Coyle, Dan (No.2)

Coyle_Dan_credit.jpgDaniel Coyle is a New York Times bestselling author. His books include The Talent Code, Lance Armstrong’s War, The Secret Race: Inside the Hidden World of the Tour de France: Doping, Cover-ups, and Winning at All Costs (coauthor: Tyler Hamilton), and Hardball: A Season in the Projects. A movie was made based on the latter, with the title Hard Ball. Dan is a contributing editor to Outside magazine and a two-time National Magazine Award finalist. He and his wife Jen have four children. His newest book is The Little Book of Talent: 52 Tips for Improving Your Skills, and Shelley Dolley talks about it with him for this second interview on

Bio adapted from his website,

Little Book of Talent: 52 Tips

We first interviewed you about The Talent Code and now you have written The Little Book of Talent. Please tell us about the difference between the books.

DC: The Talent Code had me traveling the world looking at unusual concentrations of top performers. As I did that, I explored the elements that each one of those places possessed, and questions started to arise, such as, “How do we apply this? How do we take it out of the realm of what they’re doing and put it in the realm of what I can do, or what we can do?” I was thinking of it as a father, as somebody who’s coming in contact with a lot of different organizations, a lot of businesses, a lot of teams. I began to want to bottle some of these ideas.

Actually, it started even while I was visiting these places, because I started keeping a notebook of little ideas and methods and techniques that I saw and that I wanted to steal. I wanted to steal them for my kid’s violin practice, I wanted to steal them for the little league baseball team I was coaching at the time. One technique I saw at a tennis club outside of Moscow called Spartak, they were doing something called imitatsiya, which is to do a perfect swing in slow motion as a way of ingraining the technique and teaching your brain to do it more precisely. I saw that and I said, “Hey, I could really use that!”

That started the list, and I kept it for myself for a couple years, and then I decided it was time to share it. Also, through the process of writing The Talent Code, the other way that these tips evolved was that I started having connection with some very high-performing organizations, places like the Navy SEALs, top software companies, Nike. I guess the book is the result of all these things coming together.

The idea was to make it very simple, a user’s manual, in a way inspired by that book we all owned in English class, Strunk & White’s Elements of Style. That basically just said look, here’s how to do it. Here’s how to write a nice, clean sentence. And here’s how not to. With Strunk & White as kind of an inspiration, we started to set aside these tips, and one of the nice things about it is that the real connection here is that it’s all about how to build a faster, more accurate brain. That’s what all these places have in common, that’s what all these tips have in common. Evolution has given our brains certain ways that make it grow, and the same way that you could write a book on how to build muscles, this is sort of a brain-building manual. That made it especially fun because you can see the kind of cross connection you can have. But the exact same tip really does work for building a swimming stroke, for building a sales presentation, and for building musical technique. It’s the same structure. It’s all wires in your brain.

Most of the examples in your book center on sports or musical performers. But as you’re saying here, it’s about building your brain, it’s about building skills. You mention a few of the ways that this can apply in a business sense. Let’s talk a little bit about that, about translating this to a business audience. Do you have some businesses that have come back to you and said, “This is what we’re using it for?” Where have you seen this being very useful in a business setting?

DC: That’s a great question. Business has a lot of what I call soft skills, a lot of skills that are based on being flexible, where there’s not a single right answer every time, where you have to identify patterns and react to patterns. One group that just seized this book was stock traders because they’re all about spotting a pattern and reacting to it quickly, much like a skateboarder or a soccer player would. It’s not a world that I’ve had any contact with, but they grabbed onto this like crazy because they’re always trying to get better at identifying patterns.

So when it comes to identifying patterns, it is all about practicing like a skateboarder would practice. Do a lot of reps in a varied environment. You want to get skilled and quick. It’s not like hard skills, where you want to be very slow and precise and you want to do the same thing every single time—you want to be almost like a robot. But with soft skills, where it’s a little bit different every time, there’s no exact right answer when you’re approaching a new client. There’s no exact right answer when you’re reading a room during a negotiation. So, the best way to practice is to design a space where you can do bunches and bunches of reps in a safe environment. You know, this is why a lot of snowboarders practice in foam pits, right? You have to sort of build your own foam pit where you can practice your trick, practice your move, gauge the response, figure out what worked and what didn’t, and then go back and do it again. For this type of space, I think the best metaphor is a skateboard park. You have to design your own skateboard park where you see a lot of different patterns and you test yourself in a lot of different ways.

That’s true with any soft skills. Soft skills also include writing. When you look at the backgrounds of good writers, they essentially spend hours and hours in these safe places where they’re stretching themselves to the limit, where they’re falling down, making mistakes, recognizing those mistakes, and fixing those mistakes.

That brings to mind the kind of testing that Eric Ries wrote about in his book The Lean Startup.

DC: I don’t know that book.

It’s a book about start-up companies, being an entrepreneur. What you do is create a minimum viable product. Instead of waiting until you’ve perfected something, you create the simplest version of your product and throw it out there, and you test for all these different factors: how is it succeeding and how is it failing? You add a little bit of this and a little bit of that, and if you can fail over and over and over again, you’ll learn from every failure, which is what you talk about in your book as well.

DC: Exactly right. The larger truth that emerges from that—you’re putting your finger right on it—is that failure is not a verdict, failure is information. Failure is information about where you need to go next, and to treat it in an impersonal way. You know, we often think of that sort of struggle as being noble in a moral sense. A lesson of this book is that it’s not a moral sense—though it’s noble in a moral sense, yes—but it’s more important in a neural sense. That’s how brains get better at stuff. When you have these minimum viable product approaches, it’s very smart because they are leaning into the fact that struggle is a good thing, that struggle makes you smarter and that by getting quality feedback—that’s the other big truth that emerges—getting yourself in a position, whether you’re on a skateboard or giving a sales presentation, where you can get quality, accurate feedback as quickly as you can, you can make a better move the next time. That’s what minimum viable product’s about, that’s what good entrepreneurs try to do. And it’s kind of at the core of all of this, get better feedback and you’ll have a better result.

That really stood out to me, your common thread, that, especially at the beginning of observation, how counterintuitive it is for us to impersonalize this. Especially with your examples, a lot of it is very personal, just a single person working on something. You have to critically observe every facet of your own performance in a very impersonal way. You have to look at the good, the bad. You’re looking at the performance of experts for what your ideals are, but you have to be very critical and impersonal about what your own performance is. I think that a lot of people in business, they think of it as thinking about the product that they’re making or the service that they’re offering. But in a lot of ways—because we’re all in sales these days—we really have to look at our own performance critically.

DC: It’s true, and to have that constant awareness of where you’re at and where you should be. Somebody, a coach, recently told me a nice little phrase. He said, “Look, I can boil down all coaching advice in the world into two pieces of advice. Know where you are, know where you should be.” And to know those two things is to know something incredibly powerful. To have this sense of your shadow self and your ideal self, to have this sense of where you are and a sense of where you need to be, that’s a special skill. It’s hard to develop that kind of awareness, which is why, again, the practice is so crucial and why the cultures that succeed, businesses included, create a culture of practice, create a culture where it’s safe. That’s the tricky thing with business. It’s not true so much with many things, but with business, risk has consequence. You know failure has consequences in your wallet and so it becomes really important to create a safe place where people can stretch.

Businesses do this in a variety of interesting ways. There are some companies out there that will have employees sign a sort of contract that affirms they will take risks. The company Living Social, they recommend employees take a risk that scares them once a week. “Have you taken your risk this week?” Another way they do that is to have the leaders be transparent about their own failings. There was a hospital in Massachusetts where they wanted to encourage hand washing. To diminish infection, it makes sense for the whole organization to have everybody do a better job of washing hands whenever they enter certain areas of the hospital. And the way the leader did it is he offered—I think it was $50—to anyone who caught him entering one of those restricted areas without washing his hands.

It’s a small act, but it shows that the leader is willing to fail, is willing to show his failure and say, “Look, I’m like the rest of you guys. We’re all struggling to do this. Nobody’s perfect, and let’s all do this together.”

That also ties into your creating that scorecard of learning, from tip #42, where you talk about being a better coach and being what I see as a better leader. Creating a safe space and being specific about the things that you think are important and what your goals are that may be counterintuitive are key. It’s not about the number of wins for a team, it’s did they perform well at the certain skills that they’re all working on? It’s about being able to set up that scorecard in a business sense and making sure that people are following along with where the business needs to grow.

DC: That’s right. I mean, what’s the most important thing in business now? I would argue it’s the ability to have learning agility, to be able to learn new things, to adapt to an environment, to develop new skills. That’s the killer app, right? Because the world’s changing fast, you have to be able to change. And yet, most of our scorecards don’t measure that very well, you know? We’re sort of like the soccer team that is addicted to winning and only cares about winning, when, in fact, what really matters is how well we pass the ball. How many good passes do we make every day?

There are some companies that do a good job of finding a new scorecard. I mean, the old saying “You are what you measure” is very powerful. And I think of as a good example. In most places, there are online retailers and what they measure is how many customers they can produce, how many customers they can serve in an hour. They put limits on the amount of time you can spend on each call. But Zappos doesn’t measure that. What they measure is happiness. As they say in their slogan, they want to deliver happiness, so they removed all the limits on the amount of call time. What they do instead is celebrate instances when people go above and beyond. For instance, the salesperson who had shoes delivered directly to a wedding to save the day for the groom was celebrated there. They’ll sometimes spend an hour on the phone with a single customer because their goal is not to minimize the time, it’s to maximize the happiness. So they found a way to measure it, and they took off the bad measure. They got rid of the old scorecard, which wasn’t measuring what they really wanted to deliver, and they found a new scorecard which does measure what they want to deliver, which is satisfaction and happiness.

And so the challenge, and it’s true for all organizations, is figuring out how to measure your learning. Figure out how to measure the progress of the things you really want to progress at, and not just the bottom line.

Right, and how many times have we heard of people frustrated with the fact that the stock market is based on shareholder happiness or the fact that we’re perhaps looking at the wrong numbers in order to determine whether or not an organization is successful. We need, as a whole, to look at a different kind of scorecard.

DC: A learning metric, you know? What’s your learning metric? That’s the question. How do you measure the success of that, the progress of that? It doesn’t have to be a number necessarily, it could be a more informal way. I know at Zappos they have a culture book, and so they capture these stories and put them in the book and celebrate them that way. That’s a way of creating a learning metric, a learning scorecard, that you can publicly look at, publicly point at and say, “This is what we’re about, not the number of customers per hour. This is what we’re aiming for.” Then everybody orients towards that.

Now let’s talk about another method for moving forward that you call reachfulness. Can you explain reachfulness?

DC: The science of learning tells us something very simple. When we operate on the edges of our ability going a little past what we’re comfortable doing, going a little past what we can do, learning velocity goes way up, and it’s not a small difference. It goes up orders of magnitude. When you get to that edge and you reach past it and you make mistakes and you fix those mistakes, that’s when learning velocity goes way up.

You can think of it in terms of zones. You have a comfort zone, that’s when you’re succeeding most of the time, maybe 80 or 90 percent of the time. On the other end, you have this thrashing zone where you’re succeeding maybe less than 50 or 60 percent of the time, where you’re just sort of thrashing and reaching. But in between those two zones is what scientists call the sweet spot. The sweet spot is where you’re making mistakes maybe 20 to 40 percent of the time, and you’re succeeding 60 to 80 percent of the time. That is where your brain is learning the most. You can picture what’s happening in your brain. You’re making a reach, you’re reaching past. You’re realizing what your mission is, you’re realizing where a mistake is. Then you reach again, and you reach more accurately each time. When you reach and repeat, you’re building fast, fluent circuitry in your brain, and that’s where you want to spend the most time. It’s not a particularly fun place to hang out, it’s difficult to be there, it’s difficult to make mistakes.

In the same way as when you go to the gym, the goal is to feel the burn. The goal is “No pain, no gain.” That’s exactly where you want to spend time, and there’s a great example in The Talent Code that I tell. A girl named Clarissa who participates in an experiment. First, she’s in the comfort zone, and the experimenters are monitoring how fast she’s learning, and she’s barely learning anything. Then she moves into the sweet spot and her learning velocity goes up ten times.

So the difference here, when you get in that area where you’ve got that Clint Eastwood scowl and it’s difficult and you’re making mistakes and you’re fixing them, that’s the burn. That’s what you want to feel, that’s where you want to hang out because just five minutes there is better than spending ten hours in the other place. So finding ways to design an environment—whether it’s a business environment or a personal environment—which nudges you to that sweet spot is one of the more powerful things you can do.

There’s a simple way to do that, even when you’re reading. A lot of us are trying to read and retain what we read. The best way to read and retain things is not to read things over and over again, it’s to read it once, to close the book and then to try to generate what you read. Try to generate the main points. Write them down on a 3×5 card. Because by trying to generate them and organize them, you are nudging yourself into that sweet spot where you’ll remember that much, much, much better.

Because you’re making your brain work?

DC: Picture the wires of your brain reaching and firing. That’s the sweet spot, when you’re actually creating new circuitry rather than reading the same thing repeatedly which is like lying in a warm bath of information. The goal is to connect up those wires and to use them in the same way that you would use muscles in a gym. If you went to a gym and spent your hour lifting 12-ounce weights, you would not get very strong. But if you’d spend five minutes trying to lift the heaviest weight you could lift, you’d get stronger a lot faster.

This is all very unglamorous, all your talk in the book of Spartan conditions and slow, methodical work. This is a little bit of an anathema, we all want the luxuries that are easy. Have you been seeing that kind of response to the book, like “Oh, that means I have to actually work at this?”

DC: I know, there’s a bit of an “eat your vegetables” message there, and, you know, it’s just true. When you look at the lives of top performers, in any business, whether it’s Warren Buffet or Yo-Yo Ma, what you end up finding is craftspeople, people who have built a life around the humbler workaday values, people who will push themselves to the edge of their abilities over and over again. I think it is a bit of a Spartan message. The beauty of it, though, is the freedom and control that that can create. I think a lot of us spend a lot of time grinding out effort without much control, just feeling we need to put in the hours.

But when you really figure this stuff out, and you can approach your work with a craft mentality, you get a sense of control, you get a sense of growth. I guess control is the best way to put it, because you’re no longer hoping that you’ll improve, you’re taking control of your own learning process and that’s a very empowering feeling.

I think you’re right. I think it is really important to take control of your own learning process. Take time to define what your goals really should be, rather than what might be the most obvious. Then observe them very closely and really see the truth in what’s happening—through that close examination that you advise.

At the end of the book you say that we should think like a gardener. Explain what you mean by thinking like a gardener.

DC: It’s so easy to judge ourselves, it’s so easy to look at the short term. What I saw in these talent hotbeds was that the quality they possessed was equanimity about the process. They trust the process and getting better. They know the world is going to evolve, they know they’re going to evolve. In the same way that a gardener cannot look at two little trees and guess which one will grow to be the taller, you can’t be too judgmental about yourself or others in this process. We have this huge urge with talent to identify it and to judge it and say, “That person’s going to be the best stock trader, or the best salesman. That person’s going to be the best CEO, or the best violinist.” And our predictions are usually incredibly off. We’re terrible judges in the long run. Most prodigies, when you look at the studies, do not end up becoming great performers in adulthood. Not in sports, not in music, not in anything. And the reason is that it takes thousands of hours. Because it’s a long haul, and actually being a prodigy can often lead you to stop the behavior that helps to grow talent. The reason is that being identified as a prodigy is such a status-raising thing that we tend to want to preserve that status. Prodigies tend to want to take less risk. If someone’s telling you you’re a math genius, would you ever risk that by going outside your comfort zone? Are you willing to go into that sweet spot if everyone is telling you you’re a business genius? We’re all familiar with stories of the prodigies who fall flaming to earth, and I think that’s one of the reasons that they do.

This idea that we can instantly identify talent as if it’s blond hair or green eyes, is, I think, wildly misplaced. What we have to do is think like gardeners and think in the long term. We don’t know what’s going to be harvested; the best thing we can do is the daily routine of nourishing, of caretaking, of nurturing that talent so that it can grow over time. Because no matter who you are, it takes a long, long time to be good at something.

I think that’s perfect as a message for right now. I know a music teacher who works in the KIPP schools in Philadelphia, and their philosophy is that they comment, not on the outcome, but on the effort that you put into something. The ultimate compliment is, “You worked really hard on that.” Tom Peters just wrote an ebook called “You Matter to Me” about acknowledgement and noticing the effort that someone is putting into their work.

DC: What a great message that is. It resonates with the portrait that this new science is giving us. The old story of talent used to be people born with gifts who were shooting stars, who have this divine spark. But, in fact, what the scientists are telling us now is that we are all connected. None of us are self-made. We’re all reliant on the environments we find ourselves in, on the mentorship and coaching we receive, on the relationships in our immediate and distant environments. All this stuff adds up to make us who we are. To be able to acknowledge that and find a language to express those sorts of connections is important.

I love the guy who just won the Cy Young Award, his name is R. A. Dickey. He’s a pitcher for the New York Mets, and he had a great quote. He said something like, “I am by no means a self-made man.” Which I thought was beautiful. Here’s a guy who really gets it. He’s a product of all these interactions he’s had with his coaches, with his parents, with his siblings, with his teammates. It has produced this performance, which in an advanced stage now has him at the top of his profession after being overlooked for many years. He’s a great story about the value of persistence and connection, which are really the things that we all share.

The old story of talent is a beautiful story. It’s a beautiful story of magical people walking among us. But it’s just a story, it’s not true. We’re all reliant on these invisible foundations. We’re all standing on other people’s shoulders and the more we align our behaviors with that reality, the better we’re going to be.

It just takes a whole lot of hard work. Thank you, Dan, we appreciate your talking to us once again about this, because it gives us a chance to refocus on where we should be paying attention right now.

DC: Well, that’s cool. There is that sign at all the kids’ schools, “There are no short cuts,” and I think sometimes it’s easy for us to forget the truth of that. People go at different speeds, people break through at different times, but there are no short cuts.