useful than several hundred observations”, said Henry Roediger. Deep practice is a close imitation of the real situation that helps you handle the reality with ease since you have confronted the difficulties already.

The concept of deep practice offers the perfect contradiction to the assumption that a person needs both genes and hard work to succeed. Myelin does not care about the genes you are born with. It only cares about the effort you put. Also, the term “natural talent” is misleading for two reasons. For one, our genes code for something as specific as a particular skill seems unrealistic. Even if that is the case, we can survive with myelin! Second, the burst of skills we see is the output. And things are never as they seem.

As an ambitious writer, this example has always excited me. Everybody who knew the Bronte sisters say they were naturally talented with a powerful command over their words despite living a tragic life in an impoverished place. But, a closer look at their lives would prove this wrong. Their lives, as uncovered by Juliet Barker, was not as miserable as portrayed. And, most importantly, they did not own divine gifts. Instead, they practiced writing by writing stories from newspaper prompts. Their writing was not very sophisticated at that point. They improved by making mistakes. To the public, it might have been an explosion. But to them, it has been rising for quite some time now. I have had my fair share of writer's block. I have always worried about the lack of inspiration. But this story gives me hope. I realized that getting inspired is a process as much as singing with perfection is.

The question is not how hard you practice, but instead, it is how deep your practice is. Success is just one technique away.

This article is entirely inspired by

Talent code, by Daniel Coyle.

About Shreya: a biology lover with an exquisite interest in classical music, books, and writing. She pursues her B.Tech in Biotechnology from SASTRA university, India.

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