The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle

The Talent Code deals with the question of greatness and how it comes into being. The premise of the book is that myelin, a sort of insulator for the synapses connecting neural pathways, is the magic sauce for skill. It is said that Albert Einstein's brain had about 20% more myelin than the average brain. The book is divided into 3 main parts.

1. Deep Practice

This section poses three thought provoking questions to the reader:

  • How does a penniless Russian tennis club with 1 indoor court create more top 20 women players than the entire U.S?
  • How does a humble storefront music school in Texas produce superstar singers such as Jessica Simpson and Demi Lovato?
  • How does a poor scantly educated British family in a remote village turn out 3 world class writers?

Daniel goes on to highlight the effect deliberate practice has on myelin. Every human skill, whether it be playing a sport or a piece of music is created from the chains of nerve fibres carrying a tiny electrical impulse. As myelin gets thicker it allows these electrical impulses to flow more effortlessly which in turn means faster and more accurate movements in our thoughts and our movements.

Myelin is shown to important for several reasons:

  • It's universal: everyone can grow it, most swiftly during childhood but also throughout life.
  • It's indiscriminate: it's growth enables all manner of skills both mental and physical.
  • It's imperceptible: we can't see it or feel it, and we can sense its increase only by its magical effects.
  • It provides us with a vivid understanding of skill.

To highlight the effectiveness of deliberate practice over observation an experiment from Bjork is highlighted. In the experiment students were divided into 2 groups; Group A and Group B. Group A studied a paper for 4 sessions while Group B studied the paper once and was tested 3 times. A week later both groups were tested with Group B scoring 50% higher.

Bjork explained that the reason resides in the way we use our brain:

We tend to think of our memory as a tape recorder, but that's wrong. It's a living structure, a scaffold of nearly infinite size. The more we generate impulses, encountering and overcoming difficulties, the more scaffolding we build. The more scaffolding we build, the faster we learn.

Deliberate practice is different to regular practice as deliberate practice harnesses failure and turns it into a skill. The trick seems to be to choose a goal just beyond your current abilities. The aim is to struggle. Trashing blindly doesn't work but reaching does.

2. Ignition

In the ignition section Daniel looks at the conditions that create explosive growth. In this section an experiment run by Gary McPherson in 1997 is highlighted. The aim of the experiment was to find out why certain children progress quickly at music lessons while others don't. This was a long-term study with 157 random children. The study used interviews, biometric tests and videotaped practice sessions.

After the first 9 months there was a mixed bag of results among the children that resembled a bell curve of skill. This prompted the question 'what caused the curve?'

A number of factors were put to the test and factors such as IQ, aural sensitivity, math skills or sense of rhythm, sensorimotor skills and income level were all dismissed. Then a simple question came to light. A question that was asked before the experiment began:

How long do you think you'll play your instrument?

The options given to the students were as follows:

  • Through this year.
  • Through primary school.
  • Through high school.
  • For life.

For the sake of simplicity these were broken down to:

  • Short Term
  • Medium Term
  • Long Term

Next McPherson measured how much each child practiced per week:

  • 20 minutes - low
  • 45 minutes - medium
  • 90 minutes - long

A graph was plotted with the above measurements. The result was astonishing. The long term commitment group outperformed the short term group by 400% when the practiced for the same amount of time. It got even more interesting. The study showed that the long term group surpassed the short term group when they practiced for 20 minutes versus 90 minutes.

Another study in this section served to shine a lot on how and what we praise students for. The study was conducted by Dwech on 5th graders in a school in New York. Each child was given a test. Half of the students were praised for their intelligence and the other half were praised for their strength. A second test was then given where students were given the choice of a harder or easier test. 90% of the students praised for their effort chose the harder test while the majority of students praised for their intelligence chose the easier test. A third test was then given to the students. This test was uniformly harder. It was found that the effort group dug in and grew more involved in the test, trying solutions and testing strategies. However the group praised for their intelligence hated the test as the perceived it as proof that they weren't smart.

3. Master Coaching

The third section takes alook at the master coaches. In this section a study conducted by Gallimore and Thorpe on the famous basketball coach John Wooden is highlighted. In their observations they noticed that 75% of Wooden's teaching acts were pure information of what to do, when to do it and when to intensify the activity. One of Wooden's most frequent forms of teaching was a 3 part instruction where he modeled the right way to do something, the incorrect way to do it and then remodeled the right way. Amazingly demonstrations were no longer than 3 seconds. The key was the clarity he brought that left an image in memory for the players.

Wooden also taught in chunks - he would teach players an entire move and then break it down to work on its elemental actions. He formulated laws of learning: explanation, demonstration, imitation, correction and repetition. His way of thinking was not to look for the big, quick improvements but to seek the small improvements one day at a time.

When talking about a master coach Gallimore goes on to describe a matrix. The matrix as Gallimore saw it was the word for a vast grid of task-specific knowledge that distinguishes the best teachers and allows them to creatively and effectively respond to student efforts. Gallimore explains it this way:

A great teacher has the capacity to always take it deeper, to see the learning the student is capable of and to go there. It keeps going deeper and deeper because the teacher can think about the material in so many different ways and because there is an endless number of connections that can be made. A mix of technical knowledge, strategy, experience and practiced instinct ready to be put into instant use to locate and understand where the students are and where they need to go.

Another thing that was noticed about master coaches is that they constantly change their input. If A didn't work, they tried B and C, if they failed the rest of the alphabet was holstered and ready to be used.

What would seem on the outside to be patient repetition was actually on close examination a series of subtle variations, each one a distinct firing, each one creating a worthwhile combination of errors and fixes that grew myelin. A common phrase in the talent hotbeds was

Good. Okay now do ___

Over to you…

I would strongly recommend this book for anyone who is looking to gain a better understanding of brain activity when learning a new skill. By reading this book you will gain some insights into causation and correlation, how master coaches approach teaching and how talent hotbeds allow talent to ignite and flourish.

Are you thinking of learning a new skill? Have you read the Talent Code? What did you learn from it?