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The Talent Code: Greatness Isn't Born. It's Grown. Here's How. Hardcover – April 28, 2009
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With a canny grasp of his subject, Daniel Coyle looks at the development of extraordinary talent, particularly in athletes, and the “revolutionary scientific discoveries” unlocking the “talent code” behind it. Cutting across the nature/nurture argument, Coyle examines research into myelin, a neural insulator produced when we repeatedly “fire a particular circuit”; the more myelin produced along that circuit, the “stronger, faster, and more accurate our [relevant] movements and thoughts become.” Interviewing top coaches, educators and researchers, traveling to talent hot spots and neurology labs, Coyle describes three steps (roughly: visualizing and comprehending, repeating and perfecting, and emotional connection) employed (knowingly or not) by talents like the skate-boarding Z-Boys, Brazilian soccer players, the Bronte sisters, pop musicians, outperforming school kids and others, as well as ways to understand and spur that process along (in ourselves and others). An exciting, accessible window into research that could trigger a revolution in education and the treatment of mental illness, this intriguing study also puts better-known models of learning into perspective: “Practice doesn’t make perfect, perfect practice makes perfect.”
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After writing a draft of this glowing review, I decided to read the most helpful critical review of the book, as penned by Ronald Forbes. In many ways, his review was accurate, and also somewhat persuasive. In light of his review, I have tempered my own review and rating, down from 5 stars to 4 stars. To summarize, Forbes rightly points out that Coyle's book is more "pop journalism" (which I have no problem with...it helps keep this book interesting, and from being bogged down in scientific jargon), and he says the book's claims are nothing new. But if an author can present old ideas in a fresh way that can help us change our behaviors, then he should be commended for it!
This is the kind of book that you cannot help telling your friends and family about. Over the several weeks during which I read this book, I brought aspects of the book up in at least half a dozen conversations. It's a fun book. And you learn a lot.
I'm not skilled in science, so I'm not going to try to summarize what the heck myelin is. Basically, it's stuff in your brain that grows as you develop skill in ANY given area of life. So, Coyle tries to help us explain how to grow more myelin in our brains.
Coyle's three keys to growing talent:
1) Deep Practice - when I go out and play 18 holes, this is about as far from deep practice as you can get. Why? Because deep practice is all about fixing mistakes. You can do that on the driving range or the putting green, but not on the course (well, not easily, anyway). Think about it: how much time does the average golfer spend playing vs. practicing? 5-to-1? 10-to-1? Or any other sport or skill, for that matter.
The concept of deep practice is not about practicing for countless hours each day; instead, most of the talent hotbeds profiled in the book had pupils training less than e hours per day. But the 3 hours of practice at these hotbeds has exponentially greater yield than regular practice.
Deep practice is about struggling to get better. When we have to grapple with a weakness in our game, we can get to a point of breakthrough. "Experts practice differently and more strategically. When they fail, they don't blame it on luck or themselves. They have a strategy they can fix." (p 86).
2) Ignition - at some point in each of our lives, we watch a friend or colleague shoot to the moon (in some specific area of life or work), and we wonder, "how did he do that?" What switch was flipped in his brain? When we see it happen to someone just like us, it gives a sense that we could acquire that particular talent, whether it be a tennis swing, an ability to remodel a home, or learn to play the violin.
Coyle writes, "Ignition is about the set of signals and subconscious forces that create our identity; the moments that lead us to say that is who I want to be." He looks all over the globe to study how talent hotbeds were ignited: South Korean female golfers, Russian tennis players, Brazilian soccer players, Curaçaon baseball players, to a charter school that started in Houston. These are great stories; fun to share with friends.
3) Master Coaching - this doesn't mean you need some expensive, elite, impossible-to-access, famous coach. Nope, you just need a coach that has loads of experience, plenty of passion, and a knack for connecting interpersonally with his students.
"Master coaches aren't like heads of state. Their personality--their core skill circuit--is to be more like farmers: careful, deliberate cultivators of myelin." (165)
My 3 greatest takeaways from the book:
1) Praise your children for their hard work, not for their intelligence or their innate abilities. If they make the connection between hard work and increasing skill, they will be increasingly motivated to work hard, which therefore leads to more talent. An upward cycle, if you will.
2) Savor the struggle. When my slice is really acting up on the golf course, view it as a mountain to be conquered. Zone in and do whatever it takes to correct that circuitry.
3) Don't complain and envy those with more talent than me. Instead, use it as motivation and say, "If he can do it, so can I."
I have spent most of my adult life teaching, in universities and in industry. Through it all I have always sought better ways to perform the task of getting a concept or a bit of understanding from my head into that of someone else. And I've also often struggled with getting it into my own head, and many times I have struggled with getting from the novice stage to one of mastery of a concept or skill.
Bear with me as I attempt to set the stage for your understanding what I am trying to say. Being a scientist I'll approach the topic from the viewpoint of a scientist. In science research, or the organization of existing research, is usually done either to (a) support (i.e. to "prove") a hypothesis or (b) to disprove a hypothesis. Coyle's approach in "The Talent Code" is the former - he is assembling evidence in an attempt to prove that myelin is the "key" to developing talent. That's fine, but what I am most interested in is that he has assembled a large amount of data concerning development of talent. We don't have to accept his hypothesis to make use of his data.
The myelin sheath effectively makes some neuronal connections more effective than others; that is undeniable. Thus it is unarguably an important factor in speed of transmission. That, along with details of the chemistry of neurotransmitters, neuronal connections, the function of glial cells, and an infinitude of factors unknown collectively make up the "key" to developing talent.
I'm heading toward a strong recommendation of this book. How can I get there when I've just buried the author's theory, the basis for the book, in a pile of other factors that I consider to be of potentially equal or greater importance? The answer is simple. Coyle has assembled a sequence of steps that he argues does lead to maximization of talent. And he backs up that assemblage of steps with enough examples to leave little doubt about the general "correctness" of his argument. Whether one accepts or rejects Coyle's explanation the steps that he argues leads to talent development clearly work.
Who will benefit from reading this book, and why? If you are a teacher or a learner you can benefit greatly in the direct application of his observations to your daily work. If you want or need to develop a talent in yourself Coyle gives a blueprint for how to do that. If you are interested in the "myelin viewpoint" you'll get a reasonably complete view of that. If you want to know the "answer" to the question of the biology/chemistry of how talent is developed, this isn't the place to find it though you'll see one such hypothesis developed in some detail.
In short, I recommend reading the book with the mindset that if you follow the prescription you'll get the desired results. If he's correct in that myelin is the magic ingredient so be it. If he's wrong, you'll still have the results, and that's nothing to sneeze at.
Coyle examines how talent is grown by going all over the world to investigate myelin and skill development. In areas such as sports, music, and education, the author shows why talent hotbeds appear in unlikely places and that myelin is utilized in both mental and physical tasks.
"The Talent Code" reminds that skills are not built overnight, requiring what Coyle calls "deep practice." The author looks at the issue of motivation and discusses the traits that successful teachers and coaches have in guiding their pupils. Myelin production becomes more difficult with age, Coyle observes, but it can still be built in our later years with constant practice.
This volume notes that scientific work concerning myelin is still in its early stages. As it is, there are profound implications for learning and self-improvement set forth in "The Talent Code," so it will be fascinating to learn of new discoveries in this area in the years to come.