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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.

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Review by Brian Clegg

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