A Q&A with Daniel Coyle About The Talent Code

What’s The Talent Code about?
It’s about a new way of getting really good at sports, art, music, and anything else.

How can it be so broad?

Because it has to do with our brains – and a newly discovered mechanism through which they acquire skill.

The Talent Code

What started you going on the book? 

Two things collided. The first was that I was writing an article about talent hotbeds and I came across mention of a Russian tennis club called Spartak that had produced more top-20 women players than the entire United States-and they’d done it on one indoor court.

We’ve all heard of these kinds of magical places-it’s such a cliché that we nearly take them for granted. But the sheer scale of Spartak’s accomplishment really struck me: a single club, with one crummy indoor court, in a freezing climate had outdone a wealthy nation of 300 million. It got me looking in other places – and sure enough, every talent had its own version of Spartak-a tiny island that, against all odds, produced gigantic amounts of talent.

Around the same time I came across a footnote in The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance. It discussed a brain study of top piano players, which connected increased practice and skill with a brain substance called myelin. I called up a neurologist, who described myelin as an “epiphany;” the next one I called spoke of myelin as a revolution.

Those two things-the existence of these remarkable hotbeds and this myelin-skill revolution-combined into a question: is there some hidden link that the hotbeds have unlocked?

What was the biggest surprise in your research?

How amazingly similar the talent hotbeds are. I’d go to visit a hotbed-let’s say to Brazil to visit at a soccer hotbed. Then I’d fly thousands of miles to Meadowmount, a legendary classical music academy in the Adirondacks-a place that on the surface couldn’t be more different. And yet I’d experience all kinds of weird Twilight Zone similarities. The coaches would speak with the same kind of rhythm, give the same kinds of instructions, and look at their students with the same kind of gaze. The practices would feature similar methods, like slowing things down to unbelievably slow speeds, or compressing the practice into a tiny space and  speeding it up. And here’s a weird one: many of the coaches I met, from Moscow to the Caribbean to California, drove muscle cars. Big, dark, turbocharged Mustangs and BMWs. Maybe there’s something about coaching that makes you want to go fast.

Who was the most fascinating person you met in your travels to the hotbeds?

So many to choose from, but it might be Linda Septien, a fiftysomething former opera singer who runs a pop-singing school in Dallas. Septien is the master coach behind Jessica Simpson, Demi Lovato, Ryan Cabrera, and several Idol finalists. But it wasn’t merely star power that made Septien interesting. In addition to her uncanny ability to instantly vocalize any style of music (from bel canto to hip hop to country), her natural exuberance (her house had burned down recently, she cheerily informed me, but it was no big deal), she also drove like a NASCAR racer , a fact underappreciated by the Dallas troopers who ticketed her for speeding 17 times last year. “Life’s short,” Septien told me. “What am I waiting for?”

How has this research affected the way you see top performers?

Now I pay a lot more attention to the details of their practice habits. Take the baseball player Manny Ramirez, for instance. He’s famously spacey, and because of that he gets portrayed as some kind of idiot savant – a natural-born hitter, as the saying goes. But when you dig deeper: it turns out Ramirez is an obsessive practicer-on a hitting tee, in the cage, every day, sometimes for hours. In fact, he goes a little nuts if he doesn’t get to take his swings.

This pattern – the person who secretly practices harder than anybody else- would describe any number of top performers. Frank Sinatra (who was as dedicated to rehearsals as he was to Scotch), the pianist virtuoso Vladimir Horowitz (who said if he skips one day of practice, he notices; two days, his wife notices; three days, and the world notices), and Tiger Woods (whose daily practice schedule includes three hours at the range, two and a half hours of putting and chipping, and a full18 holes). They’re all the same story: skill circuits grown and maintained through deep practice.

What about genes?

They matter, but not nearly as much as we think. Scientists have sequenced the human genome, but they can’t locate the genes for musical talent. Or math. Or art. Or sports. Mostly because genes don’t work that way.

To put it in construction terms, genes are the blueprint for our bodies. But the skill circuits that allow those bodies to perform complex skills are built through deep practice, and all the things that drive it (ignition, coaching).

How have you integrated these ideas into your own life? 

You mean besides learning incredibly useless golf tricks? Mostly I’ve used them to try to keep up with my wife, Jen, who started playing hockey a few years back (we sometimes play against each other in a Saturday night co-ed  game). When I’m learning new songs on the guitar, I copy a technique I saw at Meadowmout: I break up the song into chunks, then reconstruct it, which helps me learn it far more quickly. I also applied some of the ideas to the Little League team I coach and they worked really well. One parent said it was “like a miracle.” (I don’t know about that, but we did come within a few pitches of going to the state tournament.)

Mostly, though, I feel the change as a parent. I hope this doesn’t sound corny, but knowing about this stuff makes parenting a lot more pleasant because it narrows your focus to a few key things. Knowing how motivation works, I don’t worry that my kids have some hidden untapped genius for something or other-instead, I keep an eye out for signs that they’re ignited. Knowing how deep practice works, I don’t have to judge success by the time they spend at the piano-instead, I keep an eye out for those moments when they go into deep practice and praise them for that. Like one psychologist told me, all of parenting can be distilled to two things: pay attention to what your kids stare at, and praise them for their effort.

Though I should point out, these new ideas do occasionally create some blowback. Our dishwasher broke the other day and my eight-year-old daughter asked when I was going to fix it. I started to explain I didn’t knowhow and she cut me off: “You’d better get more myelin, Daddy.”