Skip to main content

The Talent Code – Daniel Coyle ****

I started off as something of a sceptic with this book – I wasn’t sure if it was an ‘improve yourself’ manual or a science book, and to begin with it is very, very repetitive. (If I see ‘skill is a myelin insulation that wraps neural circuits and that grows according to certain signals’ one more time I’ll scream.) But it grew on me as an approach, even though I have some issues with the message, which I’ll come back to.
The odd thing about it is that the central scientific concept has been known about for decades – what happens is not at all new – but why it happens is a revelation. The idea is that through reinforcement – ‘deep practice’ as Daniel Coyle calls it – particularly when things go wrong in ways we can pick up and learn from – our brain develops pathways that become more efficient. This has been talked about for a long time in terms of the brain being a self-patterning system, where the more we use particularly pathways the more bandwidth they carry – the only new bit of science is the knowledge that this ‘thickening’ is actually of the myelin sheath around the neurons.
However, what Coyle does most effectively is to combine the information about this feature of the brain with observations of how to practice, an understanding of how seeing individuals break out can ‘ignite’ breakthroughs in others, and an excellent analysis of the most effective approach to coaching. As he makes clear, the idea that good coaching is about strong leadership and charisma simply isn’t true – it’s much more about micro manipulation on the edge of an individual’s or team’s capabilities.
This aspect of making pathways easier to use has been a conscious factor in creativity circles for many years as an example of why, to be creative, you need to slow down, to let your mind wander – because under pressure the brain uses those high bandwidth pathways and you do the same old thing. So Coyle’s ‘talent code’ is actually about how to shut down creativity. To be creative you need to make new links, new connections, travel down little used routes. If his book is correct, the talent this approach fosters is great for the sort of activity that has to be mechanical, automatic and without real creativity – playing music or sport, for example – but is useless for any kind of talent requiring creative thought.
Coyle fails to pick up on this. What he doesn’t spot is that there are two distinct aspects to a creative art like music or writing. One is technical skill. This is what he concentrates on with music (his writing examples are few and poor). But there is also the creativity required in being a composer, which requires a whole different kind of capability. Similarly, he points out a lot of writing is craft. And it is. This aspect of it can be enhanced by the approach he mentions. But it’s useless for coming up with new ideas – an equally important part of writing.
This is why the vast majority of the book concentrates on playing sport and playing music – both low creativity, high physical skill activities. As long as you realize this is what the book is about, then it really is worth reading and makes great points. What is off-putting and should be ignored though is Coyle’s claim, typified in the subtitle ‘unlocking the secret of skill in maths, art, music, sport and just about everything’ that this is a universal panacea. Sadly, it isn’t.

Paperback:  
Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you   
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Patricia Fara - Four Way Interview

Patricia Fara lectures in the history of science at Cambridge University, where she is a Fellow of Clare College. She was the President of the British Society for the History of Science (2016-18) and her prize-winning book, Science: A Four Thousand Year History (OUP, 2009), has been translated into nine languages. An experienced public lecturer, Patricia Fara appears regularly in TV documentaries and radio programmes. She also contributes articles and reviews to many popular magazines and journals, including History Today, BBC History, New Scientist, Nature and the Times Literary SupplementHer new book is Erasmus Darwin.

Why history of science?
I read physics at university, but half-way through the course I realised that had been a big mistake. Although I relished the intellectual challenge, I was bored by the long hours spent lining up recalcitrant instruments in dusty laboratories. Why was nobody encouraging us to think about the big questions – What is gravity? Does quantum mechani…

The Idea of the Brain: Matthew Cobb *****

Matthew Cobb is one of those people that you can’t help but admire but also secretly hate just a little bit for being so awesome. He is professor for zoology at the University of Manchester with a sizable teaching load that he apparently masters with consummate skill. He’s a scientific researcher, who researches the sense of smell of fruit fly maggots; I kid you not!  He’s also an attentive and loving family father but he still finds time and energy to write brilliant history of science books, three to date. His first, The Egg and Sperm Race, describes the search for the secret of human reproduction in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and is one of my favourite history of science books, on the period. His second, Life’s Greatest Secret is a monster, both in scope and detail, description of the hunt to decipher the structure and function of DNA that along the way demolishes a whole boatload of modern history of science myths. The most recent, and the subject of this review, is

The Big Ideas in Science - Jon Evans ***

The starting point of a review like this has to be to congratulate the author on his achievement, Jon Evans, because getting all of science into one relatively short book is a massive (and thankless) task. Although inevitably the result is a fairly hectic dash through the material, with limited space for subtleness, Evans manages to make the experience readable and has a light touch that is effective without becoming too simplistic.

There is only one reason this book doesn't get four stars - it's not the quality of the writing but rather the selection of the contents. Of course, there is bound to be plenty of stuff missed out - how else could you get all of science into 269 pages? But the balance is strangely skewed. Chemistry is pretty much omitted, though aspects of chemistry occur under other headings. But for me, the real problem is that physics is really under-represented. It's interesting to use Jim Al-Khalili's recent excellent physics summary title The World Acc…