The Talent Code: “ability can be created…”

The first of the life-changing books HC lent to me was Daniel Coyle’s The Talent Code.  Subtitled: “Greatness isn’t born; it’s grown,” Coyle’s premise is that high achievement is the result of a particular kind of training, attainable by anyone willing to dedicate themselves to what they want to learn.  To someone like myself, who has been told too often that her voice is like a nightinjail, this is difficult to believe.

How can Coyle claim that talent is a myth? Some people can sing; I can’t.  Some people can solve advanced calculus equations; I can’t.  And, on the other hand, as a proud mom, I can’t help watching my toddler play tennis without hopefully thinking about the “t” word.

Surely, these abilities have something to do with what we’re given by nature, right?  I don’t think anyone would deny that some things just come more easily to us than others.   But after reading Coyle, I now understand we have control over our strengths and abilities.

My son is a perfect example of why it may appear we are “born to do” one activity or another, and yet, there’s more to it than genes.

Upon seeing the video of Conall at the net, many friends have commented on his “talent.”  But excluding, for the moment, the possibility of a recessive “tennis gene,” what could explain his facility with a racket?

Conall was definitely born with some sort of the genetic predisposition to develop motor skills.  He was an early sitter, early roller, early walker.  That said, having just celebrated his second birthday three weeks ago, he has only six words in his vocabulary.  While his brain seems to be neglecting language development, it has been working over-time on skills like hand-eye coordination (much to the detriment of my vases that suffer a constant onslaught of drop kicked balls – one of his six words is “goal!”).

Though I have no idea why Conall’s development has been so predominantly physical, those first skills have had a cumulative effect.  Physical skills have come easily, so like anyone, Conall enjoys working on them.  The more he works on them, the easier they get and again, the more he enjoys working on them.  This cycle is part of the “talent code.”

As for Conall’s interest in sports, it wasn’t created in a vacuum.  The more Nick and I noticed his physical abilities, the more we have encouraged them.  After all, his father played semi-professional rugby and in addition to my diving, I grew up in a house that always had a game on the TV (we bought my mother the NFL channel for her birthday).  As soon as we could, Nick and I were throwing balls to the boy and introducing various sporting equipment to the house.  And Conall, too, has seen his fair share of matches.

The first time I noticed his particular interest was during the French Open last May (Conall was nineteen months).  You can see he’s already pretty fascinated.

I suspect that Coyle would argue it isn’t so much that Conall is “talented” by nature, it’s that he’s following a natural progression: building skills, enjoying his successes, being externally encouraged (by his parents) to try harder skills, which leads to greater accomplishment.

Now, does this mean Conall will grow up to be the next Federer (or Nadal, as he’s left-handed)? While a mother can dream, I don’t even know if he’s advanced for his current age, let alone where he’ll be in twenty years.  And even if he was considered a “prodigy,” studies show that would be a poor indicator of his future success.  Why?  Because high achievement requires intensive, focused and extended practice.  Like the tortoise and the hare, having a head start doesn’t guarantee finishing the race first.

Prodigies tend to burn out for a number of reasons: 1) success comes too easily, so they never learn how to practice hard and push themselves; thus, their late-starting, but harder working competitors can surpass them 2) having spent their early childhood trying to perfect a skill, they get bored and lose interest.

Of course, these are just generalities, but a long-term study by Lewis Terman of “gifted children” showed that over the course of their life, they were no more likely to achieve great accomplishments than a random sampling of the population.

So, how do we make sense of the Mozarts and Tiger Woods of the world?  In both cases, the young boys had ambitious and involved fathers, who introduced the particular skill at a very early age (2).  In both cases, the children were encouraged and given unusual opportunities to pursue their interests.  In both cases, the boys were better than their peers for having started earlier and worked longer and harder at their particular activities.

However, and this is key, Wolfgang’s early music is not considered to be remarkable and Tiger wasn’t beating the pros at 10.  It wasn’t until they’d reached a magic number, approximately 10,000 hours of practice, that they started to be exceptional.  We think of them as young geniuses because they reached that number sooner than many of their peers.

So, what is talent really?

Coyle says “talent” is the building of skill in a specific manner over an extended period (10,000 hours, to be precise).  Scientists have even identified how the process works in the brain.  Coyle writes:

Every human movement, thought, or feeling is a precisely timed electric signal traveling through a chain of neurons – a circuit of nerve fibers.  Myelin is the insulation that wraps these nerve fibers and increases signal strength, speed, and accuracy.  The more we fire a particular circuit, the more myelin optimizes that circuit, and the stronger, faster and more fluent our movements and thoughts become.

“Everything neurons do, they do pretty quickly.  It happens with the flick of a switch,” (Dr. Douglas) Fields said, referring to synapses.  “But flicking switches is not how we learn a lot of things.  Getting good at piano or chess or baseball takes a lot of time, and that’s what myelin is good at.”

“What do good athletes do when they train?” (Dr. George) Bartzokis said.  “They send precise impulses along wires that give the signal to myelinate that wire.  They end up, after all the training, with a super-duper wire –  lots of bandwith, a high-speed T-3 line.  That’s what makes them different from the rest of us.” (pg. 32-33)

Coyle then gives his thesis (or mantra):  “Skill is myelin insulation that wraps neural circuits and that grows according to certain signals.  The story of skill and talent is the story of myelin.” (pg 33)

What does this mean for mere mortals?  

It means anyone can build any skill they are determined enough to learn.  All that is necessary is a willingness to fire the neurons over and over, to build the myelin, to improve the skill.  It requires what Coyle calls “deep practice,” or the process of breaking down any skill to its most minute part and perfecting it bit, by bit, by bit.

For all the times I’ve thought that I can’t learn to speak foreign languages or to drive a manual car, I now understand it is because I have not put in the effort.  When your child tells you they “can’t” do math, the response should be, “yet.”

It’s easy to give up when a challenge is difficult.  It’s tempting to say, “well, I just don’t have that gift,” especially when you can see someone else learning so much faster and easier than you.  But isn’t it empowering to know that, biologically, you are capable of learning whatever you like?  It might be difficult, but it’s possible.  And often, that’s all we need to know.

The rest of the code

Did you ever wonder how the Renaissance came to be?  Why were there so many brilliant artists in one place at one point in history?  Or how three sisters could all write classic works of literature still cherished hundreds of years later?  Or why there are “suddenly” so many South Korean golfers on the LPGA Tour?  Or how Brazil earned its reputation for football?  Or how “a penniless Russian club with one indoor court could create more top-twenty women tennis players than the entire United States,” (1)?  Coyle calls them “talent hotbeds” and explains how and why they occur.

The second part of his book is dedicated to what he calls “ignition” which “supplies the unconscious energy” for the “growth” of talent (pg 161).  It can happen when someone’s outstanding performance inspires others to think, “I could do that, too!”  With the Olympics coming up, you may suddenly see a surge in membership in local school track teams or gymnastics centers.  That moment of “I want to do that, too,” can be incredibly powerful, particularly when those who really want to try have access to coaches who really understand how success is achieved.

But ignition can also take place when motivation meets opportunity, hard work and a good idea.  Coyle writes at length about The KIPP (“Knowledge is Power Program”) schools, which were started by two young men, disillusioned after working for Teach for America.  In fifteen years, their school grew from one classroom in Houston, Texas to sixty-six urban schools serving 16,000 students, 80% of whom attend college.

The third part of Coyle’s book is on “Master Coaching,” the techniques used by the “rare people who have the uncanny knack… (for growing) talent in others,” (161).  Contrary to popular belief, it isn’t the Vince Lombardi-esque pep talks that make a great coach.  Instead, it is the ability to listen, to understand the athlete or performer, and to communicate to them, often subtlety, the way to improve.

Coyle identifies what he calls the four “virtues” of great coaches: the matrix, or vast technical knowledge built over years of study;  perceptiveness – the ability to figure people out; the gps reflex, which is a way of delivering information “in a series of short, vivid, high-definition bursts,” (186); and theatrical honesty, or the eccentricities that can be a part of a coach’s ability to connect.

I’m sorely tempted to describe so much of Coyle’s book that this post would be, in essence, a reprinting of his work, but as it’s already three times longer than I intended it to be, I will conclude by saying that in addition to the fascinating insight into how one becomes “great,” what I thought made The Talent Code so successful is that it is written by a journalist who can tell a story; Coyle doesn’t get wrapped up in technical jargon and he always remembers who is audience is.

Flipping through the pages again, I’ve seen so many intriguing details that I may have to reread it soon.  It’s that kind of book.

Just before I post, though, let’s get back to my singing.  I suspect what Coyle would argue is that I may never be a Broadway diva, but if I put in 10,000 hours of voice lessons, I could be Eliza Doolittle.