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Book Review / The Talent Code | Greatness Isn’t Born. It’s Grown. Here’s How.

The books is called The Talent Code, the reviewer is called Khatzumoto and the innocent bystander in all this is you! Let the opinionating begin…


The Talent Code: Greatness Isn’t Born. It’s Grown. Here’s How.  Author: Daniel Coyle [Official Website]




  • Nailing more holes in the coffin of talentism and biological determininsm. That kind of thing is always welcome.
  • Gets more into the internal neurological (cellular) details of becoming awesome than other books (which focus primarily on the external mechanics of the matter).
  • This book can be summarized in one word: myelin(ation). It focuses on this one point and drives it home from many different angles.
  • Where Colvin (Talent Is Overrated) mentions myelin only in passing, Coyle sets it front and center as more or less the Grand Unifying Theory of skill and so-called talent. Myelin is the root of all talent. That’s what Coyle is telling us. It’s beautiful, elegant and simple (but not simplistic) message.
  • Coyle isn’t obsessed with pain the way Colvin was. He’s open to the idea of things being fun. Insofar as he values deep practice, he’s still on the same page as Colvin in all the right ways. But Colvin wants you to slog; Colvin is anti-automaticity. Coyle, on the other hand, is very much open to fun and unconsciously developed awesomeness (as is the case with futsal). The automaticity thing could just be poor choice of words on Colvin’s part — of course deep practice entails a great deal of  seeking out and plugging up errors, but the fact is that those errors get plugged precisely because the correct behavior becomes automatic.


  • No Japanese translation
  • Occasional ageism. The last thing adults need is more excuses to not try. I am sick to far king death 😀 of this age crap. When I was a kid, the answer to anything was always always always “you’re too young, wait until you’re older”. Do not pull this bait and switch crap on me now. I’m here; I’m alive and I’m going to do stuff. End of story.
  • Occasional goofy-sounding “story”-style chapter intros
  • Occasionally condescending explanations of science. Hello? Think of the audience here. I’m reading hardcover book! I’m pseudo-smart!…I don’t need the smiley youth camp coordinator tone!
  • The text has that Time/Newsweek habit of acting as if: “we, and we alone have the answers, and we may have been slightly wrong before, but we’re right now and we’re here re-educating, you, the ignorant masses”.
  • Which reminds me of one time back in the day when Time/Newsweek (I can never tell these two apart in my memory) were chuckling at their own WW2-era print racism: “haha, we were so racist and jingoistic back then…yeah, but we’re good now and racism and jingoism are bad bad…except against Arabs. Because, of course, Arabs deserve it. Why do they hate us? Why are they so ungrateful? We’re only trying to help!”
  • Yeah, basically, the text sometimes displays an annoying confluence of chattiness, condescension and (perhaps most potentially grating of all) a delightful unawareness of its own chatty condescension. Again…that Camp Counselor Effect.



Before I talk about the cool parts of this book, let me talk about the goofy ones, just to be mean.

“[Deep practice] requires motivational fuel…In this section we’ll see how motivation is created…through a process I call ignition. Ignition and deep practice work together to produce skill in exactly the same way that a gas tank combines with an engine to produce velocity in an automobile”

Wow…so ignition, is like the starter thing that, like, ignites the energy, right? Like, in the same way that a pilot light works with methane to produce thermal energy in a gas cooker, right? The “pilot” in “pilot light” like is like the “pilot” in “pilot episode” of a television show. The pilot episode and a team of writers work together to produce a TV show in exactly the same way that one doesn’t need effing friggin fake swearing paragraph-long explanations of what the word “ignition” means! Argh! If you’re going to go to the trouble of singing me camp songs about ignition, your name had better be R. Kelly! OK, I’ve bullied Coyle enough. Poor guy. Fundamentally, he’s written a worthwhile, informative and even inspiring book, all without ever going mushy. That’s a major achievement. Like Colvin, he’s done all this and made put it in a very readable, cogent package. By way of their respective books, both Colvin and Coyle have given us clear, unambiguous reference points that, AFAIK, didn’t exist before. Which is not to denigrate the research of homeboys like Anders Ericsson, it’s just that Ericsson’s work mostly sits spread out across multiple, separate academic papers; there isn’t as much of that unifying “here it is, badabing” point (not yet, at least…although…the Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance kinda sorta almost counts) that Coyle and Colvin’s books have provided so well. Anyway, with that intro out of the way, let’s pick out and dialogue with some major gems from Talent Code:

“myelin doesn’t care about who you are. It only cares about what you do”.

Replace “myelin” with “Japanese” and you have a one-line philsophy for language immersion right there: “Japanese doesn’t care about who you are. It only cares about what you do”.

“Futsal compresses soccer’s essential skills into a small box…Players touhing the ball 600% more often learn far faster, without realizing it, than they would in the vast, bouncy expanse of the outdoor game…futsal is not the only reason Brazilian soccer is great…But futsal is the lever through which those other factors transfer their force”. “Repetition is invaluable and irreplaceable” “Daily practice matters” “Every skill [is] a form of memory”

I have three letters for you: SRS. Three more words: overlapping cloze deletions. Coyle appears not to be familiar with SRS. But he uses cloze deletions in all but name as a reader exercise to explain the concept of deep practice.

“Thinking that talent comes from genes…is like thinking that cookies come from sugar, flour and butter, It’s true enough, but not sufficiently detailed to be useful…prewiring a million-wire circuit for a complex higher skill is a stupid and expensive bet…Our genes…aren’t in the business of making stupid and expensive bets”

Haha. That’s a really good analogy. It’s interesting that Coyle should use cookies — and thereby cooking — as an example. Two people (or one person at two different times) can have access to essentially the exact same ingredients but make two very different-tasting dishes. One can even have access to drastically less fancy ingredients, but through better process, make a better-tasting dish. This may or not be the idea that Coyle was going for, but it is something that can be picked up from the text. Speaking of the text, this next part, where Coyle uses broadband internet as a metaphor for myelin, sent chills down my spine:

“Instead of prewiring for specific skills, what if…genes dealt with the skill issue by building millions of tiny broadband installers and distributing them throughout…the brain. The broadband installers wouldn’t be…complicated — in fact, they’d all be identical, wrapping wires with insulation to make the circuits work faster and smoother. They would work according to a single rule: whatever circuits are fired most, and most urgently, are the ones where the installers will go. Skill circuits that are fired often will receive more broadband…our genes…let our…actions…determine what skills we grow”

Or, put more succinctly:

“although talent feels and looks predestined, in fact we have a good deal of control over what skills we develop, and we each have more potential than we might ever presume to guess”

Woodshed it to get it. Use it or lose it. But Coyle doesn’t just stop there. Not even fighter pilots are safe from his myelin shotgun of righteousness:

“Early pilot training was built on the bedrock belief that good pilots are born, not made [this led to a lot of deaths before a guy named Edwin Link came along with a toy-like pilot training device — a primitive flight simulator, if you will]…Edwin Link’s trainer worked…well for the same reason [cloze deletions do]…Air Corps pilots who trained in Links were no braver or smarter than the ones who crashed. They simply had the opportunity to practice more deeply.”

What’s good for the pilot is good for the language-learner. If any language learners are getting better results than you, it’s not because they’re smarter or more “talented”, it’s because they have a better mindset and actions. They don’t have better flour or sugar than you; they’re just using better, simpler, funner cookie recipes. K, so…I guess I’ve spent more time commenting on quotes from the book than actually reviewing it, but…it’s just that cool of a book, what can I say 🙂 ? It’s packed with all sorts of eye-widening vignettes and insights;  I’ve barely even scratched the surface. Crucially (for anyone tempted to overwork themselves) Coyle points out that deep practice is tiring (soporific even): you need to do it to get good, but you simply can’t do it for that long each day…90 minutes is a perfectly normal upper limit. In AJATT terms: have fun, SRS is small chunks throughout the day, and don’t SRS yourself to death. The Talent Code 😀 . Definitely a keeper. This bad boy is one you’re going to want to come back to many times. OK, I couldn’t resist. Here’s one last pearl of wisdom from Dan-Dan…wow…I think I need to be more respectful to writers…

“The more we develop a skill circuit, the less we’re aware that we’re using it. This process, which is called automaticity…creates a powerfully convincing illusion: a skill, once gained, feels utterly natural, as if it [were] something we’ve always possessed.”

Everyone worked for their language ability once. It only seems like it came effortlessly after the fact. Believe that.

  5 comments for “Book Review / The Talent Code | Greatness Isn’t Born. It’s Grown. Here’s How.

    September 7, 2010 at 01:35

    >Everyone worked for their language ability once. It only seems like it came effortlessly after the fact. Believe that.
    Yep. After the new neurological links are created in our brain we can not understand very well those who are still working on the skill/ability. This is what makes great teachers/coaches so rare. They really need to understand people who are “so different” from you.

  2. Magdalena
    September 8, 2010 at 01:07

    it’s not going to be a comment regarding your last entry (although as always, I enjoyed what you wrote). But I want to live a link to a TED speech, which I think is in sync with this site. One of the phrases from the speech “When there is curiosity, education happens” 😀 Brilliant!

  3. Gabriel
    March 24, 2011 at 15:12

    For any Korean learners out there, there’s a Korean translation available. Found through the 교보문고 website.

  4. Gabriel
    May 3, 2011 at 16:14

    “내가 거장의 경지에 이르기 위해 얼마나 열심히 노력했는지 안다면, 사람들은 별로 대단하게 여기지 않을 것이다.”
    (“If people knew how hard I worked to gain my mastery, it wouldn’t seem that wonderful after all.”)
    – Michelangelo

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