Daniel Coyle is a contributing editor for Outside magazine and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestseller Lance Armstrong’s War. He has written for Sports Illustrated, the New York Times Magazine, and Play, including this March 2007 cover story, “How to Grow a Super-Athlete,” that sparked the writing of his current book, The Talent Code: Greatness Isn’t Born. It’s Grown. Here’s How. Dan lives in Homer, Alaska, with his wife and four children, and he’s a two-time National Magazine Award finalist.
tompeters.com asks ... what does that subtitle mean?
DC: We reflexively think about talent as a possession: "He has talent. She has talent. Michael Jordan has talent." That implies that they're born with some "x" factor that no one else in the world has. That's the way we tell stories about talent. That's the way Western civilization has thought and talked about talent. And here's the news—that's not quite right.
There's a new way to think about talent. There's a mechanism through which you can actually grow skill, talent, and, at the top end, genius. It's a physical, neurochemical mechanism that we're all born with. If you do certain things, if you follow certain methods, if you do essentially what certain talent hotbeds around the world are already doing, it's possible to grow skills, fluency, speed, power, all the qualities that add up to what we know as talent.
It's interesting to put our understanding of skill and talent into a historical context. I mean, 150 years ago, people held vague ideas of how disease worked—some people lived, some died, nobody really knew why. Then we discovered how the immune system worked, and the world was changed. Thirty years ago, people had vague ideas about how cardiovascular fitness worked—some people could run marathons, some couldn't. Then we discovered how the aerobic system worked, and the world was changed—now my 70-year-old aunt can run a marathon. Today, we have vague ideas about skill and talent—some people have talent, some don't. Now we've discovered how the skill-acquiring system works, and the world is changing.
What got you interested in writing about talent?
DC: It started when I was paging through the sports page and noticed that there were an unusual number of top tennis players from this tiny club in Moscow. I looked into this more. As it turned out, this club, which is at the same latitude as Churchill, Manitoba—meaning it's not exactly tropical—had one indoor court. In fact, more world top-20 players came from this tiny club with the one indoor court than came from the entire United States.
So it got me thinking, what else is like this? Of course we're all aware of these quasi magical hotbeds. There's the baseball players from the Dominican Republic, this tiny island, that make up about 11% of the major leagues now. There are the soccer players from Brazil. In the world of math, there's this one high school in Bulgaria that produces all these incredible champions. In pop music, there's a little music studio in Dallas that's produced a high number of American Idol finalists, Jessica Simpson, Demi Lovato, Ryan Cabrera. Incredible, really.
The idea for the book was simple: let's go to these little dazzling islands and see what they're doing. What's happening there? How are they behaving? As it turned out, I discovered that they were a heck of a lot more alike than they were different. In fact, they were extremely alike. I felt like I was constantly in the same place, bumping into the same kinds of people who were practicing in the same sorts of ways.
That pattern that I saw in those hotbeds had three elements. The first was the way that they practiced, which I called deep practice, a very particular way of practicing. The second is ignition. It's the motivational component. They are being ignited by certain common sets of signals that unleash huge amounts of energy and motivation, unconscious energy and motivation. And the third one is master coaching. I kept running into these coaches that had really similar personalities. They weren't Vince Lombardi types or George Patton types. They were quieter people who made tiny, very specific adjustments, and who had really a great way to emotionally connect with the kids and the players and the singers and the musicians and the students.
Those three elements—deep practice, ignition, and master coaching—are the core of the book. The thing that binds those three elements together is the neurological mechanism that human beings have that allows them to get better at doing things. Anything.
This deep practice, it's about playing in a very slow, deliberate way, and then micro-correcting. Is that right?
DC: You can think of it as a mental zone—a place right at the edge of your abilities where you are literally building skill circuits. It has a lot to do with your attitude toward mistakes. When you're in this mental zone and you're operating right on the edge of what you're capable of, you learn ten times faster than you do in conventional practice. So in these talent hotbeds, they've developed techniques to push the people to the edge of their abilities. One good way to do that, as you mentioned, is to slow things down, slow things down a lot.
You know, the kids at the tennis club in Russia, they did that a lot, something called imitatsiya, where they would do the stroke without the ball, no ball, over and over quite slowly. Then I went to the Meadowmount music school, the place that produced Yo-Yo Ma and Itzhak Perlman, where kids are ridiculously amazing. And they're doing the exact same thing. You go to these other places, and they're all doing the same thing. But the point of that particular method, the reason why it works, and the reason it worked for Tom, in his example of dealing with roundabouts in New Zealand, was that he was putting himself on the very edge of his ability and being really attentive to the mistakes that he's making.
That is a really, really hard thing to do. We don't like to make mistakes. We hate them. We think of them as failures. But the interesting thing, when you go deep and see how deep practice works is that failure is not really failure—it's information. It's a map. It's you building the map of what you should do and how you can do it best, and constantly getting feedback—I want to do this and not that, go here and not there. We talk about the importance of feedback in a lot of different learning situations. But when you are in deep practice, you are making mistakes and you are paying deep attention them. You're actually building a neural circuit in your brain that's telling your muscles and your thoughts exactly what to do, when. That is what builds skill incredibly quickly.
Going back to that example from Tom. He's trying to learn how to drive around roundabouts in New Zealand where people are driving on the left and he's accustomed to driving on the right side of the road. He mentions he is talking to himself the whole time. He's saying to himself, out loud, "No, not that way, this way." Is that an ingredient of this?
DC: Completely. He's coaching himself. He's pushing himself to his edge and he's reminding himself where he's at all the time. There are many examples in the book of cases in which being able to understand what's going on and being really, really conscious of exactly where you're at and the failures you're making and the successes that you're having is tremendous. It really accelerates learning. In the book's opening section we meet a girl named Clarissa who accomplishes a month's worth of clarinet practice in five minutes—because she's using exactly the same methods Tom was using in New Zealand. When you look at it from the neural perspective, Clarissa and Tom are doing the same thing.
This just puts me in mind of Benjamin Zander, who's an orchestra conductor here in Boston. He's also a leadership and motivational speaker. I saw him speak at the PopTech conference last fall where he did a one-on-one master class with a teenage student. (This poor kid didn't know what he'd gotten himself into.) He does master classes with students and one of his techniques involves acknowledging your mistakes. So when someone plays a wrong note, they're supposed to stop, throw their arms in the air and say, "How fascinating!"
DC: I love that.
It seems weird. And yet now I see that he has connected into what you're talking about. It's actually sort of feeding some kind of neurological need. Rather than seeing a mistake as a negative thing, Ben is asking his students to see mistakes as opportunities.
DC: That's beautifully put. That's exactly how The Talent Code works. Beyond the failure itself, what's happening in a much deeper way is, "I am literally making something here. My brain is changing and I understand things in a way that I didn't. And I'm going to be a lot faster and swifter and better than I was before." All of these old sayings that our mothers used to tell us, and all these stories about success and, "try, try again" actually have some basis in fact. In those cases of understanding the mistake and practicing it until we get it right, we're all using the same neurological turbocharger.
One other thing that clicked in my head reading this was something about deep practice. You write, "The trick is to choose a goal just beyond your present abilities, to target the struggle." I recall reading something on the Aristotelian definition of happiness, which is basically, you achieve happiness when you're trying to do something that's just slightly beyond yourself. It can't be too far away so that you get frustrated, but it's got to be slightly outside of your current abilities. If you're constantly doing that, then that is what Aristotle considered happiness.
DC: That's great. It also clicks into that idea of flow where which is what we experience when we're in that zone. And how beautiful that that, you know, Aristotelian idea of happiness is also where you're actually adding the most skill, you're actually learning the most stuff.
A lot of things have connected for me in reading your book.
DC: I have the same sort of feeling. I'm a journalist; I don't come to this as a scientist. And I don't come to it as a businessperson. But when I see the Toyota plant doing exactly the same thing with their willingness to let anyone stop the assembly line by pulling a cord, and then I go and see this incredibly successful inner city school, and they're doing the exact same thing at the inner school as they're doing on the Toyota factory floor, where anybody, student or teacher, can in effect, pull the cord and the school comes to a standstill so that they can deal with whatever issue came up. That's a powerful connection.
Then you go to the Russian tennis camp and they're doing the same thing there, too. You begin to see when you look at it through that window and you see it from a big evolutionary scope, everybody's taking advantage of this same machinery—which as the book tells, is all about this neural substance called myelin, which grows in response to practice, wrapping our skill circuits and making them fast and fluent. The neurology is clear: our brains are built to acquire skill. We're all playing the same game, by the same rules.
To be human is to gain skill. We're so hard-wired to do this that if we're not doing it, in a way, we're not being human. Is that fair to say?
DC: I think it's fair to say. The other dimension of that is that it pits these two elements of us against each other. If you're going to survive in this world, you can't just try to learn everything, because then you'd be distracted, and you'd get eaten by the saber-tooth tiger. You have to learn what to pay attention to. There's this battle with our attention that has to do with motivation. On one hand, we've got this incredible turbocharged learning mechanism. On the other, we also have a hair-trigger of motivation, which I call ignition, which is essentially emotional. When we get certain signals in our environment that says, "You really should learn this. This is really, really important," our subconscious goes nuts and we get all kinds of energy to learn this stuff, to do this deep practice.
But the point is you need both. Ignition is the fuel, deep practice is the neurological engine that builds the skill. Without ignition, without that energy to fire that signal, to make those circuits fire and to grow myelin, our little mechanism is useless. You've got this mechanism for creating amazing talent and fluency, but it's controlled by this hair trigger. That hair trigger is where the magic is. What makes these kids in these talent hotbeds care so much? What makes them want to go in that zone where they're failing and they're having to say, "How fascinating!"? What makes people go there?
Doesn't ignition just happen?
DC: Yes and no. We think of motivation as happening from the inside, but in fact there's this certain pattern of signals that sets it off. That's what I learned at the hotbeds and from the psychology. I've seen it in my own kids. That is the tricky hair trigger element to this without which you really can't do the sheer amount of deep practice that it takes to be great. Basically, it's love. Who can say what causes it in every case. But you can learn to recognize it when it happens, and make the most of it.
One common theme among these various hotbeds is that they are ramshackle places, run down, past their prime.
DC: That's true. They're not just a little junky. Some of these places are spectacularly junky. At Meadowmount, which is this incredible music academy with some of the best teachers and students in the world (people really fight to get into this place) their practice cabins are held up with car jacks and cinderblocks. Literally car jacks are holding up the floors in which these people are playing incredible music.
A psychologist I spoke with said he was not at all surprised to hear that these hotbeds were rundown places. If you want to turn off motivation, put a kid in a country club type environment. When we walk into a place and see a beautifully manicured lawn and have someone offering us a nice cold Gatorade whenever we get sweaty, that just shuts off all the subconscious fuel tanks. But these ramshackle places are constantly sending a simple message that says success is scarce and it's going to be tough. Those are important messages to ignite effort.
That's very interesting, very amazing. What about TV? You know, I'm a hacker at a number of sports, tennis being one of them. If I watch a little tennis on TV, the next time I play, I play better.
How does that connect into this skill-building?
DC: Well, it's a good way to do a kind of deep practice. We are hard wired to imitate other people. That was hugely useful evolutionary bit of software that we've all got. You don't need to explain it with words. You don't need to have someone say, "Keep your wrist firm. Keep your hand back. Turn your hips." You don't need someone to say that. In fact, if you've read The Inner Game of Tennis, by Tim Gallwey, he tells a story of deciding to teach a class silently and not saying a word and just saying, "Do this. Do what I'm doing." That technique turns out to be hugely effective. This idea that coaches need to translate all of these motions into words and repeat them to you and repeat them to you is just a lot of static. Watch and copy. Don't think too much, and you'll see it. You'll see the difference.
On the other hand, you do see, you know, these great coaches in these hotbeds that I visited, and great coaches everywhere who have locked into this style of teaching. I'll never forget talking to Robert Lansdorp, who has coached four or five world number one tennis players. I started to explain how deep practice worked and how myelin worked, and the whole skill-learning mechanism. He cut me off. He just said, "No, no, no. I get it. Of course it works that way." He intuitively understood exactly the way you can build skill and fluency and speed. He doesn't need the mechanism because he works with it every day.
So that was my question. Based on your observations at these different places, you've put together this three-part process: the deep practice, the ignition, and the coaching that really have to come together to get the maximum development from the student. Do the people at these places have a sense of these three steps? Or is it just someone like Lansdorp saying, "Well, I just know how to help people become their better version"? Is that three-step process at all conscious in their minds?
DC: I think they understand and they know what to look for. They know, for instance, how complex and long it is. This kind of goes back to what we started talking about, talent as possession versus talent as something that is grown. For instance, I listened to two cello players play a piece. One of them, to me, sounded really amazing. And the other one sounded, eh, you know, not nearly as good.
Then I'd talk to the coaches about them. "Which one of those do you think has more talent?" They almost can't make sense of the question, because they don't see it. As one of them said, "How can you tell when you're looking at a little seedling, how big the tree's going to be?" They don't see it as possession. As a result, they're very conservative about making the kind of declarations of, "Oh, he's got it. Oh, she doesn't," that you see so much in the media. It's so much a part of our culture where we say, "Oh, this five year-old kid is the future of tennis."
The assumption behind those articles is that this kid possesses some magic spark, some divine spark. But these master coaches do not look for divine sparks. They don't believe in the divine sparks. What they look for is this other combination of a willingness to push themselves, a work ethic. They look for the passion and the ignition, and they look for somebody who is in it for the long haul. They look for somebody who's not just exploring. They're looking for somebody who is doing it for themselves. They look for a much subtler group of characteristics, things that add up to something you might think of as character.
There's an article recently about a guy who was trying to identify people who would be good recruits in high level trading, which takes, you know, an incredible amount of sophistication and speed and knowledge. The guy said, "You know, I can't pick 'em." He was frustrated because after years of trying and after years of having the pick of the best Harvard grads and the best Ivy leaguers to go to these positions, there was almost no relation between what he thought they were going to turn out to be and what they actually turned out to be. He wasn't good at picking talent.
He found that there was only one question that made any sense for him to ask. That was, "Tell me about your average day. What do you do?" He found that the people who were very organized, who had a plan each day, whether it was what they ate or how they worked out or how they spent their time, those people who were more disciplined and organized tended to fare better.
Other than that, it was a crapshoot. Just like the NFL draft. But now look at it through the lens of deep practice and ignition. The values he found to be predictive—discipline and organization—these are deep practice values. That's what he's measuring there, their hardware that they've got in place that enables them to practice deeply.
So now you've brought up the business world. How does this apply? Is that where it connects? As you say, it's discipline and having a plan. Is that the basis of talent in a business environment?
DC: Well, it's definitely an element to it. Most business books have a habit of using a core metaphor to explain the world and to explain how businesses function in that world, whether it's the snowball or sports teams or whatever. The thing that I think The Talent Code can add to it is that, with this, there aren't any metaphors. It's simply, whichever business does the most deep practice, and is ignited and builds the most myelin, wins.
And that's why, if you look at Toyota's rise, if you look at the rise of other businesses, even the U.S. military is good at some of this stuff in terms of the way that they've created a culture of ignition. Everyone really believes in this, identifies with it. They become part of it. It's part of their identity. They say, "I am this person and I am committed for many years. I'm going to be this person for many years."
When you combine that culture of ignition with a culture of deep practice where you have people who are willing to stop everything and focus on failure, and say, "Failure, how fascinating! Now we can build our map." That's a recipe for success.
If you look at the things that some businesses are doing, you begin to see the same patterns as you do in talent hotbeds. These places that succeed are places that have got deep practice, ignition, and master coaching. Deeper yet, they've got the myelin. One of the things I like about this book is the idea that it's a fresh lens that you can put on anything. If you grow the right skill circuits, the fastest skill circuits, you'll do better no matter what you're doing.
There was one business story in there which involved a guy who had been brought from an American company over to a Japanese company. He had to make a report. He came in and said, "We did great. Things are good. This is what we accomplished." His new Japanese colleagues were dumbfounded. Then his boss came in and said, "You know, the whole idea of giving a report is to tell us what your problems are so that we can all help you solve them." Here's a culture that is open to admitting mistakes and working on fixing them in a real and meaningful way. You hear a lot of speakers out there now talking about failure, about failure as a way to success. And yet, I still think it's a fairly verboten topic at most American companies. You can't really talk about failure. Or maybe we will. Maybe one of the benefits of this recession/depression is just seeing a lot of failure around us. It might open up the ability to speak about it.
DC: I also think it's right underneath the surface when you hear Obama talk. When he talks about failures, when he says, "I screwed up." I think that's an incredibly powerful message as opposed to his predecessor who said, "We didn't make any mistakes. There were disappointments, but there weren't mistakes." To really seek out mistakes, and to say, as he has done, "This is a period of bold and persistent experimentation." That's a great phrase. It's a great phrase if you're learning how to hit a tennis ball or learning algebra or running a country. You're really looking to build a map here. And to build that map, we're going to need to use failure as the way points on that map.
We do have a good example in the Silicon Valley, the way people are proud of their failed start-ups. I think there is an understanding in certain entrepreneurial cultures that acknowledge, "That start-up didn't work out, but holy mackerel, did I get good, and did I build my circuitry, even as this company failed." My brother says, this book puts the 'suck' back in success.
That's a great line.
DC: I think an ability to embrace failure is beginning to bubble up in our culture. You can't help but see it there when you read Lincoln's biography. He was a failed this and a failed that. Harry Truman was a failed this and a failed that. Churchill. You look at the biographies of successful people and they're not just pockmarked with failure, they're just tales of constant, repeated failure, right up until they make their huge success.
But the answer isn't that it's magical, that something all of a sudden happened to Harry Truman or Abe Lincoln and they became successes. Those failures were fuel. They were building something all along. Now we know what that something was: it was a skill circuit; it was literally myelin.
In the video at the book site, you're bouncing a golf ball on the face of a golf club, à la Tiger Woods. So you did some deep practice and learned how to do that so you could film this video?
DC: Well, I basically have too much time on my hands. I'm up in my office. Somebody sends me this video of Tiger Woods bouncing the golf ball and says, "Isn't this amazing?" It is amazing. It's a really great commercial. But I live in Alaska. I play golf three or four times a year. After seeing that video of Tiger, though, I thought to myself, "I'm writing this book on acquiring skill. If it's worth anything, I should test drive these principles."
When I wasn't working on my book, I would walk around my office with a club and a ball. I did it consciously and paid attention to mistakes and leaned into that zone. Within a couple months, I got fairly good at it. I threw that up there, mostly for yucks, but partly to say, this isn't just metaphorical. This is stuff that you can use.
You coach a Little League team. You're taking some of the lessons learned from your book and applying them to your boys. How is that going?
DC: Our baseball season is not very long. We did accelerate learning with the team last year. We really surprised a lot of people. I've coached Little League for awhile. I have to say, it actually makes it fun to coach when you follow some of these methods of really connecting to each kid individually, really making them focus on their mistakes, and getting into that deep-practice zone. Because you do see this bounce. I can see why people get addicted to coaching. We've all coached out of a sense of civic responsibility, which is quite fun to do. But in previous years I felt more like a babysitter. Now that I really understand how we can help develop skills in these young boys, the coaching is a lot more fun. We're still not a fantastic team, but I can really see the improvement in the kids every time we go out there. That's very satisfying.
Thank you, Dan, for your time.
DC: Thank you, it's been a pleasure.
Blog: The Talent Code Blog
Facebook: The Talent Code