The Talent Code

The following is a semi-random review of Daniel Coyle’s “The Talent Code”.

the 3 keys

Deep Practice / Ignition / Master Coaching

Summed up, deep practice is the “in the zone” practice sessions. Ignition can be some sort of event or primal cue that basically leads you to think “that level of greatness could be me”. Master coaching is finding those coaches who are not necessarily world class in the skill itself, but are world class in teaching it.


Myelin is king of the skill world. You build skill by firing neural circuits and then myelin wraps around that. This leads to that sensation when something finally clicks and it feels somewhat effortless, like you’ve always known how to do it.

Myelin is living tissue. Though it never unwraps (which is why you have to replace bad habits with a different habit rather than trying to unlearn the bad habit itself), it does deteriorate, which is why you must practice the skill or a regular basis.

deep practice

In a way, deep practice is about failing upward. I tend to hear the term used in the negative context - you’ve probably heard it before referring to those people who are continually rewarded for screwing up.

So the difference here is that the deep practice sort of failing upward is like this: through deep practice you set your sights on a goal and reach for it. You get most of the way but ultimately fail at reaching it. But you’re continually setting the bar a little bit higher. See, you’re failing upward because the bar is continually being set higher and higher.

Deep practice requires that you absolutely must be comfortable with failure, because in deep practice, you’re going to be failing most of the time.

Page 94 sums things up nicely. > Of all the images that communicate the sensation of deep practice, my favorite is that of the staggering babies. Long story short: a few years ago a group of American and Norwegian researchers did a study to see what made babies improve at walking. They discovered that the key factor wasn’t height or weight or age or brain development or any other innate trait but rather (surprise!) the amount of time they spent firing their circuits, trying to walk.

However well this finding might support our thesis, its real use is to paint a vivid picture of what deep practice feels like. It’s the feeling, in short, of being a staggering baby, of intently, clumsily lurching toward a goal and toppling over. It’s a wobbly, discomfiting sensation that any sensible person would instinctively seek to avoid. Yet the longer the babies remained in that state - the more willing they were to endure it, and to permit themselves to fail - the more myelin they built, and the more skill they earned. The staggering babies embody the deepest truth about deep practice: to get good, it’s helpful to be willing, or even enthusiastic, about being bad. Baby steps are the royal road to skill.

random notes

Skills like soccer, writing, and comedy are flexible-circuit skills, meaning that they require us to grow vast ivy-vine circuits that we can flick through to navigate an ever-changing set of obstacles. Playing violin, golf, gymnastics, and figure skating, on the other hand, are consistent-circuit skills, depending utterly on a solid foundation of technique that enables us to reliably re-create the fundamentals of an ideal performance. (This is why self-taught violinists, skaters, and gymnasts rarely reach world-class level and why self-taught novelists, comedians, and soccer players do all the time.)

the rules of deep practice

Rule 1: Chunk It Up - absorb the whole thing - watch the whole movement, listen to the whole song - “It basically amounts to absorbing a picture of the skill until you can imagine yourself doing it” - break it into chunks - Meadowmount School of Music does this by doing things like breaking a piece of music into individual measures, cutting them up, putting them into an envelope, and then having students play the measures in random order (it is not spelled out whether they link the random measures together as they practice, or whether they’re just tackling one measure at a time in isolation). They also break a complicated section down into 2 note dotted-rhythm patterns (the book describes this as “the horses’ hooves sound - da-dum, da-dum”). - slow it down - “First, going slow allows you to attend more closely to errors, creating a higher degree of precision with each firing.[…] Second, going slow helps the practicer to develop something even more important: a working perception of the skill’s internal blueprints - the shape and rhythm of the interlocking skill circuits.”

Rule 2: Repeat It - myelin is a living tissue and is in the process of being broken down and repaired all the time, so the skill circuits need to be fired regularly to maintain it - the repetition needs to be in the deep practice zone and not just repetition for repetition’s sake, so more is not always better - humans seem to be capable of a max of 3-5 hours of deep practice a day - people in the so-called talent hotbeds actually practiced less than 3 hours a day, examples were in the range of 3-15 hours/week; Meadowmount was the exception with 5 hours/day of practice during the 7 week course (though not commented on in the book, this could be indicative of the fact that Meadowmount has an endpoint - if their courses lasted, say, a year then 5 hours/day requirement might be greatly reduced to a more sane level) - the main takeaway here is that short amounts of deep practice are far more worthwhile than massive time spent practicing out of the zone

Rule 3: Learn to Feel It - learn to sense your errors immediately, so that you can work on fixing them immediately - struggling is key - you’re reaching just outside of your abilities each time, falling short, and reaching again - it should never feel easy, that’s deep practice - apparently, myelin can be built for deep practice itself, so if at first you hate the process, you may soon find yourself tolerating it and then even learning to enjoy the struggle

the typo report

In a recent book review, I said it was the rare book that had zero typos. And this book further supports that, despite its mostly top notch quality, it still has some typos:


Even if you aren’t aiming your sights on being world-class at something, read this book. At the very least, you’ll be able to save yourself time because you’ll have a much better idea of what parts of practice are just killing time and what parts are actually moving you forward.