The Talent Code: Greatness Isn’t Born. It’s Grown – Daniel Coyle

Here are my comments on the book:

What’s the secret behind talent? Daniel Coyle, New York Times bestselling author, contributing editor for Outside Magazine, and two-time National Magazine Award finalist, states that there’s no such thing as born talent but rather talent is the result of something called “deep practice.” For you to practice “deeply”, you must be able to: 1) see the skill as a whole 2) break down the necessary individual steps in to small chunks 3) master those individual steps by doing it slowly first and then quickly executing them all together in sequential order. In addition to that, you need immediate feedback from someone else to inform you of whether or not you’re doing it correctly so you can make the necessary adjustments. Here are some of the points to the book:


1. Myelin, also known as white matter, is what’s responsible for your learning. Myelin is the coating around your nerve fibers in your brain. Basically it’s the conductor of electrical signals between parts of your brain.One of the first clues to myelin’s role was uncovered in the mid-1980s by an experiment involving rats and Tonka toy dump trucks. Bill Greenough at the University of Illinois raised three groups of rats in varying ways. In the first group individual rats were isolated from other rats, each one in a large plastic shoebox. The rats in the second group were raised with other rats but also in shoeboxes. The rats in the third group, however, were raised in an enriched environment, surrounded by other rats and a pile of toys that they instinctively played with, even to the point of figuring out how to work the lever on the dump truck. When Greenough autopsied the animals’ brains after two months, he found that the number of synapses in the enriched-environment group had increased by 25 percent compared with the other two groups. Greenough’s work was well received, helping establish the idea of brain plasticity, in particular the notion that the brain has critical developmental windows, during which its growth responds to its environment. But buried in Greenough’s study was a secondary finding that was largely ignored by the scientific community. Something else had also grown by 25 percent in the enriched-environment group: white matter—myelin.


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2. Each time you do something, you build myelin in your brain. When you practice something, you build more myelin around the circuitry that allows you to do that particular thing. The more myelin you have, just as point 1 talks about, the faster you’re able to execute that particular thing. This is why you need instant feedback on the skill that you’re trying to develop; you don’t want to get good at the wrong thing.So there’s the picture in a nutshell: each time we deeply practice a nine-iron swing or a guitar chord or a chess opening, we are slowly installing broadband in our circuitry. We are firing a signal that those tiny green tentacles sense; they react by reaching toward the nerve fibers. They grasp, they squish, and they make another wrap, thickening the sheath. They build a little more insulation along the wire, which adds a bit more bandwidth and precision to the skill circuit, which translates into an infinitesimal bit more skill and speed. Struggle is not optional—it’s neurologically required: in order to get your skill circuit to fire optimally, you must by definition fire the circuit suboptimally; you must make mistakes and pay attention to those mistakes; you must slowly teach your circuit. You must also keep firing that circuit—i.e., practicing—in order to keep myelin functioning properly. After all, myelin is living tissue.


3. Talent is all a relative thing. The more you practice, relative to others, the better you’ll be compared to them. There is no magic pill or formula that can instantly turn you in to an overnight success; it takes several years and several thousand hours to become talented at anything. Along with researchers like Herbert Simon and Bill Chase, Ericsson validated hallmarks like the Ten-Year Rule, an intriguing finding dating to 1899, which says that world-class expertise in every domain (violin, math, chess, and so on) requires roughly a decade of committed practice. (Even the astonishing chess prodigy Bobby Fischer put in nine hard years before achieving his grandmaster status at age seventeen). This rule is often used to determine the ideal start of training: for example, in tennis girls peak physically at seventeen, so they ought to start at seven; boys peak later, so nine is okay. But the Ten-Year, Ten-Thousand-Hour Rule has more universal implications. 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.” He later states, We’re all familiar with the adage that practice is the best teacher. Myelin casts the truth of this old saying in a new light. There is, biologically speaking, no substitute for attentive repetition. Nothing you can do—talking, thinking, reading, imagining—is more effective in building skill than executing the What’s the simplest way to diminish the skills of a superstar talent (short of inflicting an injury)? What would be the surest method of ensuring that LeBron James started clanking jump shots, or that Yo-Yo Ma started fudging chords? The answer: don’t let them practice for a month. Causing skill to evaporate doesn’t require chromosomal rejiggering or black-ops psychological maneuvers. It only requires that you stop a skilled person from systematically firing his or her circuit for a mere thirty days. Their muscles won’t have changed; their much-vaunted genes and character will remain unaltered; but you will have touched their talent at the weakest spot in its armor. Myelin, as Bartzokis reminds us, is living tissue. Like everything else in the body, it’s in a constant cycle of breakdown and repair. That’s why daily practice matters, particularly as we get older. As Vladimir Horowitz, the virtuoso pianist who kept performing into his eighties, put it, ‘If I skip practice for one day, I notice. If I skip practice for two days, my wife notices. If I skip for three days, the world notices.’ 


4. Those who are faithful with a little are faithful with a lot. Take it slow and master the small things first before trying to do it all quickly. At Meadowmount jagged bursts of notes are stretched into whale sounds. One teacher has a rule of thumb: if a passerby can recognize the song being played, it’s not being practiced correctly. When camp director Owen Carman teaches a class, he spends three hours covering a single page of music. New students are surprised at the seemingly glacial pace—it’s three or five times slower than they’ve ever gone. But when they’re finished, they have learned to play the page perfectly; such a Clarissa-like feat would otherwise take them a week or two of shallower practice. Why does slowing down work so well? The myelin model offers two reasons. First, going slow allows you to attend more closely to errors, creating a higher degree of precision with each firing—and when it comes to growing myelin, precision is everything. As football coach Tom Martinez likes to say, ‘It’s not how fast you can do it. It’s how slow you can do it correctly.’ Second, going slow helps the practicer to develop something even more important: a working perception of the skill’s internal blueprints—the shape and rhythm of the interlocking skill circuits.


5. One of the indicators of your success is whether or not you’re able to see yourself in that position. I believe this is why many successful people advocate visualization. In the book The Morning Miracle by Hal Elrod, Hal talks about the power of visualization as a part of your morning routine. McPherson’s graph, like the table showing the rise of South Korean golfers and Russian tennis players, is not a picture of aptitude. It is a picture of ignition. 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. After all, these kids weren’t born wanting to be musicians. Their wanting, like Clarissa’s, came from a distinct signal, from something in their family, their homes, their teachers, the set of images and people they encountered in their short lives. That signal sparked an intense, nearly unconscious response that manifested itself as an idea: I want to be like them . It wasn’t necessarily a logical idea for them to have. (Recall that it didn’t correlate with any aural, rhythmic, or mathematic skills they possessed.) Perhaps the idea came about purely by accident. But accidents have consequences, and the consequence of this one was that they started out ignited, and that made all the difference.


6. When praising others, rather than saying that they’re smart or naturally gifted/talented at it, praise them on how much work they’ve put in to it. Despite your good intentions of praising one’s innate ability to do something well, it’s counter-intuitive to do so. When we use the term motivational language , we are generally referring to language that speaks of hopes, dreams, and affirmations (‘You are the best!’). This kind of language—let’s call it high motivation—has its role. But the message from Dweck and the hotbeds is clear: high motivation is not the kind of language that ignites people. What works is precisely the opposite: not reaching up but reaching down, speaking to the ground-level effort, affirming the struggle. Dweck’s research shows that phrases like ‘Wow, you really tried hard,’ or ‘Good job, dude,’ motivate far better than what she calls empty praise. From the myelin point of view, this conclusion makes sense. Praising effort works because it reflects biological reality. The truth is, skill circuits are not easy to build; deep practice requires serious effort and passionate work. The truth is, when you are starting out, you do not ‘play’ tennis; you struggle and fight and pay attention and slowly get better. The truth is, we learn in staggering-baby steps. Effort-based language works because it speaks directly to the core of the learning experience, and when it comes to ignition, there’s nothing more powerful. ‘If I was a college, my success rate would be pretty good, unowaime?’ Engblom said. ‘I mean, eighty or eighty-five percent of my guys end up successful businessmen, athletes, millionaires. You can’t say that about Harvard.’


By Ryan Timothy Lee


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