28 December 2012

Book: The Talent Code, Daniel Coyle

Daniel Coyle, in The Talent Code, argues against the received concepts of "born genius", "you either have it or you don't", "overnight success". He argues that talent grows where it is nurtured, describes how this is done, and shows how the growth of myelin is the neurological foundation of talent.

Coyle proposes three pillars of talent growth: "Deep Practice", "Ignition", and "Master Coaching". The concept of "hotbeds" also runs through the book.


Prior to understanding what myelin does, it is essential to understand that our movements are the results of signals sent to muscles by nerve cells along nerve fibres.

Myelin wraps nerve fibres so that signals sent along those fibres arrive faster and more reliably. Unwrapped fibres tend to leak their signal into the surrounding mush of our bodies, so myelin works very much like electrical insulation.

Oligodentrocyte cells do the wrapping, and they target nerve cells that fire frequently. Hence the popular wisdom that "practice makes perfect". Coyle does not challenge this piece of wisdom. Myelin improves neural circuits much the way goats carve a path across a mountain, simply by following it often.

With sufficient repetition, a performance may become automatic, like walking; under normal circumstances adults never ponder how to move the next foot forward, nor where to put it. This is the effect of myelin wrapping, and the central thesis of this book is that we can deliberately cultivate myelin in order to grow our skills.

Deep Practice

Deep practice is accomplished by breaking a difficult task into chunks, and sub-chunks as far as necessary, and then performing the chunk repeatedly, stopping and fixing all errors as they are encountered, until there are no more errors, and the chunk can be played flawlessly.

This process has the effect of repeatedly firing the nerve cells that produce the desired performance, with the consequence that their fibres get myelin-wrapped, with the result that subsequent performances are superior.

A talent hotbed has the major feature that it encourages deep practice. Brazilian footballers, for example, train by playing "futsal", a kind of mini-soccer with smaller teams and smaller rooms. The result is that each player touches the ball more often than would be the case on a standard playing field with the usual team size. This increased contact frequency provides more opportunity to practice manouevres, repeat them, and correct mistakes.


Coyle cites Anders Ericsson's now-famous 10,000-hour rule and explains it in terms of how long it takes to wrap a single nerve fibre.

He mentions Juliet Barker's study of the Brontë sisters. Her research shows that the Brontë's skill didn't simply appear overnight, as many previous biographers had supposed; instead, the sisters had practiced deeply from an early age by writing stories for each other. The entire plot of Wuthering Heights, for example, is scattered among Emily's juvenalia.

Adriaan de Groot was perplexed by people of inferior skill who kept beating him in chess; he performed a study where he asked experts to memorize chess positions. Experts could easily remember positions from real games, but were no better than beginners at remembering random positions. De Groot used this research to show that chunking is a core feature of advanced skill - the chess experts were able to memorize positions by chunking the pieces, remembering relationships within each chunk, and relationships between chunks.


Ignition is the word Coyle uses to describe the process of creating motivation. Some motivators include Group Belonging, Loss of Parent, Spartan Conditions, Birth Order, Dangerous World, Ambition, Coaching with Love.

Group Belonging

This appears to be one of the most powerful motivators as Coyle shows several examples where an entire nation comes to prominence in a certain sport due to the example of a single player. He frequently mentions Se Ri Pak, a South Korean golf player who out of the blue won a championship in 1998. Now, South Korean golfers dominate international womens' golf. Other examples include Anna Kournikova - Russian tennis (1998), and Andruw Jones - Curaçao, baseball (1996).

Loss of Parent, Dangerous World, Spartan Conditions

Coyle gives a large list of famous individuals who lost a parent early in life. Losing a parent, it seems, has the effect of motivating the child defensively to acquire skill. Constructing a dangerous-world hypothesis will have a similar effect on a child - the child is motivated to compensate for adverse outside conditions. Spartan Conditions, on the other hand, bring the "Dangerous World" right into the practice session. Coyle notes that talent hotbeds around the world share few features except Master Coaches and Spartan Conditions - run-down, ill-maintained facilities. A classical music program for children where there are not enough violins for everybody. Futsal was born because inner-city Brazil has neither the space nor the climate to maintain expensive, full-sized soccer pitches. Coyle calls this the "Scrooge Principle" - we are stingy with our personal energy resources, until external cues motivate us to break open the piggy bank and splurge on practice.

Birth Order

I'm not sure this translates into other fields of expertise: Coyle shows that the best runners are usually among the youngest siblings in their families.


At KIPP, students are continuously reminded that they're going to college, which is a big thing for US families. KIPP takes their vague wish/dream to go to college and turns it into an ever-present, burning, and (perhaps most importantly) realistic ambition.

Coaching Love

The most important qualities of a child's first teacher in a specific discipline, are patience, rapport, likeability. If the child attaches to the teacher, they are likely to transfer that attachment to the study of their craft. Interestingly, it is not a requirement that the first coach be a top performer of the skill in question.


Carol Dweck ran the "praise test" and discovered that praising effort is significantly more effective than praising results, for feeding motivation.

Gary McPherson studied the relationship between commitment, amount of practice, and externally-measured performance outcomes. He asked children to describe their commitment (number of weeks/years, or forever) to their craft, and created three groups - long-term, medium-term, and short-term commitment. Then he measured how much time on average each child would practice each week, and subdivided into low, moderate, and high levels of practice. It turns out that children with long-term commitment get far more out of each practice session regardless of their level of practice.

Geoff Cohen ran a test to discover how group identification affects motivation by showing students a story about a mathematician and then asking them to solve a maths problem. Half of the students read the story where the mathematician's birthday was altered to match their own; for the other half the birth date was unchanged. The birthday-match group spent on average 65% more time working on the problem.

Martin Eisenstadt is responsible for the parental-loss research; his population was the set of people eminent enough to merit at least a half-page entry in Encyclopedia Britannica.

John Bargh proposed the idea that the run-down, derelict feel of a talent hotbed fuels motivation.

Master Coaching

Coaching is a entire skill unto itself; a master coach must first acquire skill in the target domain, and subsequently acquire great skill as a coach. This is why the best coaches are often quite old - the skill takes decades to master.

Coaching sport is very different from coaching art. A master sports coach is mostly silent, whereas a master music coach delivers a lot of specific guidance.

A soccer player, when performing, needs to adapt quickly and skillfully to rapidly and unpredictably evolving circumstances on the field. A cellist performing Bach, on the other hand, strives to reproduce as accurately as possible the exact set of movements required to re-create the music.

Coyle argues that the neural circuitry in each of these cases in necessarily different. "Ivy-vine" describes the circuits for soccer, writing, and comedy; "Consistent", "oak-tree" describe the circuits for violin, golf, and gymnastics. Because the architecture of the circuits are different, the coaching style is necessarily different.

Coyle describes four major features of master coaches - the "Matrix", Perceptiveness, GPS reflex, and Theatrical Honesty.

The Matrix

[ I didn't understand this - the "matrix" seems to be another way of saying that a Master Coach skillfully and effectively combines all the other three features listed here ]


Perceptiveness is the ability to understand exactly what a student needs. Coaches do this first of all by investigating new students thoroughly - finding out everything there is to know about the students' backgrounds, for example. Secondly, understanding comes from continuously monitoring how the student reacts to the coach's intructions - whether those words were effective, should the coach repeat or rephrase. Armed with this understanding, the coach can then deliver personalised instruction tailored specifically for the particular situation a given student is facing at any given time.

GPS Reflex

Master Coaches deal little in reward and punishment, verbal or otherwise. Instead, most communication comes in the form of instruction, much like a GPS navigation system. A Master Coach delivers instruction consicely, clinically, in short bursts, without being dictatorial.

Theatrical Honesty

Master Coaches exaggerate emotion - surprise, delight, warmth, shock, horror.


This book was an entertaining read, with tons of anecdotes, and plenty of research. It has the potential to change the way we think about learning, with implications for education, sport, art, business, and also how to deal with age-related diseases targeting the brain.

Myelin depends on a supply of Omega-3 fatty acids, so make sure you eat plenty of oily fish, or olive oil, or nuts, or all three. The wrapping process itself is slow, but dependable for healthy, young, well-nourished individuals.

Coyle might have usefully brought up NLP theories of motivation - according to NLP, people are either motivated "away" from an undesirable situation, or "towards" a desirable one. It might be useful to consider how "Ambition", "Group Belonging", "Birth Order" might be instances of "towards" motivation, and "Parental Loss", "Spartan Conditions", and "Dangerous World" might be instances of "away" motivation.

I find the "ivy-vine" vs "oak-tree" neural circuit metaphors dubious, and Coyle cites no research to support this. Coyle does mention how team sports are effectively self-teaching, as players get instant reward/punishment feedback in the form of keeping or losing the ball, scoring a goal or failing to stop one, winning the game or losing it. An artistic performance on the other hand implies an external judge. It's possible that coaching style is related only to the way in which the student's performance is judged.

It's worth noting that computers excel at some kinds of games because they can self-teach. The world's best backgammon player, for example, is a self-taught computer progam, and my telephone beats me easily at Go. There aren't any computers producing renaissance masterpieces. Even Emily Howell, a music-writing computer program by David Cope, needs a lot of feedback and guidance to produce quality music.

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