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Igniting Excellence in Psychotherapy: Top performers are made, not born

By Ryan Howes

Many of us know people who are seemingly blessed with an innate ability—a “natural” athlete, the musician who has “the gift” for an instrument, or the neighbor born with a green thumb. We like to ascribe their skill and accomplishments to inborn capacities because, in some way, it lets us off the hook. It’s not our own lack of discipline and imagination that limits our accomplishments: it’s our cursed genes.

But journalist Daniel Coyle’s bestselling Talent Code makes it hard to hold on to that explanation for what distinguishes the exceptional from the mediocre. After researching a range of extraordinary athletes, master musicians, and outstanding achievers in various fields around the world, Coyle found a particular pattern of focused, guided practice and instruction that creates top performers across many disciplines. Genes matter, but not as much as you think. In the following interview, Coyle describes the essential ingredients that are as relevant to increasing therapeutic effectiveness as they are to other kinds of advanced skills.

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RH: How did you become interested in talent?

COYLE: I found a newspaper clipping a few years back that described a unique tennis club outside of Moscow called Spartak, which had produced more top-20 women players than the entire United States over the past few years. I went and found one junky indoor court in a freezing climate, and kids doing slow-motion drills. I started visiting other similar places. It turns out there are Spartaks in almost every discipline—in sports, obviously, but also in art, math, chess, and music. Although I don’t know, I’ll bet there’s one in psychotherapy, too.

RH: Are these places the “talent hotbeds” you referred to in the book?

COYLE: Excellence doesn’t get sprinkled around the globe randomly: it takes root and it grows and blooms in special places I call “hotbeds.” The notion of the book was to go to these hotbeds and look at them from a couple of different angles. One of them is behavioral. What behavioral principles do they follow? What are they doing? The other one is environmental. What sort of mutation in going on in the environment? How do teachers and students communicate? So that’s what I did. I explored nine of these places and investigated others and came up with a pattern, a fingerprint of behaviors in the environment that occur over and over.

RH: What’s the fingerprint of excellence?

COYLE: There seem to be three recurring factors. The first is deep practice. By now, it’s sort of in the lexicon that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become a world-class expert. But when you look closely at that practice, whether it’s tennis or chess or math or art, you’re operating right on the edge of what you can do. You’re making mistakes, you’re sensing those mistakes, and you’re fixing them.

RH: You’re staying actively involved and extremely focused.

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