The Talent Code: A Review and Recommendation

by Randy Murray on October 26, 2010

Daniel Coyle claims that “Greatness isn’t born, it’s grown.” It’s a bold claim and a tantalizing one.

Genius and world-class talent has a mystical quality. Some even call it transcendent. We laud those few intellectual giants who can accomplish things that are seemingly beyond the abilities of any others. They’re found in all endeavors: science, music, art and literature, and even sports – each with those rare talents that far outshines our own meager capabilities. But what if greatness were not something unusual? What if almost anyone could be great at almost any task?

Daniel Coyle lays out the fascinating possibilities and real world examples of developing world-class talent in his book The Talent Code. And it’s a thrilling idea. If you’ve ever desired real mastery yourself, or if you have children, or if you manage a business, or you aspire to train or coach others, the ideas in this book offer some inspiring possibilities.

Perhaps one of the most intriguing things about Coyle’s book is the science. Recent neurobiological studies have determined that myelin is one of the keys to mastery. This is a substance that’s been known about for years, but until recently, it was thought to be little more than the insulation of nerves, a simple covering, like plastic on a copper wire. But what was not known until very recently is that as we practice and learn, more myelin is wrapped around the nerve fibers and that dramatically improves the performance of our “circuits.” And the better insulated these circuits are, the better able we are to perform specific actions.

But it’s not just any sort of practice or repetitive activity that helps us accumulate myelin. It’s something Coyle calls “deep practice”. Deep practice is very different than just repetition. It’s a state where the student works on small pieces of an activity or “chunks”, feeling their way thru errors, and repeating until their actions match a mental model, and then learning to feel what’s right and wrong. And if this type of practice is repeated for 10,000 hours, over a period of 10 years, then world-class talent is likely to emerge.

This topic is particularly interesting to me. I see examples of this in my own life and especially that of my daughters. My oldest is a jazz bass player. I remember taking her to weekly lessons – a little girl with a huge instrument. And I listened to a lot of mistakes, squeaks, and moans coming out of that poor old bass. But you should hear her now! At 22 and just finishing her degree in music, she can swing. I’m astonished that my little girl can sit in with any musician or band. She’s a pro now, too. I wouldn’t be surprised at the 10,000 hour practice number.

My youngest has another year left in high school. She’s a painter. She first showed an interest when we walked into a local artist’s gallery almost ten years ago and we signed her up for private lessons. She works with him an hour a week and paints and draws many more hours weekly. It’s astonishing to watch her, standing in front of a canvas, and see an image appear. She’s already selling her works, a recent piece going for over $700. And she’s considering art schools and a career as an artist or designer. Where did that artistic talent and real skill come from? Not from me, that’s certain.

People often comment, “Your girls are so gifted!” But the reality is that they WORKED and earned their talents. They practiced. A lot. But they did not work alone. Both girls had access to master coaches, and teachers, who understood their subject area, and also how to train a student. One of the things I noted with both girls, and Coyle points it out in his book, is that these master teachers say very little. They nudge, correct, ask the student if that “feels” right or wrong and why, and repeat. It’s a very quiet, subtle process.

The implications of this book are staggering. What if you could develop world-class talent for yourself, your children, your employees?

I urge you to pick up a copy of The Talent Code. It’s a thin, entertaining volume and filled with examples of developing talent. Coyle gives detailed examples in sports, music, education, and business. You can also visit his blog at http://thetalentcode.com/blog/.

Here are a few other of my posts on the subject:

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