The Talent Code: Book review

The Talent

Learning and improving skills are not easy. Nor can they be endless drudgery. Mindless repetition is not the answer. Just working longer is not the answer. Trying hard without changing how we are trying is not the answer.

Daniel Coyne presents some of the answers in The Talent Code. One of his discoveries is that great coaches and teachers do not talk too much. John Wooden’s instructions, for example, were a few words – one simplified thought – at a time. In sharing the message in The Talent Code, I am applying what has been proven to be effective through brief excerpts from the book. I think that the following may even make Yogi Berra proud. They may even be worthy of a place of honor on your refrigerator.
• This is not ordinary practice. This is something else: a highly targeted, error-focused process.
• Something both imperceptible and profound happened. You stopped. You stumbled ever so briefly, then figured it out. You experience a microsecond of struggle, and that microsecond made all the difference. You didn’t practice harder when you looked at column B. You practiced deeper.
• Because the best way to build a good circuit is to fire it, attend to mistakes, then fire it again, over and over. Struggle is not an option: it’s a biological requirement.


• The more we develop a skill circuit, the less we’re aware that we’re using it. We’re built to make skills automatic, to stash them in our unconscious mind. This process, which is called automaticity, exists for powerful evolutionary reasons. (The more processing we can do in our unconscious minds, the better our chances of noticing the saber-toothed tiger lurking in the brush.)
• Its central tenet is a Gibraltar-like statistic: every expert in every field is the result of around ten thousand hours of committed practice. Ericsson called this process “deliberate practice” and defined it as working on technique, seeking constant critical feedback, and focusing ruthlessly on shoring up weaknesses.
• It implies that all skills are built using the same fundamental mechanism, and further that the mechanism involves physiological limits from which no one is exempt.
• “We’re prewired to imitate,” Anders Ericsson says.
• This showed that experts practice differently and far more strategically. When they fail, they don’t blame it on luck or themselves. They have a strategy they can fix.

monkey mirror neurons

• There is, biologically speaking, no substitute for attentive repetition. Nothing you can do – talking, thinking, reading, imaging – is more effective in building skill than executing the action, firing the impulse down the nerve fiber, fixing errors, honing the circuit.
• Deep practice, however, doesn’t obey the same math. Spending more time is effective – but only if you’re still in the sweet spot at the edge of your capabilities, attentively building and honing circuits. What’s more, there seems to be a universal limit for how much deep practice human being can do in a day.
• What you’re really practicing is concentration (attention).
• A few years ago, a group of American and Norwegian researchers did a study to see what made babies improve at walking. They discovered that the key factor wasn’t height or weight or age or brain development or any other innate trait but rather the amount of time trying to walk.
• But deep practice isn’t a piece of cake: it requires energy, passion, and commitment. In a word, it requires motivational fuel, the second element of the talent code.
• Where deep practice is a cool, conscious act, ignition is a hot, mysterious burst, an awakening.
• We usually think of passion as an inner quality. But the more I visited hotbeds, the more I saw it as something that came first from the outside world.
• What ignited the progress wasn’t any innate skill or gene. It was a small, ephemeral, yet powerful idea: a vision of their ideal future selves, a vision that oriented, energized, and accelerated progress, and that originated in the outside world.
• Being highly motivated, when you think about it, is a slightly irrational state. One forgoes comfort now in order to work toward some bigger prospective benefit later on.
• If we are in nice, easy, pleasant environment, we naturally shut off effort.
• You’ve got to give kids credit at a younger age for feeling stuff more acutely.
• What skill-building really is, is confidence-building.
• “We are exquisitely attuned to messages telling us what is valued.” True to the findings of Dweck’s study, each of the hotbeds I visited used language that affirmed the value of effort and slow progress rather than innate talent or intelligence.
• At all the places I visited, praise was not constant but was given only when it was earned – a finding that dovetails with the research of Dweck, who notes that motivation does not increase with increased levels of praise but often dips.
• Praising effort works because it reflects biological reality.
• In 2005, psychologists Martin Seligman and Angela Duckworth studied several parameters of 164 eighth graders, including IQ, along with five tests that measured self-discipline. It turned out that self-discipline was twice as accurate as IQ in predicting the students’ grade-point average.
• Master coaches listened far more than they talked. They seemed allergic to giving pep talks or inspiring speeches; they spent most of their time offering small, targeted, highly specific adjustments. They had an extraordinary sensitivity to the person they were teaching, customizing each message to each students’ personality.
• He taught in chunks, using what he called the “whole-part method” – he would teach players an entire move, then break it down to work on its elemental actions. He formulated laws of learning: explanation, demonstration, imitation, correction, and repetition. “Don’t look for the big, quick improvement. Seek the small improvement one day at a time. That is the only way it happens – and when it happens, it lasts.”
• Master coaching is something more evanescent: more art than science. It exists in the space between two people, in the warm, messy game of language, gesture, and expression.
• A coach’s true skill consists not in some universally applicable wisdom that he can communicate to all, but rather in the supple ability to locate the sweet spot on the edge of each individual student’s ability, and to send the right signals to help the student reach toward the right goal, over and over.

• “If it’s a choice between me telling them to do it, or them figuring it out, I’ll take the second option every time.”
• “I flat-out love coaching,” he said toward the end. “There’s something there that’s real. You get your hands on it, and you can make somebody better than they were. That’s one hell of a feeling.”
• “JaMarcus is like anybody else: he can’t do it by himself.”
• The relationship between Phonics and Whole Language precisely mirrors the relationship between deep practice and ignition.
• “Neurosis is just a high-class word for whining,” Dr. Albert Ellis said. “The trouble with most therapy is that it helps you to feel better. But you don’t get better. You have to back it up with action, action, action.”
• “When I thought I was born this way, then I thought, what’s the use. But when it’s a skill, everything changes.”