The Talent Code

I have been reading up on skill, learning and coaching lately and finding the exercise useful. As a little experiment, I’m posting the notes from my first read here. The book is interesting and I think its lessons summarize well. -N.

The Talent Code
by Daniel Coyle
Bantam Books, 2009


  • A definition: “skill is a cellular insulation that wraps neural circuits and that grows in response to certain signals.”
  • deep practice + ignition + master coaching = skill

Part 1: Deep Practice

Chapter 1: The Sweet Spot

  • Targeted struggle is key
  • “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 your realizing it.”
  • The power of simulations that increase reps – look for ways to create them
  • Story of Edwin Link – invented the Link trainer, crude early flight simulator – condensed, repetitive practice, hugely reduced accidents
  • Example of Brazilian futsal – a kind of indoor soccer with fewer players per side – players touch ball more, are forced to be more creative

Chapter 2: The Deep Practice Cell

  • Myelin – substance in our brains that coats neurons and strengthens their ability to form connections
  • To learn efficiently, we fire a circuit, identify and correct errors, and repeat – in other words, this is how we build myelin on the circuit

Chapter 3: The Brontes, The Z-Boys, and the Renaissance

  • Bronte sisters – when young, writing their “little books,” mini novels that they wrote and bound themselves – lots of repetition, friendly competition
  • Z boys skateboard posse – pool riding as skater’s version of futsal
  • Academic paper “The problem of excess genius,” David Banks
  • Renaissance Florence – craft guilds built on apprenticeship system key to building myelin
  • “Apprentices spent thousands of hours solving problems, trying and failing and trying again, within the confines of a world built on the systematic production of excellence… Their life was roughly akin to that of a twelve-year-old intern who spends a decade under the direct supervision of Steven Spielberg, painting sets, sketching storyboards, setting cameras. The notion that such a kid might one day become a great film director would hardly be a surprise”

Chapter 4: The Three Rules of Deep Practice

  1. Chunking
    • First, the participants look at the task as a whole—as one big chunk, the megacircuit.
      • example of famous Spartak tennis club – slow mo fake rallies to train overall feel
    • Second, they divide it into its smallest possible chunks
    • Third, they play with time, slowing the action down, then speeding it up, to learn its inner architecture.
      • example: music camp for classical students, how they use process to learn a piece
      • an exercise: piece should be slow enough to be unrecognizable
  2. Repetition, aka firing the circuit
    • “Spending more time is effective—but only if you’re still in the sweet spot at the edge of your capabilities, attentively building and honing circuits. What’s more, there seems to be a universal limit for how much deep practice human beings can do in a day. [Anders] Ericsson’s research shows that most world-class experts—including pianists, chess players, novelists, and athletes—practice between three and five hours a day, no matter what skill they pursue.”
  3. Learn to feel it
    • you should be annoyed if out of tune (not sure… occasionally good to make things rough?)
    • repeats the idea of reaching for something, having it slip away, and trying again

Part 2: ignition (basically he’s talking about motivation here)

Chapter 5: Primal (ie mostly environmental) Cues

  • importance of a breakthrough star – one charismatic star followed by a bloom of imitators
  • eg Roger Banister breaking the four-minute mile, Anna Kournikova inspiring Russian girls to try tennis, etc.
  • long term commitment is crucial in students
  • “how long do you think you will play your instrument?” is predictive – has to do with sense of self: “I’m a musician”
  • environmental cues seem to be important
  • talent hotbeds are often junky, scrappy places – because we’re unconsciously motivated to improve our environment
  • a large number of successful people lost a parent early – may cue them to fight for survival
  • sprinters are often younger siblings in bigger families who had to keep up

Chapter 6: The Curacao Experiment

  • “if he can do it, I can do it”
  • “As is true of any talent hotbed, Curacao’s success wasn’t caused solely by the primal signals that created ignition. The matrix of other causes includes disciplined culture, top-notch coaching, supportive parents, national pride, the love of the game, and of course, a wealth of deep practice.”
  • Key: multiple cues from different sources are required to sustain ignition
  • “tangible ladder of selection” – should be tough – making it to the next round/level (not sure I totally agree)
  • basically, the purpose of a hotbed is to make a living art world/ecosystem for talent to come up through

For the leaders:

  • always praise hard work, not innate ability
  • praise should be earned not given all the time

Chapter 7: How to Ignite a Hotbed

  • Chapter is a case study on KIPP charter schools as talent hotbeds
  • The schools help challenged kids get into good universities
  • (Note: I found KIPP creepy and cult-like – wasn’t a fan of this case study)

key messages of KIPP to students:

  1. You belong to a group.
  2. Your group is together in a strange and dangerous new world.
  3. That new world is shaped like a mountain, with the paradise of college at the top.

Part 3: master coaching

Chapter 8: The Talent Whisperers

  • (Strong chapter – lots of detailed info)
  • “The teachers and coaches I met were quiet, even reserved. They were mostly older; many had been teaching 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… like farmers: careful, deliberate cultivators of myelin… down-to-earth and disciplined. They possess vast, deep frameworks of knowledge, which they apply to the steady, incremental work of growing skill circuits, which they ultimately don’t control.”
  • Discusses John Wooden, UCLA basketball coach – considered one of the great American coaches – as an embodiment of this approach.
  • Article referenced with more on Wooden’s approach: “Basketball’s John Wooden: What a Coach Can Teach a Teacher”
  • not much praise, not much negativity – 75 percent of his coaching acts were pure information
  • three part instruction format: show the right way, then the wrong way, then the right way again
  • “demonstrations rarely take longer than three seconds, but are of such clarity that they leave an image in memory much like a textbook sketch.”
  • “mental and emotional conditioning,” which basically amounted to everyone running harder than they did in games, all the time
  • two hours planning for each practice, using 3×5 cards to list activities, improved year to year
  • Wooden famously began each year by showing players how to put on their socks, to minimize the chance of blisters
  • practices appeared natural and flowing but were highly structured
  • specific goals both for the team and for individuals.
  • “what made Wooden a great coach wasn’t praise, wasn’t denunciation, and certainly
  • wasn’t pep talks. His skill resided in the Gatling-gun rattle of targeted information he fired at his players. This, not that. Here, not there. His words and gestures served as short, sharp impulses that showed his players the correct way to do something”
  • the “whole part method”—he would teach players an entire move, then break it down to work on its elemental actions.
  • formulated laws of learning (which might be retitled laws of myelin): explanation, demonstration, imitation, correction, and repetition.
  • “Don’t look for the big, quick improvement. Seek the small improvement one day at a time.” -Wooden
  • I am sensing that the experience of playing for Wooden might be somewhat joyless – somewhat wooden ha ha – but perhaps I am wrong.

Coaching Love

  • many world-class talents, particularly in piano, swimming, and tennis, start out with seemingly average teachers
  • BUT these teachers are masters at teaching love, enjoyment, etc.
  • they provide emotional cues that foster ignition

Chapter 9: The Teaching Circuit: A Blueprint

Four qualities of master coaches:

  1. the matrix – deep and comprehensive knowledge of the craft you’re teaching
  2. perceptiveness – watching deeply and tailoring your teaching to individual
  3. be the student’s gps – try this, go back, now do this
  4. theatrical honesty – be dramatic to make your points sink in, while staying authentic

two types of skills:

  • freeform, flowing (soccer)
  • structured, hierarchical (violin)

(This is interesting but not really developed in the book)

Chapter 10: Tom Martinez and the $60 Million Bet

(Case study on a famous football coach – ties together rather than introducing more information. Found this less interesting. Maybe if I was more into these types of sports…)

Epilogue: The Myelin World

  • People ask what advice would he have for businesses
    • Suggests we think of Kaizen as deep practice at the corporate level
  • What about parents?
    • Suggests we pay attention to what your children are fascinated by and praise them for their effort
    • We should also tell our kids how the brain grows when challenged to help encourage them to take on such challenges