Rather than choosing to believe the unbelievable accounts of talent come from nowhere, Coyle traveled the world to explore what's behind the skills that have appeared over the past decades. He details his journey and the research behind it, so we can understand what underlies these seemingly unconnected expressions of mastery. Backing up the enticing subheading 'Greatness isn't born, it's grown' for The Talent Code, Coyle provides many examples of how exceptional talent is grown, an engaging explanation of what talent is and an easily replicable framework for building a unique skill sets.
Beginning with a definition for talent – the possession of repeatable skills that are not reliant on physical size – Coyle goes on to delve into the physiology behind skill-building. We find that skill relies on myelin - a substance made up of proteins and fats that coat specific neural pathways. In doing so, the white matter improves the firing of our synapses. He argues that this underrated matter is the basis of skill, a standpoint that is supported by years of neurological research. By focusing our efforts, we can grow myelin in specific areas of our brains and improve our skills. Throughout, he illustrates the many concepts with easily understandable vignettes, true stories, and discussions with experts in the areas of motivation and myelin. Take-aways from this book can be easily applied to many aspects of our lives, not least our workplaces.
Thanks to our genes and the biological processes they engender, each of us can develop nearly any skill. By firing our neurological circuitry repeatedly, we prompt our bodies to respond by optimizing these pathways, ensuring the electrical impulses that are fed along our nerve cells aren't lost or misdirected.
However, merely firing a circuit doesn't always result in improved skill. To gain mastery, we need to refine the circuitry associated with the skills we wish to develop. This is when 'deep practice,' as Coyle calls it, comes into play. Rather than randomly firing our brain's circuitry, we need to push ourselves beyond our comfort zone and find our sweet spot of difficulty. This is most often at the edge of our ability, where we reach and make mistakes. It's the mistakes and the process of correcting them and trying again that makes us smarter, faster, and more insightful.
Coyle likens the process of laying broadband cabling within to produce faster and more accurate signals throughout our brain and body. These simple to understand concepts are just one example of how the author illustrates difficult to visualize processes and simplifies them so we can understand and apply the practices in our own lives.
The best way to build robust skill circuits is to fire them, attend to any mistakes made, and then fire the same circuit again. In real-life terms, that's attempting an action – playing the part of a song, swinging your bat, or writing a paragraph - stopping when you notice a mistake, correcting your course and playing, swinging, or writing again.
The process is not a simple one and requires enormous amounts of energy, focus, and time. To build new skills, we must be motivated and passionate about the learning process. We must be hungry for the skill, attentive to mistakes, and single-mindedly focused on its development. Without the passion and persistence to push at the edges of our ability, we would never have the tenacity required to reach mastery. Anders Ericsson, Herbert Simon, and William Chase quantified the effort needed to gain mastery of any skill as a decade of deep practice or 10,000 hours of focused repetition of the skill we were aiming to attain.
Once we are on the path to mastery, the new skills we once worked so hard to attain, begin to feel natural, as though we always possessed the ability. Such is the nature of well-developed talent.
Prompting a passion for learning
If the deep practice is the conscious and continual reaching for more, the drive needed to persist along the path to skill attainment could be likened to a flash of inspiration. The author calls this 'ignition' or the primal urge to become the future self we see when viewing the great skill of another.
These motivational signals come in countless ways – such as the loss of a parent, watching someone just like you achieve unimaginable feats of prowess, or simply trying to keep up with others. These can be categorized as drivers to meet more basic needs – the need to belong, the urge for safety, or our craving for connection. These simple motivational signals can prompt us to unleash the energy needed to reach our goal, at a primal level, to belong, guard against scarcity, and create safety in our lives.
But a single moment of ignition may not be enough to sustain the level of energy output needed to reach a master level of skill. Clear messages that let us know what is valued need to be repeated and reach us on a personal, fundamental level. This is so we can keep firing the skill circuits over a long enough period to enable the myelination of our nerve cells to the point where skill appears to become an innate talent.
It isn't easy to create these prompts of our own. This is where the value of a great coach, mentor, or teacher cannot be overstated.
The final piece of the puzzle
If talent is a well-practiced skill, and our drive to learn is a primal cue we cannot ignore, then great coaches and mentors are the ringmasters who muster our urges and direct them to enable us to become better.
Great coaches understand the work required to master a skill and have the ability to push us in the right direction toward attainment. They encourage and demand the deep practice, coaching us to try, fail, refine, and try again, never ceasing to push us forward over more hurdles.
A common way great coaches work is to demonstrate a complete skill, break it down into the component parts, and have students practice using logical progressions and repeating cycles. Throughout the process, the coach will watch avidly, fine-tuning the practice with targeted comments that encourage, correct, and urge the student to reach further in the right direction for them to develop the brain's circuitry.
Often, coaches' messages will affirm the value of effort, the importance of slow progress, and stir their students to try harder for longer to build healthy neural connections that support their blossoming talents. They understand that praise must be earned to motivate. What's more, they understand that each student needs a different set of motivators to keep them on the right path to develop their talent. There is no one size fits all when it comes to developing skills.
Great coaches do what individuals are unable to do themselves; they continue to ignite the passion needed to persist. They provide the right drives that keep their students working past their milestone breakthroughs.
Daniel Coyle's Talent Code gives us an excellent map for anyone who wishes to develop and preserve talent in themselves or others. He shows us the importance of directed and sustained practice for the growth of myelin and the essential circuitry. More than that, he explains the importance of pushing ourselves, seeking new challenges, and preserving the carefully myelinated pathways of our brains and how we can all do this with great success if we are prepared to put in the extended effort required.