Where does extraordinary talent come from? Daniel Coyle comes up with an intriguing answer in The Talent Code, a highly readable account of the neuroscience of skill and talent.
Though popular perception has often regarded talent as something otherworldly -- a gift of the gods, perhaps, and certainly nothing that anyone could do anything about -- in fact, according to modern neuroscience, talent is much more mundane, being nothing more than the wiring of chains of neural circuits inside the brain.
It all has to do with myelin, the substance that insulates the synaptic connections between the neurons. Every human skill is the result of the formation of such synaptic chains of nerve fibers. When brain circuits are fired the right way, myelin is generated, insulating those connections, making the signal flowing through them clearer, stronger, faster.
According to Coyle, the degree of this insulation is what is responsible for talent - the more time and energy you put into the right practice, the more myelin is deposited on those neural circuits associated with that practice, the more talent you achieve. It is as if the brain builds more broadband for those circuits that are activated in the right way. The right way is that of deep practice, one of the three key ingredients that are responsible for the creation of the neural architecture of talent. The other two identified by Coyle are ignition and master coaching.
What is deep practice? It is the struggle against that which is just beyond the grasp of one's ability. Struggling with something difficult makes you smarter because it signals to the brain to start building more broadband in repose. Struggle is not optional - it is neurologically required. In order for a skill circuit to fire optimally, it must first fire suboptimally; in other words, it must first fail. You must make mistakes and pay attention to them if you are to become skilled. And you must keep up the practice, firing that skill circuit until enough myelin is build up around it.