Where does extraordinary talent come from? Daniel Coyle comes up with an intriguing answer in The Talent Code, a highly readable account of the neuroscience of skill and talent.
Though popular perception has often regarded talent as something otherworldly – a gift of the gods, perhaps, and certainly nothing that anyone could do anything about – in fact, according to modern neuroscience, talent is much more mundane, being nothing more than the wiring of chains of neural circuits inside the brain.
It all has to do with myelin, the substance that insulates the synaptic connections between the neurons. Every human skill is the result of the formation of such synaptic chains of nerve fibers. When brain circuits are fired the right way, myelin is generated, insulating those connections, making the signal flowing through them clearer, stronger, faster.
According to Coyle, the degree of this insulation is what is responsible for talent – the more time and energy you put into the right practice, the more myelin is deposited on those neural circuits associated with that practice, the more talent you achieve. It is as if the brain builds more broadband for those circuits that are activated in the right way. The right way is that of deep practice, one of the three key ingredients that are responsible for the creation of the neural architecture of talent. The other two identified by Coyle are ignition and master coaching.
What is deep practice? It is the struggle against that which is just beyond the grasp of one's ability. Struggling with something difficult makes you smarter because it signals to the brain to start building more broadband in repose. Struggle is not optional – it is neurologically required. In order for a skill circuit to fire optimally, it must first fire suboptimally; in other words, it must first fail. You must make mistakes and pay attention to them if you are to become skilled. And you must keep up the practice, firing that skill circuit until enough myelin is build up around it.
This insight is revolutionary because it suggests that talent can be manufactured – all you need is a space in which you can practice making errors, struggling until you can overcome them. It is also counterintuitive because we imagine that the person with talent somehow does a thing right the first time.
But deep practice takes place in the narrow gap between what you already know and what you need to do. This deep practice does not involve threshing. There exists a “sweet spot” between your skill and what you're reaching to achieve. It is in that gap that talent is born. How exactly does one do this? Coyle enumerates further aspects of deep practice: 1) absorb the whole thing; 2) break it into parts or “chunks”; 3) slowly practice each part; 4) and repetition.
But practice alone is not enough. You need to love what you're doing, you need the desire to achieve a goal – you need fire. Without such deep need to practice every day, you will never develop talent because you will never endure the long years of necessary deep practice. Coyle calls this desire ignition.
Ignition is really faith in oneself, or, more specifically, in one's ultimate achievement of the idealized self. It is belief that one is a musician, a writer, or a signer, and this faith is the zeal that motivates the long years of deep practice necessary to materialize that idealized self.
Ignition can be kept alive by a good mentor, teacher or a coach. Good coaching has everything to do with helping the student learn techniques to overcome failure. A good teacher knows the subject, the student and how to help the student connect to the subject, and he keeps the flame of the ignition going by helping the student believe in himself.
Faith is of the key elements that differentiates those who are able to commit to the long march that deep practice requires and those who were not. Those who believe that they will ultimately reach the end, will do so. But those who lose hope will fail to put in the necessary years of deep practice to become talented.
The book is highly inspiring and its message deeply affirming of human potential to achieve almost anything one desires if only one has the determination to put in the requisite amount of deep practice. It's filled with thought-provoking information, and its insights have important implications for other aspects of the human experience beyond talent and skill. The processes described by Coyle, for example, also apply to problems such as depression, anxiety, OCD and many other disorders of the brain, suggesting that overcoming these problems is a matter of developing new circuitry in the brain by practicing having different thoughts.
One of the thought-provoking aspects is the idea that once we learn skills to the point where they become second nature, they pass into the unconscious mind, a storehouse of all such skills, through something called automaticity. But skills and talent are not the only circuits that become part of the unconscious, as anyone who ever heard of Freud will no doubt know; maladaptive circuits hide there, too. Which, in turn, makes one think about who and what we really are. Circuits, deeply insulated by meylin, our personalities, seem to be just patterns in the gray matter. But if this seems depressing, it also has a silver lining: we can change, no matter who we are and how afflicted we seem to be. We just need that spark of ignition, the faith in the ultimate success, the fire to start deep practice of new thoughts, behaviors and new selves.