Book Notes: The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle

The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle.
Greatness Isn’t Born, It’s Grown.

The Talent Code is an investigation into talent hotbeds, areas which have produced seemingly sudden explosions of genius.  Coyle studies a Russian tennis club which has produced more top-twenty women players than the entire United States; baseball in an island of the Dominican Republic which now make up one in nine big-league players; and KIPP schools; public schools where 80% of students go on to attend college.  Coyle examines the hotbeds and finds that despite producing high achievers in different disciplines, he is able to identify similarities in how they bloom, their learning cultures and development methodologies.

Read on for the notes I wrote whilst reading the book…


The Introduction describes a video called The Girl Who Did a Month’s Worth of Practice in Six Minutes.  In the video, an average musician apparently accelerated her learning speed a ten times. She plays a few notes, stumbles and stops, plays some more, goes back and tries again.  Gradually the piece comes together through targeted focussed process rather than just playing it from beginning to end.

Part I. Deep Practice

In the book, talent is defined as the possession of repeatable skills that don’t depend on physical size.

Operate at the edge of your ability. Make mistakes. Slow down. Correct errors. Try again.

You learn the most not by practising effortlessly but stretching yourself at just the right point between what you know and where you are trying to get to.

Generate impulses yourself rather than just being fed the information: studying and being tested multiple times rather than just studying.

Skill grows through the mechanism of myelin wrapping insulation around neural circuits as the nerves fire when we practice.
The more focussed practice one does, the more the signals fire along the skill circuit, the more myelin insulation is grown and the more the skill develops.

Trend of ability to build myelin and age: in children up until our thirties, myelin arrives in waves and there are critical windows during which the brain is more receptive to learning. There is a net gain in myelin until around 50 after which there is a loss. Throughout life, however, 5% of oligos remain immature, ready to learn new skills.

Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance
Anders Ericsson, psychologist

Ten thousand hours of deliberate practice

Deliberate practice consists of working on technique, seeking constant critical feedback, and focusing ruthlessly on overcoming weaknesses.

Examples of talent hotbeds and reasons for their existence:

  • Brontë sisters – wrote 22 little books averaging 80 pages over a 15 month period, writing was of poor quality but was great practice for novels that followed.
  • Z-boys skateboarders – were enthusiastic surfers, discovered they could practice in empty swimming pools.
  • Renaissance in Florence – Guild meant that children were apprenticed to a master from a young age learning the basics and rising to the next level as their skill improved

The Rules of Deep Practice:

  • Chunking – slow down, break it down into components. Absorb the whole thing until you can imagine yourself doing it (we are pre-wired to imitate).
  • Repeat it – spend time repeating only when you are at the edge of your abilities.  Amount of deep practice people can sustain is 3 – 5 hours.
  • Learn to feel it

Part II. Ignition

Passion provides the motivation to keep practising.

Once one breakthrough is made, an explosion of talent follows some years afterwards.  The success shows others what’s possible.  In running, Roger Bannister was the first man to run a mile in under four minutes.  A few weeks later, another runner did the same; three years later, seventeen runners had achieved this. It shows what’s possible and people think: if they can do it, why can’t I?

Initial commitment – whether someone is in it for the short, medium or long term rather than innate ability correlates more with performance.  Something inspires someone to want to be something else; they see a vision of themselves in the future.

Primal cues provide the spark which ignites motivation and energy to try harder to succeed.

Needing something, feeling behind and needing to keep up – e.g. fastest runners are usually towards the last in birth order
Scarcity  – e.g. Harlem school violin programme where places were determined by lottery
Future belonging – wanting to be part of a group of achievers

KIPP schools

Part III. Master Coaching

Characteristics of master coaches include: listening far more than talking, don’t give inspiring speeches but instead give small and highly specific adjustments, and have a sensitivity to the student’s way of learning tailoring their teaching to the student.

When observing basketball coach John Wooden, 75% of his discrete acts of teaching were pure information (not compliments or expressions of displeasure). These acts were very brief and clear generally lasting less than three seconds.

Teaching love – teaching motivation and passion

Four Virtues of Master Coaches

  1. The matrix – having deep interconnected knowledge of the discipline being taught and also how to teach it
  2. Perceptiveness – observing and taking in how the student learns and customizing teaching to the student
  3. The GPS reflex – teaching comes out as short bursts of pure information such as “fade the ending”, “cheeks back”, “hold your diaphragm, not your face”
  4. Theatrical honesty – “I LOVE it” when giving praise

Different disciplines need circuits to be grown in different ways. e.g. violin – repetition of the same thing, firing the same circuit for perfect technique.

On the other hand, soccer is a “flexible circuit skill” where as violin and golf are “consistent circuit skills”.  Good coaching needs to support the right circuit, so a violin teacher needs to be very involved to teach the correct technique while a soccer teacher steps back so that players can build flexible interconnected circuits.

In summary, the Talent Code consists of deep practice and motivation (passion, commitment).

The book’s website contains a blog where you can read more on topics relating to the book.

You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

Leave a Reply