Times are bad. Children no longer obey their parents, and everyone is writing a book.
~ Marcus Tullius Cicero, statesman, orator and writer (106-43 BCE)
Wear the old coat and buy the new book.
~ Austin Phelps
Despite what Cicero seemed to think 2,100 years ago, I think it’s great that everyone is writing a book. It gives us many flavors to sample on a particular topic. I’ll continue to comment on books related to talent and practice as they come out. The latest flavor in the realm of expertise is Daniel Coyle’s contribution The Talent Code: Genius Isn’t Born. It’s Grown. Here’s How. The book follows in the footsetps of Gladwell’s Outliers, Colvin’s Talent is Overrated, and forthcoming from Doubleday author David Shenk is the tentatively titled The Genius in All of Us: Nature, Nurture and the New Science of Talent and Giftedness.The Talent Code is an excellent addition to the growing list of publications on the topic of ability and how it works, though it also suffers from the same shortcomings as the other 3 titles mentioned above. More on that later. First a few thoughts about why it’s good.
The style of the book is similar to the others I’ve reviewed: conversational with lots of anecdotes and dramatizations of the concepts being discussed. This makes it a pleasure to read, a pleasure that is enhanced by Coyle’s occasional colorful and apt metaphors. He also has clearly talked to a lot of people about this topic, from coaches to researchers to teachers. This leads to some gems of advice, like the following from football coach Tom Martinez on the topic of teaching/coaching according to the needs of the particular student. He said, “The way I look at it, everybody’s life is a bowl of whipped cream and shit, and my job is to even things out. If a kids’ got a lot of shit in his life, I’m going to stir in some whipped cream. If a kids’ life is pure whipped cream, then I’m going to stir in some shit.” That’s a priceless piece of advice any teacher would do well to follow.
Another aspect of the book’s goodness is it’s unique take on the subject of expertise. The underlying thread that ties the book together is microscopic physically but has a heft that belies its size. Coyle introduces us to brain science and the discovery of myelin and the role it plays in how the brain processes signals. In a nutshell, myelin is an insulator that allows neurons to fire more efficiently with better timing, allowing signals to be sent either faster or slower, depending on what’s needed. And myelin is grown through focused effort. You know that feeling when you’re totally focused on something and trying to figure it out? You might feel confused and even frustrated, but you persist, you break the task down into its component parts and do those until you get it, then you put the parts together. You’re building myelin around the neurons needed to perform that task.
Turns out that myelin, part of what scientists call white matter in the brain is much more important to brain function than anyone thought. Einstein’s brain had a significantly larger proportion of myelin to neurons than other brains. The number of neurons were the same, but Einstein’s brain had a lot more myelin (Diamond, et al, 1988). Myelin is one of the common denominators of high ability in any field, and it’s the struggle to understand or to do that creates it.
Coyle breaks the book into 3 parts. Part I: Deep Practice gives an overview of what kind of practice seems to build myelin and gives examples from sources as diverse as skateboarders, the Bronte sisters, and Renaissance artists. Coyle’s term Deep Practice is in most ways similar to Ericsson’s Deliberate Practice and my own notion of Intentional Practice. He culls three rules of Deep Practice:
1. Chunk it up: Basically this consists of breaking things into pieces that are more easily done or thought about. It also includes listening to and/or absorbing the whole before breaking the skill down and includes changing the material to make it easier, for example, slowing down a difficult musical passage.
2. Repeat it. This is pretty self-explanatory, but also not as simple as it sounds.
3. Learn to Feel it. This includes sensing (and remembering!) how something feels when it is done right, but also developing awareness of how it feels to struggle.
Part II: Ignition handles some of the general information about motivation and inspiration. Coyle calls this ignition and points to circumstances that help to motivate people to strive for greatness. He gives many examples from sport. He also cites some important research that indicates attitude prior to starting a task (in this case, music) has a significant impact on how good you get. Also a factor in his observations was that the more gritty and spare the surroundings, the more it can inspire one towards greatness. Places soft and warm and inviting don’t inspire the “hungriness” that a rougher setting might.
Part III: Master Coaching is all about how teachers, coaches, and mentors approach the task of nurturing and helping their tutors to grow “talent” (aka myelin, in Coyle’s belief). He is quick to point out (and correct) that coaching/teaching/mentoring is a skill in itself that takes a long time to build and he presents some fantastic examples of coaches, music teachers, and school teachers who have put in many thousands of hours of deep practice as teachers.
While I thoroughly enjoyed the book, it didn’t address particulars of practice with as much specificity as I think is needed for the next step. I do realize that this was not the intent of the book, so in that sense, it’s not a shortcoming of the book but the direction in which this discussion needs to move next. Of the three books on the notion of talent that I’ve reviewed so far, I think this one is the best and most focused. Nice work, Mr. Coyle!
Diamond, M. C., Scheibel, A. B., Murphy, G. M. Jr, Harvey, T. (1985). On the brain of a scientist: Albert Einstein. Experimental Neurology, 88, 198-204.