The Talent Code, by Daniel Coyle

Book website, with excerpts
Amazon link

A coworker recommended this to me, and was even kind enough to lend it to me for the weekend.

Coyle asks the question: where does talent come from? Is it nature (genetics) or nurture (environment/opportunity)? He started by visiting several talent hotbeds – the Russian tennis academy that spawned Marat Safin and Elena Dementieva, the Curacao Little League baseball team that has been consistently reaching the world semifinals, the soccer fields where Brazilians train – and constructs a thesis around what common factors he sees among those hotbeds.

Here’s what he came up with. Talent is a mix of three factors:

  • Deep practice – I’ve also heard it called deliberate practice. This is the kind of practice that is referred to in the “10,000 hour rule” popularized by Malcolm Gladwell – that it takes 10,000 hours of devoted effort to become a world-class expert at something – that’s 3 hours a day for ten years. Note this doesn’t mean just doing an activity – it means continuously pushing the limits of your ability, always operating just out of your comfort zone, making mistakes and learning to fix them, getting comfortable with that dynamic of improving by failing. And it’s making sure that time is spent doing the activities that you need to improve, whether it’s ball handling in soccer, technique in tennis, or expressivity in music.

    He has three rules for deep practice:

    • Chunk it up – he breaks this into three parts as well – absorb the whole thing, break it into chunks, and then slow down each chunk until you can get it exactly right. I described something similar in my cognitive subroutines post.
    • Repeat it – This doesn’t mean repeating it mindlessly – it’s more about practicing each day and trying to push the limits just a bit more. He cites research saying that we can only live in that edge zone for three to five hours each day, so any more than that is just mindless repetition and doesn’t actually help.
    • Learn to feel it – In other words, internalize it to the point where it’s unconscious and emotions guide your reactions rather than depending on conscious rational thought. Our conscious mind is slow, so to be effective, we have to get everything into the unconscious.
  • Ignition – This is the will necessary to sustain oneself through those interminable hours of deep practice. Coyle suggests that one powerful factor is seeing others do it – if they can do it, why can’t I? He gives the example of Roger Bannister and the four minute mile – it was considered humanly impossible until Bannister did it, and within a year many others had. Or the explosion of baseball talent in Curacao after watching Andruw Jones, from Curacao, hit two home runs in his World Series debut as a 19-year-old rookie. Or the rise in South Korean professional women golfers after Se Ri Pak won an LPGA event in 1998. Ignition can also occur because of a desire to belong – Coyle cites several examples of clubs or teams providing the spark for kids to invest the necessary practice time.

    My favorite point in this section was a study by Gary McPherson which tracked students who were taking up musical instruments in middle school, and discovered that the single best indicator of how successful they would be with the instrument was a question that was asked of them before they started: how long do you plan to continue playing this instrument? Those that said they were planning to play the instrument for the long term got more out of 20 minutes of practice than the short-termers got out of 90 minutes. The instrument was part of the long-termers’ identity, and so they wanted to continue pushing themselves and get into that zone of deep practice.

  • Master Coaching – Coyle suggests that both deep practice and ignition can be catalyzed by a great coach. The coaches that he interviews are masters at observing each student and pushing the right buttons for each of them to get to the next level. Praise and criticism and information transfer are simply tools to push students to stay in that zone of deep practice at the edge of their abilities. For example, Coyle cites a study of John Wooden’s coaching style, which said that 7% of his communication was praise, 7% was criticism and 75% was information transfer – much of it in the form of “Here’s the right way, here’s what you’re doing (incorrectly), and now here’s the right way again” to reinforce the subtle improvements he desired. Another good quote from the coaching section was that “small successes were not stopping points, but stepping stones … Good. Okay, now do ____”.

One major theme of the book is the process by which expertise gets embedded in our brains. Coyle cites neuroscience research showing that brain circuits that get used extensively are reinforced by growing a myelin sheath around them – the myelin provides insulation for those neural pathways and improves the speed at which those neural pathways fire. In other words, as we repeat and get better at an activity, there is a physiological change that speeds up the signals in our brain so that we can do it faster. I love how this ties into my idea of cognitive subroutines and why I think that repetition and memorization is critical for expertise. I also learned that the myelin sheath breaks down so it has to be continually rebuilt, which is why we have to keep practicing every day if we want to maintain our expertise. Also, it responds to neural activity, and the activity is strongest when we are in deep practice mode, trying new things and seeing what works and what doesn’t.

All in all, a good book covering an important topic in a well-written breezy way. Admittedly, I like it partially because it reinforces my existing biases, so I liked the anecdotes and the neuroscience that supports those biases.

P.S. Another John Wooden quote: “Don’t look for the big, quick improvement. Seek the small improvement one day at a time. That’s the only way it happens – and when it happens, it lasts… Repetition is the key to learning.” This reinforces Drive‘s point that we need to pick our overall goal and get a little better each day.

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