Author Dan Coyle writes in The Little Book of Talent
that for whatever skill you’re learning, the pattern is always the same: “See the whole thing. Break it down into its simplest elements. Put it back together. Repeat.”
As Coyle points out, every skill is built out of smaller pieces. These are what researchers call chunks.
Chunks are to skill what letters of the alphabet are to language.
Alone, each smaller piece isn’t very useful, but when it’s combined with a slightly bigger chunk (words), and when those chunks are then combined with even bigger ones (paragraphs, sentences), they can create something complex and valuable.
Here are three steps you can take to start chunking any skill you want to learn:
1. Engrave the skill on your brain
You can do this by intensely observing someone else performing the skill well. The key to effective engraving is to create a strong connection: “to watch and listen so closely that you can imagine the feeling of performing the skill.”
For physical skills like dancing, imagine yourself inside the performer’s body, and become aware of their movements and rhythm.
For skills that are more mental, you’re trying to recreate the expert’s decision patterns: “Chess players achieve this by replaying classic games, move by move; public speakers do it by re-giving great speeches complete with original inflections; musicians cover their favorite songs; some writers I know achieve this effect by retyping passages verbatim from great works.”
2. Master one chunk
Ask yourself: what is the smallest single element of the skill that you can master?
Coyle recommends using a technique he calls the “smallest achievable perfection.” Pick a single chunk that you can perfect – not just improve at or work on, but get 100 percent consistently correct.
For example, a tennis player might choose to focus on the serve toss, or a salesperson might focus on the twenty-second pitch they’ll make to an important client.
3. Combine the chunks
Once you’ve mastered one chunk, look for other chunks that link to it.
Coyle gives the example of how students at the Meadowmount School of Music learn.
First, they cut apart musical scores with scissors and put the pieces in a hat, and then pull each section out at random. Once they’ve mastered each separate section of music, they start combining them in the right order – like puzzle pieces.
As Skye Carman, one of the school’s violin instructors, puts it: “It works because the students aren’t just playing the music on autopilot – they’re thinking.”