Book review – The Talent Code

Following Deep Work I was hungry for something that would help me make the most of the time I spent trying to get better. I didn’t have this thought foremost in my mind when I scrolled through my priority reads folder, but… lucky, remember?

So I pulled The Talent Code from my stack and set to it. It turned out to be another one of those books I get hooked on, and I read most of it over the weekend. The prose flows, and the ideas are interesting. Daniel Coyle takes us on a tour of several “chicken-wire Harvards”, places in the world where “talent”, defined as, “the possession of repeatable skills that don’t depend on physical size,” spring up with the profusion of dandelions.

So, what is talent made of?

If you read my review on Deep Work, you won’t be surprised when I say, “myelin”. Neurons fire together and wire together, and this sets the basic circuit diagram, but it’s not the whole picture. As you practice, ideally focusing on exactly the skill you’re trying to build, ogliodendrocytes wrap the axons in the circuit in myelin, reducing the signal leakage, and tuning the circuit to fire faster or slower, as needed, adjusting it to work in an exact pattern of sequence and timing.

How do you build up your myelin? Practicing at the edge of your ability, and in such a way that you get fast feedback. The example held up as a central one early on is of a girl learning to play a clarinet piece, doing so in a somewhat halting fashion, trying a little, stopping to consider what wasn’t right, and then trying again. What looks from the outside to be fractured and useless is in fact high level practice – so much so that Daniel says the video could be called, “The Girl Who Did a Month’s Worth of Practice in Six Minutes”.

Struggle and difficulty are the key to becoming great. Brazilian soccer is the example here – Brazilians often have limited space in which to practice, and a version of the game that takes this into account known as “football in the room” with a smaller, heavier ball, is held up as the secret to great soccer. Football in the room, or ‘futsal’, puts much more pressure on the players to maintain ball control, to think quickly, to deal with tough situations, and it shows when they get out on the larger field with the lighter ball.

The myth of the genius performer, brilliant from the start, is dissolved as well. The Brontë sisters come up here – for a long time, they were considered to be inexplicable prodigies, springing up with expertise as if given by the gods. Instead, they spent their childhoods cooperatively writing, starting with nearly direct copies of the magazine articles and books around them. Over time, their skill grew, and they eventually became the great authors we celebrate to this day.

A particularly interesting example is the artists of the Renaissance. A small place and a brief time produced many of the greatest artistic works of human history. Why? Practice. Vast, vast amounts of practice, optimized under the guild system. Children were apprenticed to masters, who taught them their craft from the bottom up with endless practice. The great artists of the time spent their youth mixing paints, preparing canvases, and sharpening chisels, surrounded by inspiring works and other experts. Directly from the mouth of one who lived it –

“If people knew how hard I had to work to gain my mastery,” Michelangelo later said, “it would not seem so wonderful at all.”

The Talent Code is an excellent examination of where talent comes from, what it’s made of, and how to get some of your own. It delves deeply into how to grow your talent, and I’d heartily recommend it to anyone who cares to become great.

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