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.
Great review (and takeaway lessons). I’ll have to pick the book up. I feel like every book about achieving success boils down to that 10,000 hours of “smart” practice.
Amazing review. I recall that 2007 NY Times article but didn’t realize The Talent Code was by the same author.
I’m glad that you addressed the role of genetics in talent and the potential fallacy of the “10,000 hours rule.”
I’ve had world jiu-jitsu champions tell me that it was scientifically proven that you needed to drill a technique 10,000 reps to master it. This is a clear misunderstanding of the 10,000 hour rule, which is based more on Gladwell’s anecdotal evidence than a scientific study.
Whole shelves of pop-psychology and self-help books have sprung up in recent years to downplay the role of genetic and biological factors in success (not the same thing). The truth is, as you have summarized, that sometimes we don’t really know the answer. Thanks again for the thoughtful review.
The 10,000 hours “rule” gets throw out there a lot. After all, it’s hard to argue with the idea that it takes a long time and a lot of hard work to become good at something. But it doesn’t really tell us anything we don’t already know. Maybe there are more insights in the full research that people take the 10K rule from.
My real interest is in neurology and cognitive sciences, and I hate self help books, so The Talent Code walked a fine line for me by trying to have elements of each. I would have been happier if he didn’t try to fit everything into a neat little package of soft rules and catch phrases.
The myelin theory is interesting, but Coyle stretches it beyond its scope trying to explain how anyone can be great if they just grow enough white matter. I’d like to read a neurologist’s real research on it.
Some of the research Coyle references is interesting (I’m going to look up some of it separately now), but little of what he personally did would count as real scientific research. His anecdotes are sometimes insightful, but other times he seems to be grasping for “chicken soup for the soul” lessons that aren’t there.
Gladwell receives the same criticisms for making up unscientific “rules” and “effects” after mashing up ideas from unrelated fields outside his expertise. Personally, I enjoy Gladwell’s books, though that’s because he’s a better writer and not because I necessarily agree with his conclusions.
Great review. There are some other books that talk about similar ideas of talent such as Outliers and Telent is overrated. However, in this section:
“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.”
I think he actually explains this one with the idea of the “spark” or that defining moment when you decide to put that extra bit of effort into something. This can be something that happens before you perform an activity or something that clicks while learning that activity. It’s that point where you truly make that change to move away from just being “good” and step in the realm of being “great”.
The other books also touch on the randomness of life more than this book. More so, in my opinion than the idea of aptitude. Meaning that, even with the right ignition, deep practice, and master coaching there are still certain random things thrown at you in life that can mean the difference between mediocrity, being good, being great, and absolutely, utterly, exceptional skill in whatever it is you are doing. Here is a Cracked.com article I read which lead me to books such as these:
Essentially, one of the main components of success are the things mentioned but also, a crap load of luck (as well as not being a douche when opportunities come your way, i.e. burning your bridges).
Luck is the part that is really hard to quantify and pin down scientifically in normal testing during the fact but, if you dig deep enough, you will probably find a whole lot of luck in the success stories of successful and talented people (i.e. lucky to live in a certain environment, work in a certain environment, have access to certain resources others did not, etc).
At the same time, knowing what resources most people “luck” into and how to properly bring those to the masses so that it takes some of the luck out of it can go along way into taking some of the randomness out of achieving success. After all, think of our current education system as it is as opposed to how it used to be.