“The Talent Code” By: Daniel Coyle

(Review & Highlights)

An interesting book which explores how talent is developed. The author (Daniel Coyle) illustrates using examples and studies done that suggest talent has less to do with your genetic and that it’s actually born through the biological process of building and strengthening the biological structure, Myelin.

Myelin is a mixture of proteins and phospholipids that form a whitish insulating sheath around many nerve fibers, increasing the speed at which impulses are conducted. As described in the book, the more we fire a particular circuit, the more myelin optimizes that circuit, and the stronger, faster, and more fluent our movements and thoughts become. “Skill is myelin insulation that wraps neural circuits and that grows according to certain signals.”

Coyle studies “talent hotbeds” to find out what creates these specific areas of greatness; whether soccer players in Brazil or women golfers in Korea. How they seemingly come out of nowhere and produce amazing hotbeds of talent. He uses specific examples of how greatness can be grown through “deep practice”.

Deep Practice

In order to get your skill circuit to fire optimally, you must by definition fire the circuit suboptimally, this is the essence of “deep practice”. This is how talent is grown; through specific highly targeted, error-focused process.

The best example of deep practice is the game of “futsal”, popular among Brazilian soccer players. Futsal is played with a ball half the size of a regulation soccer ball and is twice as heavy; and played on a field that is much smaller. This allows the players to experience deep practice in two important ways.

The smaller field provides greater interaction; and requires greater precision of movements. The heavier ball requires players to become more creative and skilled with their ball skills. When the players play on a regulation filed, their deep practice shows because they feel like they have much more room.

Deep practice requires lots of energy. This leads us to the second element of the talent code, “ignition”.

Ignition

The only way to develop talent is to make tons of mistakes, and correct mistakes throughout practice, mistakes need to be embraced. Without making mistakes, you cannot build enough or strong enough myelin, and you cannot be truly skilled.

Ignition supplies the energy, while deep practice translates that energy over time into forward progress. Ignition is typically a response to a signal that arrived in the form of an image.

The book suggests that talent requires deep practice, deep practice requires vast amounts of energy, and primal cues trigger huge outpourings of energy.

The KIPP school is used as an example of how the ignition can be triggered. The primal cues the school provides immediately to new students helps them fall into three categories: You belong to a group, your group is together in a strange and dangerous new world, that new world is shaped like a mountain, with the paradise of college at the top. The only way to reach them is to change the way they see themselves.

Coaching

The book highlights some examples of “master coaches” that have mastered methods for providing the ignition in their students. The examples don’t fit the stereotypical behaviors of what one may think of when they think of effective coaches. Coyle highlights, John Wooden (UCLA) who uses an “error-centered, well-planned, information-rich” approach. Wooden would tailor his message in short, pinpointed specific instructions, “crisp passes, really snap them.” Importantly, he listened way more than he spoke and was not known for giving loud impassioned speeches.

Another “talent whisper” Coyle compared to Wooden was a piano teacher, Mary Epperson. She was a good teacher because she could create and sustain motivation. She did this by treating children as miniature adults and doesn’t shy away from pointed truths. She praises just enough, provides specific instruction and keeps the students engaged in doing it until it is perfect.

The book provides good support for the author’s thesis that the development of myelin through specific deep practice can lead to talent development. The “ignition” needed for this type of deep practice is something I believe needs further study; how it develops in some and how we can use it to develop talent for specific people. It would also be interesting to study how much genetics play a role if myelin development is truly the key to mastering talent.