The Talent Code

by Daniel Coyle, Bantam Books, New York 2009

Where does talent come from? How does it grow? The surprising answer begins with a substance in our brains: myelin.

Coyle reveals the simple yet powerful mechanisms through which human beings acquire skill: the kinds of practice, motivation, and coaching that grow myelin the fastest. Through visits to the world’s best soccer players, bank robbers, violinists, fighter pilots, artists, and skateboarders, and to the labs where myelin is being investigated, this compelling and instructive book will transform the way we view talent and enable all of us to develop our full potential.


The talent code is built on revolutionary scientific discoveries involving a neural insulator called myelin, which some neurologists now consider to be the holy grail of acquiring skill…Every human skill…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…The thicker the myelin gets, the better it insulates, and the faster and more accurate our movements and thought become.

Q: Why is targeted, mistake-focused practice so effective?
A: Because the best way to build a good circuit is to fire it, attend to mistakes, then fire it again, over and over. Struggle is not an option: it’s a biological requirement.
Q: Why are passion and persistence key ingredients of talent?
A: Because wrapping myelin around a big circuit requires immense energy and time. If you don’t love it, you’ll never work hard enough to be great.

Once a skill circuit is insulated, you can’t un-insulate it (except through age or disease.) That’s why habits are hard to break. The only way to change them is to build new habits by repeating new behaviors- by myelinating new circuits.

Along with researchers like Herbert Simon and Bill Chase, Ericsson validated hallmarks like the ten-year rule, an intriguing finding dating to 1899, which says that world-class expertise in every domain…requires roughly a decade of committed practice.

But the Ten-Year, Ten-Thousand-Hour Rule has more universal implications. It implies that all skills are built using the same fundamental mechanism, and further that the mechanism involved physiological limits from which no one is exempt.

Deep practice feels a bit like exploring a dark and unfamiliar room. You start slowly, you bump into furniture, stop, think, and start again. Slowly, and a little painfully, you explore the space over and over, attending to errors, extending your reach into the room a bit farther each time, building a mental map until you can move through it quickly and intuitively.

Repetition is invaluable and irreplaceable. There are, however, a few caveats. With conventional practice, more is always better: hitting two hundred forehands a day is presumed to be twice as good as hitting one hundred forehands a day. Deep practice, however, doesn’t obey the same math. 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…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 the skill they pursue.

Gallimore and Tharp recorded and coded [John Wooden’s] 2,326 discrete acts of teaching. Of them, a mere 6.9 percent were compliments. Only 6.6 percent were expressions of displeasure. But 75 percent were pure information: what to do, how to do it, when to intensify an activity. One of Wooden’s most frequent forms of teaching was a three-part instruction where he modeled the right way to do something, showed the incorrect way, and then remodeled the right way…As Gallimore and Tharp wrote, Wooden’s “demonstration rarely took longer than three seconds, but are of such clarity that they leave an image in memory much like a notebook sketch.”

The Matrix: The first virtue
The coaches and teachers I met at the talent hotbeds were mostly older…All had spent decades, usually several, intensively learning how to coach. This is not coincidence; in fact, it’s a prerequisite, because it builds the neural superstructure that is the most essential part of their skills- their matrix.

Perceptiveness: The second virtue
Several master coaches have told me that they train their eyes to be like cameras, and they share that same Panavision quality. Though the gaze can be friendly, it’s not chiefly about friendship. It’s about information. It’s about figuring you out.

The GPS Reflex: The third virtue
Most master coaches delivered their information to their students in a series of short, vivid, high-definition bursts…The directions weren’t dictatorial in tone (usually) but were delivered in a way that sounded clinical and urgent, as if they were being emitted by a particularly compelling GPS unit navigating through a maze of city streets: turn left, turn right, go straight, arrival complete.

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