“The Talent Code: Greatness Isn’t Born. It’s Grown.” by Daniel Coyle (Book Summary)
The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle takes a look at extraordinary performers and describes how they became so extraordinary in the first place.
Over the course of 18 months, Coyle visited nine so-called talent hotbeds – places that produce Everest-size amounts of talent. When he investigated those hotbeds in detail, he found that they all shared three crucial elements required for the making of talent.
Those elements are: deep practice, ignition, and master coaching. Each one of these elements is powerful in shaping talent in its own right. Combine the three and you have the making of greatness. As the subtitle suggests, greatness isn’t born. It’s made. And it’s made in extraordinary amounts in talent hotbeds that combine deep practice, ignition, and master coaching.
This is a great little book and a highly recommended read for anyone looking to improve their own performance in any area of life.
Who is The Talent Code for?
- Anyone interested in the science of high performance
- Anyone interested in improving certain skills
- Anyone who wants to perform at the highest level and reach their full potential
1. Talent Defined
“The word talent can be vague and loaded with slippery overtones about potential, particularly when it comes to young people – research shows that being a prodigy is an unreliable indicator of long-term success. In the interest of clarity, we’ll define talent in its strictest sense: the possession of repeatable skills that don’t depend on physical size (sorry, jockeys and NFL linemen).”
Since the book is all about the making of talent, it makes sense to define the term: Talent is the possession of repeatable skills that don’t depend on physical size.
The book makes the argument that talent is made, not born. It’s not about genes; it’s about the three ingredients of the talent code: deep practice, ignition, and master coaching.
2. The Talent Code
“This book is divided into three parts – deep practice, ignition, and master coaching – which correspond to the three basic elements of the talent code. Each element is useful on its own, but their convergence is the key to creating skill. Remove on, and the process slows. Combine them … and things begin to change.”
The three basic elements of the talent code are: deep practice, ignition, and master coaching.
Greatness is made from these three basic elements.
Roger Federer. Michael Jordan. Mozart. Messi. Ronaldo. Elvis Presley. Madonna. Muhammad Ali. Michael Phelps. Tiger Woods.
What makes these people such extraordinary talents? Deep practice combined with ignition and master coaching.
3. Deep Practice (The 1st Element of the Talent Code)
“Deep practice is built on a paradox: struggling in certain targeted ways—operating at the edges of your ability, where you make mistakes—makes you smarter. Or to put it a slightly different way, experiences where you’re forced to slow down, make errors, and correct them—as you would if you were walking up an ice-covered hill, slipping and stumbling as you go—end up making you swift and graceful without you realizing it.”
We all know that practice makes perfect, right?
Well, not all practice is equal. It’s really more about the quality, rather than the quantity of practice. And the highest quality of practice is called deep practice by Daniel Coyle and deliberate practice by Anders Ericsson.
Deep practice is best described by the following words: attention, connect, build, whole, alert, focus, mistake, repeat, tiring, edge, awake.
Deep practice is hard. It’s uncomfortable. It’s tiring. It involves struggling, making mistakes, correcting mistakes. It evokes a feeling of reaching, falling short, and reaching again.
It’s a cycle including four steps:
- Pick a target in the sweet spot
- Reach for it
- Evaluate the gap between the target and the reach
- Return to step one
The sweet spot is the zone where learning takes off. It’s right at the end of your comfort zone, in your struggle zone if you will. The place between “too easy” and “too hard.” The place between boredom and overwhelm. The place when it’s hard but manageable.
To get the most out of any practice, you need to always train in that zone. Make it too easy or too hard and learning diminishes.
Another crucial aspect of deep practice is focus. When you’re practicing deeply, you’re training in your sweet spot and you’re training with high concentration. You’re also constantly attending to and tweaking mistakes. It’s this combination that maximizes learning and creates the feeling of struggle and strain.
4. Deep Practice in Action
“Clarissa draws a breath and plays two notes. Then she stop. She pulls the clarinet from her lips and stares at the paper. Her eyes narrow. She plays seven notes, the song’s opening phrase. She misses the last note and immediately stops, fairly jerking the clarinet from her lips. She squints again at the music and sings the phrase softly. ‘Dah dah dum dah,’ she says.
She starts over and plays the riff from the beginning, making it a few notes farther into the song this time, missing the last note, backtracking, patching in the fix. The opening is beginning to snap together – the notes have verve and feeling. When she’s finished with this phrase, she stops again for six long seconds, seeming to replay it in her mind, fingering the clarinet as she thinks. She leans forward, takes a breath, and starts again.”
This is what deep practice looks like for the skill of playing the clarinet.
It’s not fun. It’s not easy. It’s not relaxed. Rather, it’s struggle, strain, and discomfort. It’s reaching, falling short, and reaching again. It’s incredibly high focus.
It’s the type of practice that maximizes learning and skill acquisition.
(For more examples of deep practice in action, check out this article.)
5. Ignition (The 2nd Element of the Talent Code)
“Growing skill, as we’ve seen, requires deep practice. 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. In this section we’ll see how motivation is created and sustained through a process I call ignition. Ignition and deep practice work together to produce skill in exactly the same way that a gas tank combines with an engine to produce velocity in an automobile. Ignition supplies the energy, while deep practice translates that energy over time into forward progress, a.k.a. wraps of myelin.”
The 2nd element of the talent code comes down to motivation.
We’ve learned that deep practice is both necessary for developing skills rapidly, but it’s also hard, uncomfortable, and tiresome. Therefore, to sustain the deep practice necessary to grow skills, you need a high level of motivation.
Ignition (motivation) supplies the energy, while deep practice translates that energy into skill.
According to Coyle, ignition comes from cues that make us think something along the lines of:
- That is who I want to be
- If she can do it, I can do it
- I want to be like them
- What they are doing is amazing, I want to do it too
- Uh oh, I better get busy
One example he makes is the breakthrough-then-bloom pattern: a breakthrough success is followed by a massive bloom of talent.
For example, in 1998, South Korea achieved a breakthrough in golf when Se Ri Pak won the McDonald’s LPGA Championship. Before her, no South Korean had succeeded in golf. Her breakthrough ignited a whole nation – if she can do it, why can’t I? In 1998 there was only one South Korean golfer on the LPGA Tour. In 2007 that number rose to 33.
Ignition can happen as a result of any number of environmental cues. Growing up as an orphan can create motivation by saying, “Uh oh, I’m not safe here. This is dangerous. I better get busy.” Growing up with older siblings can say, “Wow, what my older siblings do is awesome. I want to do it too!”
The point is, exceptional talents (the Roger Federers or Kobe Bryants of this world) have caught massive amount of motivation in their early childhood, which then gave them the energy and thrive to practice deeply for extended periods of time.
6. Ignition is Powerful
“In 1997 Gary McPherson set out to investigate a mystery that has puzzled parents and music teachers since time immemorial: why certain children progress quickly at music lessons and others don’t. He undertook a long-term study that sought to analyze the musical development of 157 randomly selected children. (This was the study that would generate the footage of Clarissa practicing the clarinet.) McPherson took a uniquely comprehensive approach, following the children from a few weeks before they picked out their instrument (at age seven or eight in most cases) through to high school graduation, tracking their progress through a detailed battery of interviews, biometric tests, and videotaped practice sessions.
After the first nine months of lessons the kids were a typical mixed bag: a few had zoomed off like rockets; a few had barely budged; most were somewhere in the middle.”
So this study wanted to find out why some children progress quickly at music and others don’t.
What would you guess? Is it IQ? Aural sensitivity? Sense of rhythm? Sensorimotor skills? Income level? Nope, nope, nope, nope, and nope. None of these factors influenced whether a kid progressed quickly or slowly.
The surprising factor was the answer to a question asked before the children had even started their first lesson. The question was, how long do you think you’ll play your new instruments? The answers were condensed into three categories:
- Short-term commitment
- Medium-term commitment
- Long-term commitment
McPherson then measured how much each child practiced per week: low (20 minutes per week); medium (45 minutes per week); and high (90 minutes per week). He then plotted the results against their performance on a skill test. Here are the results:
Progress wasn’t determined by any measurable trait or aptitude, but by the ideas the kids brought to that first lesson. The differences were massive. With the same amount of practice, the long-term commitment group outperformed the short-term commitment group by 400 percent. The long-termers, with a mere twenty minutes of weekly practice, progressed faster than the short-termers who practiced for an hour and a half.
Combine long-term commitment with high levels of practice and skill development skyrockets.
That’s the power of motivation.
Somewhere these long-term commitment kids picked up the idea that they’re going to be musicians. And that ignition made them practice much more efficiently. It’s not about the quantity of practice; it’s about the quality of practice.
Motivation is what allows us to practice with high quality for extended periods of time, helping us build extraordinary skills.
7. Master Coaching (The 3rd Element of the Talent Code)
“So far in this book we’ve talked about skill as a cellular process that grows through deep practice. We’ve seen how ignition supplies the unconscious energy for that growth. Now it’s time to meet the rare people who have the uncanny knack for combining those forces to grow talent in others.”
“…the teachers and coaches I met were quiet, even reserved. They were mostly older; many had been teaching for thirty or forty years. They possessed the same sort of gaze: steady, deep, unblinking. They 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 student’s personality. After meeting a dozen of these people, I started to suspect that they were all secretly related. They were talent whisperers.”
Master coaching is the third element of the talent code.
The truth is, if you want to develop your talent, nothing will make a bigger difference than having a master coach.
8. Skill = Myelin
“The talent code is built on a revolutionary scientific discovery involving a neural insulator called myelin, which some neurologists now consider to be the holy grail of acquiring skill. Here’s why. Every human skill, whether it’s playing baseball or playing Bach, is created by chains of nerve fibers carrying a tiny electrical impulse—basically, a signal traveling through a circuit. Myelin’s vital role is to wrap those nerve fibers the same way that rubber insulation wraps a copper wire, making the signal stronger and faster by preventing the electrical impulses from leaking out. When we fire our circuits the right way—when we practice swinging that bat or playing that note—our myelin responds by wrapping layers of insulation around the neural circuit, each new layer adding a bit more skill and speed. The thicker the myelin gets, the better it insulates, and the faster and more accurate our movements and thoughts become.”
Myelin is the holy grail of acquiring skill.
Every skill comes down to a specific neural circuit. If you practice the skill, you light up that neural circuit. And every time you light up the neural circuit, so-called oligodendrocytes wrap myelin around the respective nerve fibers. The more myelin wrapped around the nerve fibers, the faster and stronger the signal becomes when the neural circuit is lit up, and the better you become at the skill.
In short: skill development, on a neurological level, comes down to myelin.
The more myelin you have for a certain skill, the better you are at that skill. And the best way to create as much myelin as possible is to engage in deep practice. Therefore, the more deep practice you do for a certain skill, the better you become.
The cool thing about myelin is that it doesn’t discriminate. It doesn’t care about who you are. It only cares about what you do. Practice a skill long enough and well enough and you’ll build myelin, and you’ll get better at that skill.
If you want to get better at something, you can. It’s just a matter of practice.
9. Innate Traits VS. Practice
“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 (surprise!) the amount of time they spent firing their circuits, trying to walk.”
What’s the key factor that makes babies improve at walking?
It’s not some innate trait, such as height, weight, age, or brain development. It’s quite simply the amount of time they’re trying to walk.
This is a central thesis of the science of expertise detailed in books like The Talent Code or Peak. Skill development comes down to practice. The more hours of deep practice you invest in a skill, the better you are at that skill.
10. The Power of Mindset (and Why You Should Read This Book)
“Carol Dweck, the psychologist who studies motivation, likes to say that all the world’s parenting advice can be distilled to two simple rules: pay attention to what your children are fascinated by, and praise them for their effort. To which I would add, tell them how the myelin mechanism works, as Dweck herself did in a study that revealed the power of sending this message. She began by splitting seven hundred low-achieving middle schoolers into two groups. The first were given an eight-week workshop of study skills; the second were given the identical workshop along with something extra: a special fifty-minute session that described how the brain grows when it’s challenged. Within a semester the second group had significantly improved their grades and study habits.”
Take seven hundred low-achieving middle schoolers and split them into two groups:
- Group one gets an eight-week workshop of study skills
- Group two gets an eight-week workshop of study skills + a fifty-minute session that describes how the brain grows when it’s challenged
At the end of the semester, group two significantly outperforms group one.
This shows how powerful the knowledge of certain pieces of information can be. And it’s one of the reasons Jonas and I are so big on reading. When you read a good book, you’ll get a few of these pieces of information. Put them together and you develop the kind of mindset that, in the long run, allows you to outperform others.
If you enjoyed this summary, here are three similar books you might enjoy.
- Peak by Anders Ericsson. A great book on exactly the same topic, all about great performance and the importance of practice for making it happen.
- The Little Book of Talent by Daniel Coyle. The followup book with 52 tips for improving your skills quickly and effectively.
- Deep Work by Cal Newport. A book on how to practice deeply and perform at a higher level as a knowledge worker in the 21st century.
And if you want more summaries like this one, check out Blinkist for instant access to 2,000+ summaries of the best nonfiction and self-help books ever.