Monday, March 31, 2014

Book Review: The Talent Code

Title: The Talent Code
Author: Daniel Coyle

I picked up The Talent Code at the recommendation of an Accelerated Math seminar speaker, and I was blown away by the book.  The premise is in the subtitle: "Greatness Isn't Born. It's Grown. Here's How." Coyle spent over a year traveling the globe to various talent hot spots and studying numerous masters and coaches (both alive and dead) to see what made them great.  He wasn't concerned what the talent was - tennis, soccer, violin, singing, education, art, his daughter's piano teacher -- he just wanted to find world-class talent.  

What he discovered was a little thing you probably didn't know you had -- myelin.  Myelin is an insulator wrapped around your neural circuitry that helps make your neural connections more smooth and efficient.  Consider it to be like the insulation wrapped around the cord connecting your lamp to the wall outlet. If that insulation is in good condition, your lamp will light well. If not, well, let's just say you'll have problems.  The same holds true with your connections between your brain and your muscles. You need myelin to make things work well.

The theme of the book is a resounding "Skill is insulation that wraps neural circuits and grows according to certain signals.Coyle investigated three ways to make that myelin sheath grow where you want it to grow.  
  1. Practice: Many people know about the 10,000 Hour Rule to becoming an expert. Coyle takes that a step further. Your practice must be deep practice -- always reaching just beyond where you are now. That "sweet spot" is where your practice must live to be effective.  To put that in perspective: You will never become a concert pianist if your 10,000 hours of practice revolve around playing "Mary Had a Little Lamb."  Good practicers will focus on microskills to make the macroskills better. This could include practice in slow motion (If a passerby can recognize the song, you're doing it wrong) or in extreme conditions (playing with a smaller heavier ball on a smaller field). Regardless of geography or the skill being practiced, Coyle said that everyone in that sweet spot tended to have this face. 
  2. Ignition: You need a certain level of passion to put in all this practice.  (10,000 hours equates to roughly 10 years of concentrated effort.) That passion comes from an ignition point.  Maybe a countryman (or woman) did something amazing like win Wimbledon, a World Series, or Olympic medal. Maybe you think you can hit it big in music like that other girl who went to the voice coach on the other side of town. Maybe you just want to go to college. Practice creates myelin and ignition creates the passion to want to do all the practice.
  3. Coaching: Great coaches will know exactly how to push students to deep practice.  They tend to be older (60s to 70s) and have a massive matrix of information to work from. In their decades of work, they have experienced many things and can bring that to the table when working with students/athletes/musicians/whathaveyou.  They are able to quickly discern the personality and the situation they are in to know the best route to wrap that myelin (though they may not think of it that way) around the student's circuitry.  Oddly, they tend to speak little and focus on minute details (how to hold a binder, where to place your hands on the ball, how to form your vocal chords, etc.)
Application to Education:
Practice, practice, practice.  Keep the focus on a passionate goal, and push the students toward that goal. Practice isn't always fun, but when skills are viewed through the lens of myelin, it is the most important thing we do to help our students become great. 

You can read more about myelin and deep practice on The Talent Code Web Site (which I have only glanced at). 

On a personal note, I have mentioned a number of times in this blog about an illness I am recovering from. On June 3, 2012, I was hospitalized with a disease I have never heard of before.  Guillain-Barre Syndrome is a rare auto-immune disorder that attacks the myelin sheath. To say that I lost skill would be an understatement. (Let's be fair. My case was mild compared to those who were totally paralyzed, needed a respirator or pacemaker, and endured intense PT before being released from the hospital).  GBS affected my gross and fine motor skills. At my worse I could not open a straw wrapper or cut my food. Nearly two years later, I am still weakened on my left side and need to constantly monitor my exercise to find the right balance between regaining my health and pushing myself over the edge. Oddly, GBS affected me physically, not mentally. I never lost mental skills (that I know of...). I wish I went into GBS with this book in my arsenal. I may have approached my recovery differently.

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