The Talent Code, by Daniel Coyle
How to learn, how to teach, and how to achieve more than we thought possible
One with Heart Program Coordinator
Have you ever said: “I just have no talent for… math, music, sports”? We often explain our shortcomings as inborn, innate, and irreversible. It is more likely that we just haven’t had enough practice, or we haven’t had the right kind of practice. The good news is, it is never too late to revisit and nurture our own abilities and to provide an environment for our children where their talents grow. With the right kind of coaching and practice, we can achieve more than we thought possible.
When we see the expression of great talent, it is easy to assume the person was born with super-sized ability the rest of us lack. We don’t see the hours of work, struggle, and the many failures behind the skill that eventually appears effortless.
Daniel Coyle, in his book The Talent Code, argues that “greatness isn’t born, it’s grown.” He looks at not only how much practice goes into becoming a high achiever, but what kind of practice. Part of the key to understanding talent lies in what Coyle calls ‘talent hotbeds.’ Talent hotbeds are places where great talent emerges in clusters, often under unlikely circumstances. For example, the Spartak Tennis Club, located in a freezing climate on the outskirts of Moscow, with only two indoor tennis courts, has trained more top women tennis players than anywhere in the world.
Coyle traveled to talent hotbeds around the world to find out what they have in common. Kids learning to play soccer in Brazil, women playing golf in South Korea, and musicians practicing at Meadowmount School of Music in the Adirondack Mountains, approach their task in ways more similar than you might think. Coyle identifies three important elements to growing talent: deep practice, ignition, and master coaching. When these three elements combine, learning happens and it happens fast.
In deep practice, we strive for a goal just beyond our ability. We work in that sweet spot, that perfect gap, between what we know and what we are trying to achieve. If we set an immediate goal too far from reach we are bound to fail; we thrash about and practice is ineffective. When we reach just beyond our ability, failure is inevitable, but we fail smaller. It is in the corrections of these small, persistent failures that ability grows. Talent emerges through struggle.
What exactly happens when we struggle to master a new skill? Every human movement, thought or feeling is an electric signal traveling through a circuit of nerve fibers. Myelin is a fatty white substance that wraps around these fibers and increases their strength, speed and fluidity. The more a particular circuit is fired, the more myelin wraps around the circuit making it stronger and faster. Each time we practice in that sweet spot, making small corrections as we fire the circuit, we increase the myelin insulation around the circuit and increase the strength, speed and accuracy of the skill. Scientists compare the myelinization of circuits to the creation of a high-speed T-3 internet line. Myelinization literally makes the super-sized ability that differentiates those with great talent from the rest of us.
Myelinization requires lots of repetition. It requires the energy and perseverance to reach for a goal, struggle, fail, correct the mistake and reach again. There is no shortcut. It is through many, many hours of deep practice that mastery develops. What fuels this kind of perseverance? In a word, passion.
High achievers are passionate about what they do. They are emotionally driven by a vision of who they want to be. As Coyle visited talent hotbeds, he found this drive isn’t completely internal. It often begins on the outside, with a first glimpse of what is possible.
For example, in 1998 a young South Korean woman, Si Ri Pak, won the LPGA Championship and became a national hero. No other South Korean woman had ever excelled at golf. For the past ten years South Korean woman have dominated LPGA women’s golf. Pak ignited a spark that became a talent hotbed.
Sports are full of examples of athletes breaking barriers and igniting great achievements. Just over 40 years ago, no one thought it possible to break the 4-minute mile. Since Roger Bannister ran the mile in 3.59 in 1954, the record has been broken at least 18 times.
Because vision ignites passion and passion drives perseverance, role-models matter. To keep struggling with small failures on the way to big success, it helps to believe that big success can be accomplished by someone like me. Christina Kim, professional South Korean-American golfer, remembers watching Pak on TV. She was her role-model. “She wasn’t blond, she wasn’t blue-eyed…and we were of the same blood.” Pak inspired Kim and many other South Korean girls to think “if she can do it, why can’t I?”
Great coaches take that vision, that raw enthusiasm, and guide their students toward mastery, nudging them through the struggle, correcting the small failures, and inspiring their passion to persevere.
Coyle found that a deep knowledge and understanding of the material is only the beginning of what makes a master coach. They are extraordinarily sensitive to each student, to their individual strengths and challenges, and they tailor their teaching to the personality of that student.
Practice with a master coach is engaging, energizing, and punctuated by short, precise, highly specific adjustments and encouragements: “Pivot your back foot.” “Stay centered. Don’t lean in. That’s it!” There are few lectures and pep talks. There is no down time. Instead, the coach is the voice that focuses the student on correcting the small mistakes, drawing upon their vast reservoir of knowledge and their immediate awareness of where the student is at, to literally guide them through the process of wrapping myelin around the skill circuit.
Techniques for Teaching a New Skill
There are specific techniques that master coaches employ when teaching a new skill: chunk it up, slow it down, repeat it.
Chunk it up. Show a skill in its entirety, then the break it down into small chunks for practice. Incremental building of skills gives students a goal just beyond their ability, the first requirement of deep practice.
Slow it down. When students practice a new skill too fast they make too many mistakes. Slow it way down so students can make the corrections necessary to wrap myelin around the skill circuit. As competency increases, speed increases.
Repeat. Each time a student repeats the skill, more myelin is laid down. We think of this as muscle memory, but it is really a process of insulating the neuro circuit so it fires quickly and, eventually, effortlessly.
The Talent Code is a good, readable resource for understanding how to grow ability in ourselves and others. Coyle starts with a lot of questions - and answers them. Where does talent come from? How does it grow? How can places of learning ignite and sustain talent hotbeds?
Much of what Coyle discovers, has been happening at One with Heart for a long time. We are taught the importance of incremental learning, and repetition and consistency in practice. Our teachers connect with students, meet them where they are, and guide them to the next step. We have role-models to show us what is possible: young teens with super-sized ability for children to follow; strong, fearless women teaching women’s self-defense; men whose strength and skill includes kindness and compassion. Maybe the most important lesson we receive at One with Heart is to embrace struggle; to be OK stepping outside of what is easy and comfortable. The grit and resilience that come from falling down and getting back up again stay with us. No matter where our vision takes us, these qualities of character make us better learners, better teachers, and better citizens of the world.
1. Coyle, Daniel. The Talent Code. New York: Arrow Books, an imprint of Random House Publishers, 2009.