Whenever you encounter a very talented person, do you tend to attribute their talent to their genes and environment – or, in other words, to “nature and nurture?”
When it comes to developing skills and talent, we have more control than we often believe. In fact, as The Talent Code reveals, everyone can develop a talent with the right mix of practice, motivation and coaching.
In this groundbreaking book, bestselling author Daniel Coyle uses cutting edge neurological research to “crack the talent code” and provide the reader with the three key factors behind the development of every talent: deep practice, ignition and master coaching.
In these book summary, you’ll find out why there are so many great Brazilian soccer players, and why you should always practice at the very edge of your abilities and make tons of mistakes if you want to improve your skill.
Finally, you’ll find out why barking instructions at people and guiding them gently are both equally good approaches to coaching.
All skills are based on the same cellular mechanism: the production of myelin around neural pathways.
Table of Contents
- All skills are based on the same cellular mechanism: the production of myelin around neural pathways.
- Making mistakes fosters talent because it stimulates myelin growth.
- Skill is not exclusively dependent on genes and environment.
- Analyzing talent hotbeds worldwide reveals talent to be a mixture of deep practice, ignition and master coaching.
- Deep practice consists of “chunking up” the task, i.e., repeating it and looking for difficulties.
- We need an external cue – ignition – to motivate us to develop a skill over the long term.
- Some types of coaches serve ignition and some serve deep practice.
- Master coaches need a vast knowledge of their field and the ability to meet the individual needs of their students.
Even with the combined effort of the best researchers around the world, the human brain remains a perplexing topic.
And yet, everything we think, feel and do is a result of what happens in the brain, whether we’re throwing a basketball, contemplating Plato or simply feeling happy.
In fact, all actions, feelings and thoughts are the result of electrical impulses that travel along a series of connected nerve fibers that we’ll call “circuits.”
Each of these circuits corresponds to a single action, thought or feeling. For instance, our ability to move our muscles is due to the electrical impulses that are passed through those circuits – like a puppet whose movements are determined by the way that the puppeteer controls its strings. If our muscles didn’t receive signals from the relevant brain circuit, they would be completely useless.
The neural circuits which carry those signals are encased in a substance known as myelin, which, until very recently, was thought to be mere insulation for the more important nerve fiber it’s wrapped around.
But that’s only partially true. While myelin indeed acts as insulation for the neural circuits, it also plays a crucial role in the development of skill.
That’s because myelin determines how quickly and precisely a signal can travel along a circuit. Much like a wider road allows you to drive faster, a thicker layer of myelin enables electrical impulses to travel more rapidly through a circuit. And the thicker the myelin, the greater your ability to control movements and thoughts more accurately.
Because every skill depends on how strong, precise and fast the relevant circuits work, the thickness of the myelin layers that surround those circuits is a crucial factor behind every skill you might have.
Making mistakes fosters talent because it stimulates myelin growth.
Most people are familiar with the old adage “practice makes perfect,” but have you ever wondered why performing a task repeatedly leads to improvement?
Again, the answer can be found in the brain.
Whenever you practice something, nerves are fired through a circuit in your brain. Even the skill required to perform the simplest action demands thousands of nerves firing in perfect synchrony.
As those nerves are fired, the myelin layers around that nerve grow. That’s because myelin is living tissue and, much like a muscle which needs to be exercised regularly for it to grow, the layer of myelin around a circuit only thickens when the nerve fibers it surrounds are fired regularly. And, as you may recall, the thicker the myelin, the faster and more precise the impulse.
However, simply repeating a task isn’t enough to stimulate nerve firing. So what kind of practice leads to myelin growth?
The key is to make mistakes and then correct them.
Consider, for example, practicing a musical instrument. If you sit down and play a song you already know perfectly, you won’t stimulate myelin growth because you’re using existing, strong circuits.
But let’s say you choose to play an unfamiliar song. Even though you’ll make a number of mistakes at first, if you repeat those parts of the song that you find challenging until you fix the mistakes, you stimulate the firing of nerves and thus thicken the myelin around that new circuit.
It’s this very process of making mistakes and correcting them that leads to improving a particular skill. That’s why it’s crucial to practice beyond the limits of our current abilities – even if it involves hitting quite a few “wrong notes” along the way.
This kind of focused repetition is what the author calls “deep practice,” a technique we’ll examine more closely in later book summary.
Skill is not exclusively dependent on genes and environment.
When you see the work of a master, like Michelangelo, do you attribute his talent both to his genes (i.e., that he was born a genius) and the environment in which he was raised (i.e., that his artistic potential was nurtured)?
We normally believe that our skills are determined by both nature and nurture.
But given what we now know about growing myelin through deep practice, there are good reasons to doubt this popular belief.
For one, we often find large clusters of great talent in a certain period or location. Take, for example, the huge number of great artists who lived and worked in Renaissance Florence in the fifteenth century. How can the nature-nurture hypothesis explain this phenomenon?
If we hold the belief that genes (i.e., nature) determine talent, then it seems very unlikely that so many hugely talented people would accumulate in that one location over a time span of just two generations.
And if we believe that environmental factors (i.e., nurture) play a determining role in talent, then it seems that the factors commonly found to support the creation of great art – such as long periods of peace, freedom and prosperity – were not particularly present in fifteenth century Florence.
So if such a concentration of talent can’t be explained by the nature and nurture argument, what is behind it?
Our knowledge of myelin and its role in developing skill provides one answer: deep practice.
In Renaissance Florence, boys were taken as apprentices in “craft guilds” where, over many years, they learned their craft under the supervision of a master. Once we take into consideration the fact that Michelangelo began his apprenticeship at age six – stone-cutting, then sketching, then preparing frescoes – it becomes clear that his later masterpieces were not the result of innate genius, but rather deep practice which had thickened the myelin layers over decades.
As this makes clear, we have a fairly large influence over which skills we become adept at, since we can control and strengthen our skills by deep practice.
Analyzing talent hotbeds worldwide reveals talent to be a mixture of deep practice, ignition and master coaching.
During the author’s visits to the talent hotbeds of the world, he identified a threefold combination for growing talent: deep practice, ignition and master coaching.
The first part – deep practice – refers to the kind of intense practice that most effectively promotes myelin growth.
One illustrative example was found in Brazil: a game called “futsal,” which is played throughout the childhoods of all Brazilian soccer players.
Futsal is soccer with a crucial difference: the ball is half the size of a regular soccer ball but twice as heavy, and the field is smaller. Because of this, playing Futsal is like deep practice for playing regular soccer; the game demands a higher precision for every movement, and the players repeat and correct their moves throughout their childhoods.
And so, when they finally play with a regular ball on a regular field, the players are able to perform the kind of virtuoso display they’re commonly admired for.
The second part is ignition, and it refers to an event that motivates deep practice – like when 19-year old Andruw Jones from Curaçao hit two home runs at his first two at bats in the 1996 World Series, becoming the youngest person ever to hit a homer in the World Series. This was a legendary event for the people of Curaçao, one that served as ignition to motivate many young children to pursue baseball and believe that they could succeed. Indeed, this event is a central reason for the outstanding success of their little league baseball team.
The third part is having a master coach – or a coach who knows how to foster both deep practice and ignite motivation in each individual protegée. Retired football coach Tom Martinez is a good example. Martinez is known as a master at getting the best out of quarterbacks, and because he has a talent for recognizing and nurturing talent, one club asked him to help them decide which players they should recruit, as Martinez could evaluate the potential and the needs of the players they were considering.
Deep practice consists of “chunking up” the task, i.e., repeating it and looking for difficulties.
When we watch a talented person perform, whether a musician, athlete or chess player, we’re often in awe of how fluid and elegant their performance is and how easy they make it look. Yet behind every apparently effortless performance is a lot of deep practice, which is characterized by the following three factors:
First, to practice a particular task or action efficiently, it needs to be “chunked up.” This means looking at the task as a whole, then breaking it down into very small units. By intensively examining and learning these tiny units, you gain a deeper understanding of each crucial component of your skill.
Doing this usually involves slowing down the pace of the action. By repeating a movement slowly, you enable yourself to both perform it with more precision and identify mistakes that need to be fixed. In fact, the author visited a New York music school (a “talent hotbed”) and noticed that sheet music was chopped up horizontally so that a piece of music would first be practiced in a random order. So when the musicians finally played the piece of music in its intended order, they had gained a deep understanding of each element of the piece.
Second, deep practice requires time, since increasing a particular skill demands a lot of repetition. The more we repeat a task, the more precise and quick the action will become, because the myelin layer surrounding the relevant circuit thickens.
Third, engaging in deep practice means making things a little difficult for yourself while practicing. Because repeating something you already know inside out doesn’t improve your skill. Instead, you must always practice just beyond the limits of your ability.
Indeed, one study showed that the speed at which babies improve their ability to walk depends on how frequently they fail and try again. The more often they do this, the earlier they begin to walk properly.
Even though failing at something difficult can be uncomfortable for us, it’s actually the only way for us to improve.
We need an external cue – ignition – to motivate us to develop a skill over the long term.
While we might believe that a person’s talent must’ve stemmed from their innate interest in their skill early on in life, usually, their initial motivation to acquire that skill was triggered by some external force.
As we’ve seen, to become skilled at something, we need to engage in deep practice. Because this practice is very difficult, it requires us to be extremely motivated to improve.
One such motivator is ignition, an external cue that triggers our desire to become skilled at something, and convinces us that it’s possible to achieve if we work hard for it.
Consider, for example, the South Korean golfer Se Ri Pak, who won a major tournament in 1998. Until that point, there had never been any successful golfers from that part of the world. But since then, the number of successful South Korean golfers has increased rapidly.
The golfer’s success was an ignition for many other golfers from South Korea; it demonstrated that it was possible for them to attain a similar success.
But ignition must also fuel long-term motivation, as skill only improves through a long-term effort. That’s because myelin requires time to grow, and deep practice demands a sustained effort over a long period of time.
One example of this can be seen in the U.S., where one very successful charter school uses the goal “every student will get into college” as ignition.
To remind students of the ignition and thus sustain their motivation, the school repeats the keyword “college” frequently and takes the students on trips to various colleges. The results of ignition here are undeniable: in 2007, the school ranked in the top 3 percent of California’s public schools in terms of the students’ academic results.
Studies indicate that becoming a master at a particular skill requires 10,000 hours of practice. Clearly, for one to sustain the kind of commitment needed to put in so many hours, a long-term motivation is needed.
Some types of coaches serve ignition and some serve deep practice.
Almost no one develops their talents by themselves. Everyone has teachers, coaches and parents whose job it is to train and motivate, teach and inspire.
But how, exactly, do coaches influence these two crucial aspects of developing talent, namely, ignition and deep practice?
Many star coaches focus on putting their protégésthrough deep practice – like college basketball coach John Wooden.
As the author observed, Wooden didn’t give the players a lot of pep-talks, nor did he criticize or praise them, but instead gave very precise and concrete information on how to improve their performance. These instructions would consistently enable the player to improve, by adjusting and correcting his actions, thus immersing him in constant deep practice. Of course, these methods were used when dealing with players who were already highly skilled and motivated.
And then there are the coaches whose goal is to provide their students with ignition. Often, such coaches are of average ability – they’re not star coaches.
One study has shown that many talented people (especially pianists, tennis players and swimmers) had just average coaches in their early years.
While this might seem unusual, it makes sense. For example, if you’re learning to play piano as a child, you need – above all – motivation to keep practicing hard. While a teacher who focuses on deep practice can be effective for already skilled and motivated players, beginners would do better with, say, a friendly teacher who makes them feel good about themselves, rewards them with treats for working hard, and encourages them to learn their favorite songs. This type of approach is far more likely to ignite a person’s motivation in their early years.
But that’s not to suggest that there isn’t value to both coaching styles. Which style is more suitable will depend on the stage of learning the trainee or student has reached. For instance, once a talent is already growing and motivation ignited, the focus should be on fostering a deep practice.
Master coaches need a vast knowledge of their field and the ability to meet the individual needs of their students.
Most of us are familiar with the stereotypical coach we see on TV shows and in movies. They’re usually loud and aggressive, and try to motivate their players by alternating between giving pep talks and yelling at them.
Of course, in reality, master coaches are quite different.
A master coach – that is, one who can successfully connect deep practice and ignition – must connect their technical knowledge with the needs of the individual student. The goal of all coaches is to assist the student in reaching a state of deep practice, yet every student is unique and requires an equally specific coaching style.
For example, the author observed firsthand how a music teacher instructed two students in very different ways. The first student was technically proficient but lacking intensity, so the teacher encouraged the student with loud, direct instructions. In contrast, the other student was quite shy and insecure, necessitating a calmer coaching style, in which the teacher provided gentle guidance.
Furthermore, since the goal is to help students reach a state of deep practice, not only must coaches tailor their style to each student, but they also have to give very clear and precise instructions.
In his research, the author noticed that most coaches didn’t yell or even talk very much, but rather provided simple, precise instructions, e.g., “adjust that movement” or “try this instead.”
Clarity of information is crucial to deep practice because, by following such instructions, the students’ nerves are fired, thickening the myelin layer and thus strengthening the circuits involved in executing the skill.
Without such clear and precise instructions, any technical knowledge a coach has can’t be translated into concrete results. Just as the instructions of a physical trainer must be clear for their knowledge to lead to you building stronger muscles, coaches in any given field must be clear and precise in their directions in order for their technical knowledge to result in your myelin growth.
In 2008, Author Daniel Coyle traveled the world to understand how a select few places on Earth seem to produce an extraordinary amount of talent.
- How can one tiny indoor tennis court in Moscow (Spartak tennis club) produce more top‐ranked women tennis players than the entire United States between 2005 and 2007?
- How does one school system in the United States send 400% more low‐income minority students to college than any other school system in the United States?
Coyle calls these mysterious pools of talent: “talent hotbeds.”
When he visited talent hotbeds around the world, he saw students operating on the edge of their ability and frequently making mistakes.
Every human being on the planet, however, instinctually hates struggling and making mistakes.
Why are people in talent hotbeds enthusiastic about putting in the thousands of hours of struggle necessary to build extraordinary talent?
Here are three “talent boosters” that talent hotbeds leverage to fuel students:
Talent booster #1: Revelatory moment.
At KIPP schools, where more low‐income students go to college than any other school in America, students start visiting college campuses as soon as they’re enrolled.
A set of new fifth graders students at KIPP school in California will go to USC, Stanford, and UCLA and talk with KIPP alumni who look like them and have a similar background. After the trip, young KIPP students believe that even though no one in their family has attended college, they can be the first ones to go to college.
Create revelatory moments for your children. Expose your child to amazing performances and help the see the similarities between themselves and their heroes. The goal is to leverage moments that make your children believe they can do great things.
Talent booster #2: Environmental reinforcement.
KIPP teachers know that a child’s dream of going to college can fade. Therefore, KIPP teachers remind every child that they are going to college 100 times a day.
One KIPP English teacher says, “We say college as often as people in other schools say um.”
“Each homeroom is named after the college the teacher attended: math classes are in Berkeley; social studies in USC; special education at Cornell Graduate School. KIPP teachers are skilled at slipping references to college into conversation, always with the presumption that all the students are destined for those golden shores… Even the lettering above the classroom mirrors inquires, ‘Where will YOU go to college?’” – Daniel Coyle
Create an environment around your children that constantly reminds and reinforces what’s important and what’s possible.
Talent booster #3: Primal cue to belong.
When looking back at the fastest runners in history, Coyle found that the fastest runners in the world were either the youngest or second youngest in their family. On average, Olympic champion sprinters were fourth in families of 4.6 children.
“Speed is not purely a gift, but a skill that grows through deep practice, and that is ignited by the primal cue that ‘you’re behind, keep up.’” – Daniel Coyle
We all receive primal cues to catch up and belong to a desirable group, like an older group or a prestigious club. Talent hotbeds purposely inject primal cues to belong to fuel students.
In the 1980s, the Spartak tennis school in Moscow took primal cues to the extreme. Spartak invited a class of 25 seven‐year‐olds to join the Spartak team and then cut one kid from the group every two weeks.
When you focus on these “talent boosters,” you create an inner drive for your child/student to routinely push themselves to the edge of their ability and put in hours of deep, difficult practice that is necessary to becoming exceptionally talented.
“Carol Dweck, the psychologist who studies motivation, likes to say that all the world’s parenting advice can be distilled to two simple rules: pay attention to what your children are fascinated by, and praise them for their effort.” – Daniel Coyle, The Talent Code
The key message in this book:
Talent depends on myelin growth, the insulation that wraps around our neural circuits. To stimulate myelin growth, you have to practice at the very edge of your current capabilities so that you make mistakes and correct them. Talent is formed when deep practice is encouraged through long-term motivation and enforced through master coaching.
Focus on correcting your mistakes.
If you want to practice anything efficiently, don’t shy away from your mistakes, but focus on adjusting them until you improve. If you play a new piece of music, don’t just play it from top to bottom, but stop every time you make a mistake and repeat that part. It might not sound very nice while practicing, but the result will be great!
“The Talent Code” by Daniel Coyle is a groundbreaking book that challenges the long-held belief that talent is an innate and uncontrollable factor. Coyle, a journalist and neuroscientist, delves into the latest research on the science of skill-building and reveals that talent is not something you’re born with, but rather something that can be cultivated through practice and dedication. In this review, we will explore the key takeaways from the book, its strengths and weaknesses, and the impact it has on our understanding of talent and skill development.
The book is divided into three parts: Deep Practice, Ignition, and Master Coaching. In the first part, Coyle discusses the concept of ‘deep practice’, which involves stepping out of one’s comfort zone and embracing failure as a part of learning. He argues that this kind of practice, which involves repetition and constant self-correction, can lead to the development of myelin, a substance that improves neural connections, thereby enhancing skill.
In the second part, Coyle explores the concept of ‘ignition’, which is the motivational component that drives individuals to invest time and effort into deep practice. He presents various case studies to illustrate how a sense of identity, passion, and purpose can ignite the drive to learn and excel.
The final part of the book focuses on ‘master coaching’. Coyle emphasizes the importance of having a mentor or coach who can provide guidance, feedback, and emotional support. He highlights that the best coaches are not necessarily those with the most expertise, but those who can build strong relationships with their students and inspire them to push their boundaries.
Coyle identifies four key elements that are necessary for developing talent:
- Deliberate practice: This is the type of practice that is focused on improving specific skills. It is different from general play or recreation, which is more about having fun.
- Feedback: In order to improve, it is important to receive feedback on your performance. This feedback can come from coaches, teachers, or even from your peers.
- Intrinsic motivation: People who are truly passionate about their work are more likely to put in the necessary effort to develop their talent.
- A supportive environment: This can include having access to good coaches, teachers, and peers, as well as having the resources and opportunities to practice.
- The myth of innate talent: Coyle debunks the idea that talent is an innate and unchangeable factor, arguing that it is instead a product of neuroplasticity and the right kind of practice.
- The 3 principles of skill-building: Coyle identifies three essential principles of skill-building: the priming of the brain’s talent hotwires, the multiplication of neural connections, and the transfer of myelin to the brain’s talent hotwires.
- The role of practice: Coyle emphasizes the importance of deliberate practice, which he defines as “the process of receiving feedback, adjusting your technique, and repeating the process over time.”
- The power of the “inner workout”: Coyle discusses the concept of the “inner workout,” which involves engaging in mental simulations and visualizations to strengthen the neural connections associated with a particular skill.
- The importance of feedback: Coyle stresses the significance of receiving regular feedback on one’s performance, as it is a crucial factor in skill development.
- Well-researched: Coyle draws on a wealth of scientific research to support his claims, making the book feel well-grounded and authoritative.
- Accessible: The book is written in an engaging and accessible style, making it easy for readers to understand and apply the concepts.
- Practical advice: Coyle provides practical advice on how to apply the principles of skill-building to various areas of life, from sports to music to business.
- At times repetitive: Some readers may find the book’s repetition of key concepts to be unnecessary or even tedious.
- Limited scope: While the book provides valuable insights into the science of skill-building, it does not venture beyond the realm of physical and mental abilities, leaving readers with questions about the application of these principles to other areas of life, such as emotional intelligence or social skills.
“The Talent Code” has revolutionized the way we think about talent and skill development. By challenging the myth of innate talent and providing a scientifically-backed roadmap for skill-building, the book has empowered readers to take control of their own development and achieve greatness. The book’s emphasis on the importance of practice, feedback, and the “inner workout” has inspired a new generation of athletes, artists, and entrepreneurs to adopt a growth mindset and embrace the idea that talent is something that can be grown and developed.
In conclusion, Daniel Coyle’s “The Talent Code: Greatness Isn’t Born. It’s Grown. Here’s How.” is an inspiring and thought-provoking book that challenges traditional notions of talent and skill acquisition. Through compelling examples and practical strategies, Coyle illustrates how deep practice, motivation, and the right environment can contribute to the development of greatness. While the book may occasionally feel repetitive, its core message remains powerful and provides a valuable roadmap for individuals striving to unlock their full potential.