Dan Coyle’s THE TALENT CODE : Read about it here first…

Is talent inborn, or something we can develop with practice — and if so, what kind of practice? What’s happening inside the brain when we work hard to perfect a tennis serve, play a musical instrument, or struggle to become more proficient writers? Why do there seem to be hotbeds of talent — Brazil for soccer, for example — around the world?

Dan Coyle explores this terrain in The Talent Code, released April 28. I’ve only read the first chapter — thanks to his amazing website — but I love Coyle’s writing and I’m fascinated by what he has to say about recognizing and fostering talent. Relying on scientific research and his journalistic ability to uncover overlooked personal stories and societal patterns, Coyle looks at the world-class abilities of major athletes and performers. But he also gives the reader practical insights and personal hope by passing on tips for how any person can better develop his or her own skills — even something as basic and non-competitive as overcoming shyness. Furthermore, he considers the parent’s role in helping children discover their own talents, not by pushing them into some pre-ordained mold, but by paying attention to what stokes their natural passions.

Coyle, the author of the bestselling Lance Armstrong’s War and the autobiographical Hardball: A Season in the Projects (made into a movie starring Keanu Reeves), is an author and magazine writer of national caliber. The fact that we Alaskans get to claim him as one of our own — he lives in Homer, with his wife and four children — is just icing on the cake. He’ll be appearing at Title Wave in Anchorage on Friday, May 8th at 7:00.

Did you start out writing about just soccer talent, with the other ideas snowballing along the way, or did you always envision this as a multifaceted look at talent development in general?

In one way or another, I’ve been writing about talent for a long time – much of my magazine work, and the Armstrong book, is built around the mysteries of peak performance, what factors help certain people to grow up to be great, that kind of thing. But this project really had two beginnings.

The first was a map. Not a pretty map – just one I started sketching on scratch paper. I was looking at where the top tennis, golf, and soccer players were born (sports are handy because they’re always keeping track of who’s best). I found these strange little clusters. The map didn’t look random at all, especially when you looked at them over time. For instance, there was a bunch of tennis stars from Moscow who suddenly appeared in the late 1990s – whereas before there had been none. Why is that? The map didn’t look like a random distribution of genes – it looked like the map of something growing.

The second was a footnote. I was reading this book about expert performance (long winters, don’t you know) and bumped into mention of a study of piano players that showed a certain neural substance called myelin increased proportionally with practice.

The next day I called a neurologist at the National Institutes of Health named Doug Fields. When I mentioned myelin, Dr. Fields got excited—he didn’t quite freak out (he’s a neurologist, after all) but he came close — using words like “epiphany” and “revolution,” and he connected the skill circuits of Tiger Woods to the myelin he had earned through practice. He described how it worked: you practice in the right way, you earn a bit of myelin, and it makes you faster, better, more fluent.

In thirty seconds, I got the feeling that as a journalist you always hope for: that you’re on the leading edge of something big. For the last hundred years, every scientist was studying neurons – almost zero were studying myelin, and now it looked like that was where the action was, when it came to questions of acquiring skill and talent. I then got a magazine assignment to travel to the hotbeds to see what they were like – to see if there were certain common patterns they followed. And it turned out, long story short, that all these mysterious hotbeds are essentially the same place, doing the same thing: growing skill circuits with the same set of tools.

You’ve given this a how-to spin, making it of immediate interest to people with aspirations for themselves or their children. Please, do tell — is there an amateur talent you’ve struggled to develop?

Yeah, I ended up applying a lot of this stuff to my own life. I can’t say I’m particularly good at anything (most of my circuitry is connected to writing—can you relate?) but I found myself using these principles when I was playing hockey. I started a couple years ago, and I was pretty terrible – I couldn’t do a real hockey stop, or crossover, and pretty much got schooled by any decent ten-year-old. But I applied these rules – I practiced deeply—and I’ve gotten better. (Added factor: my wife plays on a team – so I guess you could say I had plenty of motivation.) It helped with playing guitar, which I’m also less mediocre at than I was – and I can learn songs a lot faster now.

Mostly, though, I used it coaching Little League. I’ve coached on and off for ten years, and only this past year did I feel like I was really coaching, as opposed to being a Friendly Encourager and Chief Suggester. Basically, I stole a bunch of ideas from the master coaches I met at the hotbeds – their way of teaching to the individual (as opposed to broadcasting general information to the team), of seeking to create and correct errors (as opposed to avoiding/ignoring them) really helped. Plus they had lots of concepts—like slowing down the game, or shrinking it into a tiny space –that had a huge effect.

About the children, again. Given that you’re a father of four, what did you learn doing this project that relates most to your own family? Any major changes to your previous parenting philosophies?

It’s funny, but these ideas have sort of slid into our lives. Like with music practices. Our kids play instruments, and like every other parent in the history of the world, we’re always reminding them to do their practice. But here’s the thing: not all practice is created equal. Certain kinds of practice – which I call deep practice – add skill ten times faster than shallower practice. So when we see signs of the kids practicing deeply (which basically means that they’re right on the edge of their ability, making errors, fixing them – firing their circuits and adding myelin, basically), we don’t care if they only spend just ten minutes doing it– because that’s worth hours and hours of shallow practice.

Or with motivation. The main lesson of visiting these hotbeds was that motivation operates like a hair-trigger. When a kid identifies with something—when he or she can see themselves doing it for a long time—then that’s like rocket fuel that can fuel the deep, productive practice. That moment of ignition is a cool and mysterious thing – what makes that happen? It’s certainly not logical—it’s pure emotion, a primal connection, and it has big consequences.

There’s this great study in the book that shows how this works. A scientist named Gary McPherson took several hundred kids and started studying their musical progress. He started before they even picked out an instrument, and followed them for a dozen years – an amazingly comprehensive study. So the kids start playing and soon they’re sorted as we’d expect: a few of the kids zoom off, progressing really quickly. A few hardly progress at all. Most are somewhere in the middle.

So McPherson goes back and asks, so what key factor is causing this? Why do some kids zoom and some plod along? He analyzes all the data he’s gathered on the kids (and he’s got tons). Is it IQ? (No.) Ability to identify a tone? (No.) Is it math ability? (No.) Ability to keep rhythm? (No.) Is it socioeconomic status? Income? Parents? (No, no, no.)

The only thing it is – the factor that determined their progress – was their answer to a question he’d asked them BEFORE they even started. The question was: how long do you think you’re going to play this instrument?

The kids who said, “I’m going to play for a year or so” – they hardly progressed at all. The kids who said, “I’m going to play for through elementary school” – they were in the middle. And the kids who were ignited, who said, “I am going to play this my whole life” – they zoomed off, progressing 400 percent faster than the others.

The lesson here is that their progress had nothing to do with their aptitude. It had everything to do with some mysterious moment where the kids got this idea: I am a musician. This idea wasn’t logical (remember it didn’t correlate with any tonal or rhythmic ability they had). But this tiny idea had huge consequences. When a child’s identity gets wrapped up in a goal, they’re tapping into a huge fuel source.

So as a parent, I now see my job as keeping an eye out for those moments of ignition. The kids won’t tell you of course—how inconvenient! — but they’ll give it away in other ways that you can pick up. In fact, a Stanford psychologist named Carol Dweck has a nice rule. She says that all parenting can be boiled down to two simple things: 1) pay attention to what your kids stare at; 2) praise them for their effort. And I have to say, that works. It also makes for a lot more pleasant life around the house, I have to say.

When I heard of the book, my first thought was to compare it to Malcolm
Gladwell’s Outliers.
Do you want to spell out any distinctions between your book and his, any differences in opinion about how talent is promoted at the individual or societal level?

First, let me say that I think Outliers is terrific. In fact, it’s part of a nice wave of books about talent out right now – one is called Talent is Overrated, by Geoff Colvin, and I hear the Freakonomics authors are also working on one. So the subject of talent is in the air.

If I had to draw a distinction, I would say that Gladwell’s book flies at 30,000 feet, identifying the big forces that lead to talent (which in his view have to do with opportunity, culture, and luck). It’s intriguing stuff, and makes you think about the big picture—how we structure our society, make judgments, etc.

My book, on the other hand, seeks to fly a little closer to the ground—to give a blueprint for exactly how talent is grown, to show the fundamental mechanism that we all share for growing our skill circuits, and teach people how to tap into that mechanism. His book is more about the Why – mine is about the How.

I know you’ve traveled and had opportunities to write about other nationalities. As Americans, do we crave success and reward too much? Do we practice too little? Do we push our kids for the wrong reasons (or do we fail to push/guide them enough?)

Good question. I’d say that there are other cultures that are definitely more in tune with the talent mechanism. I remember meeting a tennis coach at Spartak (that Moscow tennis club with one indoor court). She had a rule: no tournaments for three years. Her students spend three years learning the stroke before they compete – and the reason is that when you compete, you can get really bad habits (skill circuits) because you want to win. Most hotbeds are like that: you have to master the instrument before you can play in the orchestra, as the saying goes.

When a culture makes mistakes (like pushing kids too hard, for instance), I’d like to suggest that it’s because they don’t understand the way the talent mechanism truly works. For instance, if you are part of a culture that believes that talent is purely genetic, a divine spark someone is born with, then you don’t tend to focus on hard practice – because after all, they just need to “express” their “gift.”

Or if you are part of a culture that believes all talent is a result of hard practice alone—that a kid has to do 1,000 golf swings a day to be like Tiger—then you will push your kid too hard, guaranteed.

But if on the other hand you are part of a culture that understands that talent requires both deep practice and ignition – and that the motivation must come from the kid – and that motivation should then be funneled into certain kinds of productive practice – then you’re a lot closer to how things really work (and, not coincidentally, how Tiger Woods and Gretzky and Michelangelo all really built their own talents).

The hopeful thing is that cultures can change. Physical fitness is a good example. Our grandparents never worked out; in those days, people who ran marathons were regarded as nuts—genetic freaks. All that changed when the culture came to understand how muscles really work; when they understood the idea that if you pushed yourself (no pain, no gain!) you could get a lot stronger. You didn’t have to be a genetic freak to run a marathons—in fact, most grandmothers could do it. We’re realizing now that our skills—which are literally circuits in our brains—are built to operate exactly the same way as our muscles. If we work those circuits in the right way, they get faster, stronger, more fluent.

Finally, did The Talent Code change the way you think about developing your own skills as a writer? I admire that you write in multiple genres, and I appreciate your mention of the Bronte sisters. Do you have any personal literary insights regarding getting better as a writer that you’d like to share?

I don’t know how insightful it is, but I will say that it took a loo-oong time to figure out how to write this book. I’ve got twelve 180-page notebooks that are my practice field—I wrote hundreds and hundreds of pages, trying to figure out how to tell a story, how to make this kind of voice work. I studied how Gladwell did it, and other writers handled this kind of material – Steve Johnson, Oliver Sacks, Johah Lehrer, Michael Lewis. I relied a lot on having some good readers – my wife, Jen, and my brother Maurice chief among them. And “good” in this case means that they told me the truth.

Throughout, I made a LOT of mistakes—false starts, areas of reporting that didn’t pan out, outlines that got scrapped, introductions that proved, on reflection, kind of stupid. One of the problems with writing is that the eventual outcome is so polished that it’s easy to forget the foundation on which it is built—in my case, those 12 notebooks. But one thing I like about this story is that it casts our failures into a new light. Those are not screwups. They were, quite literally, me building the circuit to write this book. You can’t build the circuit if you don’t make those errors, because the mistakes tell you where to go. No screwups, no book.

Andromeda Romano-Lax is a co-founder of the 49writers blog, a perenially struggling amateur cellist, and a back-of-the-pack runner competing in her first marathon this June.

3 thoughts on “Dan Coyle’s THE TALENT CODE : Read about it here first…”

  1. Man, this website just keeps getting better, and it was good to start. First, a Fairbanks guy like me wonders forever who's this Coyle dude who writes great books and for Outside mag while living in AK. And here he is, with a great interview about an intriguing subject. Thanks for making this significant effort, A & D.

  2. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    Flattery will get you everywhere, Ned. Deb and I love digging up author news, all the more when we know it’s appreciated. Thanks for that!

    And a P.S. — New York Times columnist David Brooks just wrote a column (4/30) about talent in which he uses several examples from Coyle’s book, with full credit to the Homer author. Any writer would love to get that kind of plug!


  3. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    … and this morning on amazon.com, Coyle’s book is at #58. Score one for the home team.

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