Saturday, March 23, 2013

Treasure Map: The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle

What I learned reading The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle drives me to sit down and “do the work.”  That is the creative work of game design and fiction writing.  The motivation to do my work is that I can do this.  With enough time at the keyboard and deliberate focus on improvement, I can write something that I am satisfied with.  It might take ten years, but I can do it.  The Talent Code parallels the message of Imagine.  The central premise of Imagine suggests that to be human is to be creative.  Creativity is not a special gift.  Daniel Coyle takes a giant step beyond that suggesting that talent is over rated.  You are not a special and unique snowflake.  Everyone can develop a high degree of competence in a skill. 

Coyle, a journalist, was researching a story about places where a statistically improbable number of talented athletes were developed and trained.  He visited these “talent hot spots” to speak with the coaches and find out what made these places special.  Examples from the book include Brazilian soccer programs, a tennis club in Russia and a little league program on a poor Caribbean island.   He asked an obvious question; How does a Russian tennis club in a run down industrial building with a single indoor court produce more top 20 players than all the clubs in the US combined?  How does a tiny Caribbean island with a per capita income of less than the US poverty line get its little league team to the world series year after year?

The reason is coaches and teachers in these “talent hotbeds” teach and require what Coyle calls “deep practice.”   Deep practice is a method by which the student or athlete develops a skill by focusing on the thing being done, immediately correcting an error.  It may be that the student has to do this very slowly.  It may be that the athlete has to train in a smaller space or with a smaller ball that makes precision handling necessary.  A key component to the method is correction of error. The student will make errors in this practice and the error is immediately attended to.  The finger is moved a centimeter up the fret board, the knee bent a little more the pencil gripped with less tension.  The task is performed over and over until the student masters it.  The degree of mastery depends on the amount of deep practice the student puts in. 

Coyle explains that neuroscience has evidence that skills are built by this deep deliberate practice through a process called myelination.  The body insulates neural pathways that carry signals from the brain to muscles and other body tissues required for a task.  When there is an intense and repeated stimulus during a particular act, the body adds more myelin to the axons which make up the pathways necessary to respond to the stimulus.  Muscles are built by repeated minor stress to the muscle.  Neural pathways are built by repeated stress on the pathway.  Coyle goes into the specifics of this at a level a layman can understand.  This hypothesis of skill is relatively new and still being studied.  The mechanisms are not entirely understood but the early research is promising.  Understanding this process may change the way we teach children, coach athletes and train employees.

Daniel Coyle shows us that a motivated person can become highly skilled through desire, deliberate practice and good coaching.  This is nothing new.  The best coaches and teachers have been doing this for a long time.  They figured it out by trial and error or learned it from a mentor.  The old apprentice system of masters training apprentices was based on the deliberate practice model.  For the first time, neuroscience is telling us what the mechanism underlying this process is.  This understanding can help us to make learning more efficient and effective.  What it also tells us is that “talent” may have little to do with developing mastery in a skill.  That is the most important theme of this book, in my mind.  

How many times have you heard the story about a world famous guitar player teaching themselves how to play the guitar?  They didn’t have money for lessons and bought an old mail order guitar at a garage sale with a Beatles lesson book.  Spending several thousand hours in their bedroom with the old guitar and the lesson book, they become a huge pop star in their early twenties.  How many poor kids have become sports superstars got their start standing under a ragged hoop on a playground shooting free throws for hours and hours?  

A person who wants to develop mastery and is willing to spend the time and resources necessary to achieve that mastery can do so.  It is depth of commitment that matters most.  Getting good coaching to help direct the deep practice will make the process more efficient but without the desire and commitment all the talent in the world won’t help. 

There are certain skills that require a certain bone structure or ability to build muscle mass that are rare.  For example, it takes a certain build to be a Pro Bowl linebacker.
There are some skills that are easier to do if you have a certain physical make up.  A person with long fingers is going to be able to make long stretches on the neck of a bass guitar that a short fingered person may not.  It also seems that certain skills develop easier than others.  I have had the experience of struggling with a skill whilst  being able to develop other skills to a reasonable level of competence within a short period of time.  I don’t know why this is and it is not something addressed in the book. 

Acquiring skill requires a deep commitment to the work and is not easy to do.  It is claimed in The Talent Code and other publications that it takes 10,000 hours to achieve high level mastery of a skill.  For me, what the book has done is help me to keep in mind that I’m not spinning my wheels.  Incremental improvement is difficult to see unless the skill you are training has an objective and measurable standard.  In the arts, detecting improvement can be hard.  There may have been something special about Shakespear, Dante and Homer.  Then again, what may have been special about them was an ability to overcome their self doubt and work until they produced something that we read and remember today.  

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