The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle is a book that examines “hotbeds” of talent around the world to figure out how they create so many skilled people. The author investigates highly successful places like a Russian tennis camp, Brazilian soccer clubs, outperforming academic programs, the Z-Boys skateboarders, and a prestigious music school, among others.
To get a taste, read Coyle’s New York Times article “How to Grow a Super-Athlete,” which inspired the book.
Given the diversity of fields he studied around the globe (sports, music, academics, etc.), Coyle tries to find common threads that tie them together. How do unrelated places with no knowledge of each other come up with similar training methods? Why do good teachers and coaches share common traits? Coyle finds his answer in neuroscience and its new discoveries about myelin.
Here’s Coyle’s basic premise:
- Performing a skill uses circuits of neurons in your brain.
- A fatty coating of myelin builds up around our nerves’ axons, the long “wire” that connects them to other neurons.
- Researchers ignored myelin for a long time as “just an insulator,” but now they understand that it strengthens and speeds up nerve signals. Today, it’s viewed as the neurological basis of acquired skills.
- When a neuron fires, it attracts cells called a oligodendrocytes that add new layers of myelin. Repeated firings—like in practice—cause more myelin growth. More myelin means more skill.
- If we know what causes myelin growth, we can focus on practices and teaching methods that promote its fastest growth.
In the Scientific American article “White Matter Matters,” myelin is explained like this:
- White matter, long thought to be passive tissue, actively affects how the brain learns and dysfunctions.
- Although gray matter (composed of neurons) does the brain’s thinking and calculating, white matter (composed of myelin-coated axons) controls the signals that neurons share, coordinating how well brain regions work together.
To get a visual of myelin’s role, check out this interactive graphic from Coyle’s website.
Coyle breaks the “talent code” into three key factors that he believes encourage myelin development:
- Deep practice — how to acquire skill by building the most myelin
- Ignition — what motivates deep practice and what he calls “primal cues”
- Master coaching — how teachers encourage deep practice and ignition
The myelin theory is appealing, because rather than chalking talent up to genetics, nationality, luck, fate, or magic, it lets you point at something that everyone has in their heads and say “That’s what does it.” Coyle doesn’t discount those other factors, but he is enamored with the theory that myelin underlies all of it. Throughout the book, he explains everything through a lens of myelin growth.
The trouble is that myelin research is relatively new (which Coyle admits), and myelin’s role in learning is not yet fully understood. Myelin is likely a large component to the neurological basis of learning and improving skills, but to state that “myelin equals skill” is an oversimplification that ignores other complex processes in the brain.
In trying to make talent and greatness attainable to anyone, Coyle leaves some holes in his theories unexplained. The most obvious is why two kids with the same passion could receive the same instruction but only one really achieves greatness. Coaches and teachers do value hard work over natural genius (a point Coyle makes), but they also know that each student has different aptitudes, and not everyone is destined to be great.
Coyle’s theories don’t make clear distinctions between acquiring a talent, popularity and commercially successful, or achieving true greatness. He points to the pop singing coach that produced Jessica Simpson as an example of a “master coach,” but her process is to copy other successful pop singers. This also ignores the business side of engineering a pop sensation through marketing and publicity.
In a later chapter about master coaches, Coyle tells the story of how the Oakland Raiders turned to retired college football coach Tom Martinez to help them decide between drafting JaMarcus Russell or Calvin Johnson. Martinez is portrayed as a sagely coach with a special knack for spotting talent (which he may be), but unfortunately he recommended Russell, who is now considered one of the biggest draft busts ever. The Raiders fought to get his $9.55 million salary back after dropping him, and Russell was arrested for drug possession. To be fair, Coyle couldn’t have known this would happen when he was writing the book.
Coyle tries to downplay the role of genetics in determining natural talent, but by basing skill development on a physiological process (myelin growth), he opens the door to genes influencing it. This is never addressed.
While The Talent Code isn’t overtly a self help book or a “get good quick” scheme, its marketing promises self-improvement with slogans like “Greatness isn’t born. It’s grown. Here’s how.” If you go into the book expecting step-by-step plans and detailed programs for how to learn, you’ll be disappointed.
To his credit, Coyle does stress that talent is a results of many hours of hard practice. Using myelin development as his underlying reason, Coyle points to frustrating training as the most valuable kind because it triggers repeated and urgent neuron firings. He also cites the popular idea that it takes 10,000 hours of practice (or about a decade) to achieve mastery. (This number is debatable too.)
Overall, The Talent Code is a pleasant work of pop psychology that highlights many interesting people and places, attempting to make sense of a complex topic in the same style as a Malcolm Gladwell book. It avoids becoming just another syrupy self-help book by stressing the importance of hard work and dedication, but it doesn’t bring too many new insights to the table. Its message can be summarized like this: “Get someone passionate about something and make them practice for years under an experienced coach and they’ll get good (unless they don’t.)”
Here’s a quick list of “take away lessons” you could get from it:
- The elite got that way through many thousands of hours of diligent practice.
- High repetition is necessary to gain competency in a skill.
- You learn the most by pushing yourself to the edge of your ability and paying attention to your mistakes so you can fix them.
- The learning process is often frustrating and you can’t always tell when you’re improving until you’re put to the test later.
- A good curriculum “chunks” skills together so they are easier to learn, and the chunks get bigger as the student becomes able to handle the earlier ones.
- Students should spend a lot of time watching masters practice and perform.
- Coaches and teachers value hard work and persistence over “natural genius.”
- A good coach establishes an emotional connection with his students so he know when to be nice and when to push hard.
- You can focus on specific skills by doing drills that isolate it for repeated trial-and-error.
- Those who achieve greatness often started with a humble instructor who fostered a love for the subject.
- Those who see themselves doing an activity for a long time find more time to practice (and therefore get better) than those who only set short term goals.
- Kids who feel talent can be gained through hard work have better problem-solving skills and more determination than kids who believe their intelligence or skill is inherited and unchangeable.
- “Having fun” isn’t the primary goal of people who want to get good, though they find what they do pleasurable on some level (or at least necessary) and push through all the difficulties and challenges.