The Talent Code offers essential reading for those interested in how humans grow skill.

Review by Katherine Thomas, Strategic Advisor to AG Integrate

As someone who has spent their career creating change within established organisations, I’m fascinated by the notion of talent: this idea that greatness (or just an aptitude for a certain activity) is born and not made.

If I had a dollar for every time an accountant has told me they’re ‘just not a salesperson’, I’d have enough for a meal at a swanky restaurant. If I had another dollar for every time a lawyer told me that ‘it’s just not going to work with me’, I’d be treating someone else to that meal, too.

The truth is, I’ve seen all-too-often how the notion of innate ‘talent’ is used an excuse not to change. An excuse not to try something new. An excuse to stay comfortable. An excuse not to be vulnerable. But these excuses are becoming increasingly harmful to professional organisations and individuals within them, in a world where the ability to adapt and change is essential for survival, let alone success.

So it was with this in mind that I recently read Daniel Coyle’s ‘The Talent Code’: ‘Greatness isn’t born, it’s grown’. My interest in the book was piqued by the fact that it’s the most recommended on TED talk’s list of ‘books worth reading’

The reason why Coyle chose the word ‘grown’ rather than ‘made’ becomes apparent in chapter one, as he reveals that talent is a matter of biology – but not in the way we think. Rather than being innate to certain fortunate individuals, talent is created through a series of actions that trigger the ‘right’ pathways to be encoded in the brain. According to Coyle, ‘ignition’ and ‘coaching’ combine to enable ‘deep practice’. Deep practice strengthens a coating around nerves, called ‘mylein’, which intensifies connections within the brain. Myelin is an insulation that encases nerves to speed-up the transmission of messages around the brain which, in turn, builds strong memories. These memories re-surface as what we see as ‘skill’, or ‘talent’ in, say, mathematics, sport or music. There’s no doubt that Coyle sits on the ‘nurture’ side of the ‘nature/nurture’ debate.

What can we do to produce myelin around the right neural pathways? Coyle points to three key elements: ‘ignition’, ‘coaching’ and ‘deep practice’. ‘Ignition’ is about inspiration – the spark that makes someone want to achieve and believe they can do it. Lots of circumstances trigger ignition. Role models are perhaps the most obvious. ‘Coaching’ is the means by which that ignition is made real. Coyle spends quite some time looking at the qualities of ‘master coaches’ and the ways in which they enable their subjects to undertake ‘deep practice’. ‘Deep practice’ is perhaps the most well-known of Coyle’s three contributory concepts, having first been discussed by Anders Ericsson in 1993 as the ‘10,000 hours of practice’ concept. Deep practice requires focused repetition where each element of an activity is broken-down into its constituent parts and repeated until mistakes are eliminated and the right neural pathway is created and insulated with myelin. At this point, the parts are put together to create an entire action or activity which, to the outside world, looks simply like ‘talent’.

‘The Talent Code’ is at times a little repetitive (you won’t finish the book without thinking ‘myelin’ in your sleep!) and there are occasions where Coyle’s argument appears a little contradictory. However, I understand why so many leaders recommend it as essential reading for those interested in how humans grow skill.

By describing talent as a process with biology at its core, Coyle demystifies skill and makes it accessible to those who are prepared to work for it. By describing in detail how failure is a key stage of ‘deep practice’, Coyle elevates it to being an essential part of success. By focusing on the importance of ‘ignition’ and ‘master coaching’, Coyle emphasises the need for a community around change: no-one can do it alone. Valuable lessons indeed for professionals today, working in an environment where the ability to adapt and change are essential for success.

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