The Talent Code – key points and themes

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The Talent Code – Unlocking the secret of skill in maths, art, music, sport, and just about everything else

Daniel Coyle

Random House Books, 2009

Back cover summary: In The Talent Code, award-winning journalist Daniel Coyle draws on cutting-edge research to reveal that, far from being some abstract mystical power fixed at birth, ability really can be created and nurtured.

In the process, he considers talent at work in venues as diverse as a music school in Dallas and a tennis academy near Moscow to demonstrate how the wiring of our brains can be transformed by the way we approach particular tasks. He explains what is really going on when apparently unremarkable people suddenly make a major leap forward. He reveals why some teaching methods are so much more effective than others. Above all, he shows how all of us can achieve our full potential if we set about training our brains in the right way.

Coyle argues that three core elements need to be in place to build high levels of skill.

The first is “Deep practice”.
Coyle explains that the secret of skill is Myelin – a fatty material that coats our nerves, so that they can quickly conduct impulses between the brain and different parts of the body. Mindless, half-hearted practice doesn’t count for much when it comes to building myelin. But really deep, focused, regular training – targeted on breaking the skill down into its smallest components, and obsessively ironing out mistakes – builds myelin over time.
Coyle also explains that as myelin is a living tissue, it needs to be constantly maintained through practice. He compares it to building muscles in the gym.

The second is “Ignition”
Because deep practice doesn’t just happen for no reason. It needs to be ignited – and sustained – by motivational fuel. As Coyle says, “Where deep practice is a cool, conscious act, ignition is a hot, mysterious burst, an awakening”. Coyle is a fabulous storyteller, and gives countless examples of ways in which students can be inspired to love learning and drive themselves to train hard. These include positive stimuli (“I could be like her!”; “I’m so lucky to belong to this awesome group!”) and negative stimuli (“I’m being left behind and need to keep up!)

The third is “Master coaching”

Coyle gives a somewhat mixed message on this point. The book is set up to argue that master coaching is the third element of “The Talent Code” – and all three elements are necessary, as “their convergence is the key to creating skill” (p.7). However, he later says that some fields can be learned without a teacher, as they rely more on “the lessons the players teach themselves”. These include soccer, writing and comedy, which “require us to grow vast ivy-vine circuits that we can flick through to navigate an ever-changing set of obstacles”.

However, for Coyle, fields such as learning a musical instrument, golf, gymnastics and figure skating absolutely need a good teacher, because they are all about gaining “a solid foundation of technique that enables us to reliably recreate the fundamentals of an ideal performance”. This distinction is interesting in the context of the martial arts, because arguably they can fall into both categories. However, for most of us, the second category is probably still the far more relevant one for our current level.

Key points of interest:

Here are some takeaways for budōka who’d like to apply Coyle’s ideas to their own training and/or teaching:

  1. In the section on Deep Practice, Coyle recommends chunking as a learning strategy. This basically starts off with looking at the task as a whole. You then break the task into tiny pieces, learn these to perfection – and then play around with them to really embed the learning.

So for example, say you are learning a weapons kata such as the aikido 20-jo suburi. You could start off by watching the whole sequence, perhaps by videoing your sensei if he or she is comfortable with this; or finding it on YouTube (in which case make sure your sensei is happy with the version you’re using, as learning different versions in and out of class could get confusing).

You could then break the sequence down into the 20 suburi, and learn each one individually. For each one, you would learn the movement, sequence number, Japanese name and English meaning.

Once you have learned the 20 parts of the sequence, the fun begins! For example you could make 20 numbered slips of paper – or 20 slips with the Japanese names on. Draw them out of a bowl randomly, and practise each suburi one by one, as it comes to you.

You could also practise the entire sequence backwards – or super-slow – or with your eyes closed. (Or all three at once!) For a brilliant list of creative ways to apply “deep learning” to your kata practice, check out this post by Jesse Enkamp:

2. In the section on Ignition, Coyle talks about the power of “environmental consistency”. He describes the fantastically successful KIPP (“Knowledge is Power Programme”) in the US, aimed at kids from disadvantaged, low-income families. The KIPP schools insist that their students follow extremely detailed behavioural guidelines – and Coyle explains how this creates a powerful sense of discipline, belonging and identity. This combines with constant exposure to positive role models – and clear motivational messages that the kids can become successful, good people like their teachers and the school’s alumni.

For the dojo, the takeaway from this is clear. Yes, it may be easier in the short-term to let students get away with dirty fingernails, or slouching against the wall while Sensei is demonstrating, or arriving late to class without a good reason. But in the longer term, insistence on basic standards of etiquette can pay dividends, both for the individual, and for the club as a whole.

In Coyle’s case study, crucially, the teachers put the behavioural rules into the context of everyday life and becoming a good person. They constantly explain the reasons behind the rules, and how these expectations can benefit the pupils in everyday life. As one teacher is quoted as saying,

I remember when I came to visit […] I thought it was way extreme. I thought it was ridiculous. I mean, who cares how they hold their binder? But I came to see that attention to detail is a big part of what makes someone academically successful. The rules are ways of getting them to practice being detailed and precise – and that’s not something a lot of them have had any experience with.

Coyle says that outsiders sometimes laugh at the KIPP kids, calling it the “Kids In Prison Programme”. But in the end, who cares. The outcome is that many of these kids are entering the programme with incredible disadvantages – yet leaving it with self-confidence, a sound education, high aspirations and a college place to progress to.

So never feel embarrassed about maintaining reasonable “old-fashioned” standards of etiquette within your dojo, or wonder if they are relevant or important. It’s such a crucial part of all our training, both on and off the mat.

3. Finally, in the section on Master Coaching, Coyle writes with passion about how the most outstanding coaches are often not the technical superstars of their field. They are often quiet, humble people. And the real skill they possess is the ability to understand, relate to and absolutely captivate each learner as an individual.

Coyle describes the typical great coach as having a vast neural network of task-specific knowledge (for which reason they are often older people). Combined with their superb interpersonal skills, this gives them an instinctive ability to engage with each student at their own level, and give them the precise feedback they need at that moment in time, to progress on that particular technique. Most of their teaching time is spent very simply – in just endlessly demonstrating and correcting tiny points.

Coyle compares this to Toyota’s famous Kaizen (continuous improvement) strategy, and quotes James Wiseman, Toyota’s vice president for corporate affairs. Wiseman explains how when he was new to the company, he had a mindset of always “looking for the silver bullet, looking for the big, dramatic improvement”. But over time he absorbed and understood the value of actually focusing on finding and improving tiny issues instead.

Again, the learning for budoka is clear, whether you are a student or an instructor – or both. The important thing is not necessarily how many national tournaments the sensei has won; or how high they can kick (although of course skill is a prerequisite). It’s more about how they can connect with the student, inspire them to commit for the long term, and engage them in the hard, repetitive work of successfully, painstakingly learning the basics.

So in my view, a charismatic instructor who knows and teaches all kind of complex bunkai and/or high-grade kata to beginners may well be less effective than the quieter, more unassuming teacher who can get his students to hold painful basic stances, week after week – or practice the same kata for months – without losing their excitement and focus, until those stances and movements start to become hardwired into their memories.

Final remarks
The Talent Code is a fantastic book – easy to read, and packed with exciting inspirational stories and case studies about real teachers and their students – from Coyle’s travels around the world to visit what he calls “talent hotspots” and uncover their hidden secrets. It also serves as a great reminder and reinforcer of the phenomenal importance of endless, apparently mundane practice.

On the technical side, there’s substantial information about what myelin is and how it works, which is excellent – very clear and easy to follow at all times. Daniel Coyle’s blog is well worth reading too:

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