Better Read Than Never: THE TALENT CODE

REVIEWED: The Talent Code: Greatness Isn’t Born, It’s Grown. Here’s How by Daniel Coyle (2009)

When I received my mutt of a Psychology degree in the early 1980s, I felt at ease discussing neurons, axons, synapses, neurochemical transmitters crossing the synaptic gap to a neighbouring nerve cell, and so on. I hadn’t specialized in neurophysiology (I hadn’t specialized in anything, including Psychology), but I could fake the basics. I could speak glibly of glial cells, though nobody knew much about what they did. What else? Oh, I was also a walk-on athlete, not quite good enough to make the varsity basketball teams at two different Ontario universities, but good enough to think I would’ve made it if, and stubborn enough to continue this skullbound conversation long after I had turned my athletic ambition to being the coach that I wished I’d had.

When The Talent Code, Daniel Coyle’s look at the intersection of brain science with athletic and other kinds of development, came to my attention, I knew I would inhale it even if it wasn’t good. Thankfully, it is. His subtitle refuelled an old argument for me and every educator and coach. How important is talent? What is talent? Coyle’s book joins Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers as part of a contemporary attack on individualistic mythology. As the “Great Man” theory of history has been undermined by more nuanced and complex views, so too do these popular writers seek to disable the notion that “talent”, “genius”, and performance exceptionalities of all kinds are simple results of a genetic or a cosmic lottery. Gladwell showed that Bill Gates did not “come out of nowhere”, but that his exceptional mind and interests were fed by a rich and fortuitous matrix of circumstance. Coyle does a similar thing but from a different starting point. He uses recent breakthroughs in neuroscience to argue that greatness is not nearly as mysterious as we tend to think.

In the mid-1980s, according to Coyle, yet another scientist studied a portion of Albert Einstein’s preserved brain. (For nearly 60 years that mighty organ has been dissected, groped and scoped. Thanks, Al!) To earlier findings about his distinctive brain anatomy were added two results, one disappointing and one almost comically irrelevant: the Brain did not have an unusual number of neurons or synapses, but did appear to have an overabundance of glial cells. But twenty years later, the latter finding has new significance. Glial cells have later been implicated in the production of myelin (remember that word), a fatty protein sheath that coats the long “axons” that extend from brain cells. This is a revolution in modern neuroscience: it has been shown that this non-descript wrapping around the neurons is actually insulation, like rubber around an electrical wire, making neural signals travel with greater speed and potency along the axons toward neighbouring neurons. And what causes these layers to form? Learning does, from gross motor actions (walking and running) to the finest movements of a musician to the mental pyrotechnics of a 20th century genius.

Daniel Coyle’s initial interest was largely an athletic one. He was curious about why “talent hotbeds” arose. Why were Brazilians, in a world crazy for soccer, indisputably the most creative and theatrically skilled individuals? How had one tennis academy in Moscow produced such a large proportion of top-20 international players, or South Korea suddenly become freakishly dominant in women’s professional golf? What explains the ridiculous success of the tiny island of Curacao at the Little League (baseball) World Series? Along the way, he began to study and interview scientists about the new frontier in brain research, centring on myelin and the process of myelination. His book, therefore, is as thoroughly wrapped in myelin as the neural circuitry governing the golf swing of Se Ri Pak, and the “out of nowhere” posse of South Koreans that emulated her.

So do you think success is largely natural? Do you accept that only the gifted few have great talent? Coyle offers a convincing counter-argument. The “talent code” that he offers is a simple trinity. (This “code” is not startling or new in itself, but the brain science context gives it new force and applicability.) The first section of the book discusses “Deep Practice”, and what it feels and looks like to work just beyond the borders of what you can actually do; like Outliers, Coyle cites the now-famous “10,000 Hour Rule” of mastering a given skill. There must be fuel, though, to spend so many hours operating at the frontiers of ability, and the book’s second part, “Ignition”, explains and offers samples of the fires of motivation in action. The third element of the code is the educational guide, the master teacher. We catch glimpses of the work of legendary basketball guru John Wooden, of the “world’s greatest cello teacher”, Hans Jenssens, of Coyle’s children’s 86-year-old piano teacher, Miss Epperson, among many others. And, not quite ten thousand times, Coyle repeats the mantric understanding that underlies his thesis: Skill is a cellular insulation that wraps neural circuits and that grows in response to certain signals. The mechanism of that myelin insulation, and the signals – tutorial, motivational, practical – that develop it, are the book. Talent production is not mysterious, he argues. You can try this at home, and we ought to.

And if that all sounds like hard work, it’s not. The Talent Code is less than 250 pleasantly digestible pages. Last night, I finished a re-reading with my 11-year-old son, an extended series of bedtime stories. (I have many failings as a parent, but we did master “the reading code”: Read pleasurably. Read to your children. Cuddle while doing so. Celebrate books. Repeat. All my sons read like it’s their genetic inheritance.) It all goes down quite easily, even the brain science; like Gladwell, Coyle is a skilled popularizer of niche arguments.

In his attempt to break down the long-standing and, I’d argue, crippling bias of “natural talent”, The Talent Code may occasionally seem to go too far. Coyle even points toward perhaps the most elemental expression of “talent”: the Olympic sprinter. Surely that can’t be taught, right? That’s just genes! As a long-time basketball coach in a small Canadian town, I often felt that I was trying to make rabbit stew without much in the way of rabbits. (Or “trying to make chicken soup out of chicken s–t”, as my more frank buddies accused.) And yet. Though he doesn’t belabour the point, Coyle does present into evidence the remarkable likelihood that Olympic championship sprinters are among the last children born to their large families. Birth order! Gold medallists begin, he suggests, as the little guys always trying to catch up, always practising just beyond the limits of their ability, always fuelled by sibling admiration. It’s a radical but fascinating thought.

Coyle is a good storyteller. He does a fine job of explaining biochemical, physiological, educational and psychological studies in reader-friendly ways. He also leavens the facts with anecdotes and case histories, wittily told, that illumine his argument. In last night’s reading of the Epilogue, Coyle “brings it home” by talking about his success using what he’d learned in the talent hotbeds, and from the profiles of master coaches, in dramatically improving the skills of his tiny town’s Little League baseball team. At one point, he describes young outfielder Sam, and his hitting stroke that initially “resembled a person fighting off a wolverine”. (Nice!) Even nicer that Sam hits a home run in the regional tournament, and that the team, usually horribly overmatched against the city boys, that year was competitive, unembarrassed and eager to keep playing on into the night once the formal games were over. And while sports offer many of the book’s examples, he also investigates musical and educational hotbeds, like the American “Knowledge is Power Program” schools (as did Gladwell).

Anyone who has parented, taught, coached or had any of these done to them will find in The Talent Code not only a pleasant and enlightening read, but perhaps even a transformative one. As he concludes, he suggests ways in which “myelin thinking” applies to psychological therapy, the infamous North American “reading wars” (one of his most resonant insights), aging, and growing a successful business. But his most delighted observations concern the way that his own family, and its four young children, has adopted a key premise of his argument, something that the greatest teachers have always known: failure, properly understood (and well myelinated!), is an essential element of the highest success. Little Zoe ends the book with her ignited commitment to her own understanding of deep practice. “I’m going to practice it a zillion million times,” she said. “I’m going to play super good.”

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