The Talent Code – Book Review

The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle is a book I’ve wanted to read for a long time.

I love exploring the idea of what builds greatness.

I felt like it deserved a read alongside other books I’ve read that I think are related, like David Schenk’s The Genius in All of Us, which I reviewed here.

I asked the publisher for a copy to review, and here we are!

What is The Talent Code About?

Daniel Coyle explores what it takes to create talent, which he defines as “possession of repeateable skills that don’t depend upon physical size.”

To do this, he visited a number of “talent hotbeds” – places where talent (sometimes against all logic) grows, deepens, and eventually flourishes.

Of course, I immediately thought, “How can you turn a school into a talent hotbed?” Reading this book made me want to open my own school to try out the ideas.

The book should probably be subtitled, An Ode to Myelin. 

Coyle explains in a way that is both engaging and easy to understand that when a nerve fires, myelin is wapped on the fiber that fires. The more that nerve fires, the more meylin wraps around it. The more myelin wraps around it, the faster the signals travel. In this way, with the brain, the rich get richer.

He uses this neuroscience to delve into its applications for the development of talent.

He distills his observations into three main sections:

  • deep practice
  • ignition
  • coaching

Deep Practice

In this section of the book, Coyle explores what kind of practice really leads to talent. It brushes up against other works on expert performance, like Ericcson’s Peak and Gladwell’s Outliers, but it has a unique take.

He suggests that:

  • Certain patterns of targeted practice build skill, not just any ol’ practice.
  • Deep practice is built on a paradox: you’re struggling in certain targeted ways – operating at the edges of your ability, where you make mistakes. This is what makes you smarter/better.
  • Targeted, mistake-focused practice is so effective because the best way to build a good circuit is to fire it again, over and over. Struggle is not an option: it’s a biolgoical requirement.
  • You need passion and persistence because wrapping meylin around a big circuit requires immense energy and time. If you don’t love it, you’ll never work hard enough to be great at it.
  • You should look at the whole, and then break it down. Slow it down, and then speed it up (play with time). This aligns beautifully with what we know about the power of retrieval practice.
  • “[N]othing you can do – talking thinking reading, imagining – is more effective in building skill than executing the action, firing the impusle down the nerve fiber, fixing errors, honing the circuit.”

Ignition

In this section, Coyle explores why some people and places are able to ignite latent talent. Why are some people able to spark the desire and belief and interest in the subject or task?

Key ideas include:

  • the power of imitative example and personal vision
  • Teachers can have/create a reputation for excellence so kids see themselves that way.
  • If we see ourselves in success possibility, we’ll reach for success. He tells an astonishing story of students at Yale and the impact reading another student’s bio with their birthdate had on them.
  • Good coaches are “allergic to giving pep talks or inspiring speeches; they spent most of their time offering small, targeted, highly specific adjustments…customizing each message to each student’s personality.” This is harmonious with Dweck’s work on praise.
  • Effective coaches model the right way, show the incorrect way, and then model the right way again.
  • The coach/teacher has to love it.
  • Teachers need to get the learner hooked.

I thought the ideas in this section were so applicable to teaching that it would be worth doing a campus book study on it.

The idea that kids do better with successful teachers was powerful to me. It explains a phenomenon I see a lot: kids prefering the “hard” or “mean” teacher over the “easy” or “nice” teacher. Kids feel successful when led by someone who appears successful.

I would always tell my students on the first day of class, “You will take a difficult state assessment at the end of this year. You are to let me worry about that. It is my job to prepare  you, and I am very, very good at my job. If you show up every day with your whole self, that testing day will be the easiest day of your year.”

And 100% of my students would tell me how easy it was. They fed off of my confidence. I didn’t know why it worked, but now I do.

The other thing that really struck me is that last point about getting learners hooked. I completely reject the idea that the first six weeks of AP or Honors classes should be some kind of “weeding out” where we get rid of kids who don’t really belong. It’s all backwards!

We should spend the first six weeks getting kids fired up about it, building their own confidence in and love of the topic/task/event/sport.

Great Coaching

In the third section of the book, Coyle delves deeply into quality coaching. Some of this was covered in the Ignition section, but it’s the entire focus here.

What did he find out about great coaching?

  • It’s an amalgam of technical ability and strategy. Just being good at something yourself will not make you a good coach or teacher of that thing.
  • There’s a matrix of technical knowledge, strategy, experience, and practiced instinct.
  • Individualization is key. John Wooden is quoted as saying, “I’m not going to treat you all the same…we aren’t made the same…each one of you deserves individual treatment that is best for you. I will decide what that treatment will be.” I couldn’t help but wonder, “Why is it okay for sports and not academics???”
  • Change is critical. Toyota implements a thousand tiny fixes every year on its assembly line.
  • Nicole Shiloff says that one key to growth is that coaches have to learn to let people be uncomfortable and be okay with that. She says, “[P]eople have to linger in that uncomfortable area, learn to tolerate the anxiety.” When we swoop in to rescue kids from anything that might distress them, we are not doing them a service.

The Wrap Up:

I was worried when I read the book that it would ignore what I think is pretty obvious: some people are born with stronger talents and abilities in certain areas than others. This is not to say that it’s not malleable, because it is to a vast degree. What I was scared I would find is something that would argue against gifted ed or gifted services. I did not find that.

What I found was this statement:

This is “not to say our genes don’t matter – they do.”

Thank you.

The argument he is making, and it’s one I wholeheartedly endorse, is that, “We have a good deal of control over what skills we develop, and we each have more poetntial than we might ever presume to guess.”

This book is a great read. It’s something I think every teacher should read, every coach should read, and every parent should read. That probably covers everyone who reads what I write, so, yes, get this book.

Worth Reading Rating: 4.5

You can learn more about my Worth Reading Rating System here.

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