The Talent Code

Summary of The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle: In this book, Daniel Coyle looks at talent as the result of deep practice, learning over the long term, repetitive, targeted, framed and encouraged. This process encourages the growth of myelin, the “white matter” that strengthens connections in the brain and thereby increases the chance of success.

By Daniel Coyle, 2020, 222 pages.

Chronicle and summary of “The talent code: Greatness isn’t born. It’s grown. Here’s how” by Daniel Coyle


The girl who did a month’s worth of practice in six minutes

In his introduction, Daniel Coyle looks at “talent hotbeds”. To better understand how several people of talent appear in the same place despite less than favourable conditions, he first takes the case of Clarissa, a young clarinet player with no particular aptitude.

In a video, the young girl deciphered a piece of music she had not seen before. By focusing on her mistakes, she memorised the new notes and played them in her head before trying them on her instrument again. According to the music psychologist in charge of the test, Clarissa is “fitting small parts into the whole, drawing the lens in and out all the time, scaffolding herself to a higher level.”

What immediately strikes anyone watching the video is the construction process that is played out as she works on the piece. Clarissa experiences each note intensely, whereas with a piece she already knows, she does not involve her heart and plays it in a very “basic” manner.

According to Daniel Coyle, talent hotbeds “have tapped into a neurological mechanism in which certain patterns of targeted practice build skill. Without realising it, they have entered a zone of accelerated learning that, while it can’t quite be bottled, can be accessed by those who know how.  In short, they’ve cracked the talent code.”

What is the talent code?

The author of the book The Talent Code goes on to explain what the talent code is, and the role played by myelin, a neural insulator.

“Every human skill […] is created by chains of nerve fibres carrying a tiny electrical impulse – basically a signal travelling through a circuit. Myelin’s vital role is to wrap those nerve fibres the same way that rubber insulation wraps a copper wire, making the signal stronger and faster by preventing the electrical impulses from leaking out. When we fire our circuits in the right way – when we practice swinging that bat or playing that note – our myelin responds by wrapping layers of insulation around that neural circuit, each new layer adding a bit more skill and speed.   The thicker the myelin gets, the better it insulates, and the faster and more accurate our movements and thoughts become.”

That is why regular practice strengthens skills by developing myelin. This cellular mechanism is universal and adaptive.

The three basic parts of the talent code

The book is divided into three parts:

  1. Deep practice
  2. Ignition
  3. Master coaching.

These three elements are the basis of the talent code:

“Each element is useful on its own, but their convergence is the key to creating skill. Remove one, and the process slows. Combine them, even for six minutes, and things begin to change.”


Chapter 1: The sweet spot 

1.1 – Chicken-wire Harvards

The expression in the title in the first part of this chapter defines the nine talent hotbeds visited by Daniel Coyle. He calls them the “statistical impossibilities”. During his travels, he discovered that there was a kind of arrhythmia in how the people behaved. They were sometimes fast and successful, sometimes slow and unsteady, a series of small failures.

Taking the example of a young football player and a singer, Daniel Coyle shows how talent hotbeds use failure to make progress: every time something does not work, they analyse and repeat the movement or the note.

To accelerate learning, the author recommends deep practice. To explain this, he proposes a short visual memory exercise. There are two columns with different pairs of words. In the second column, several of the words have a missing letter. In general, people are more likely to remember the words in the second column. “…When you encountered the words with blank spaces, something both imperceptible and profound happened,” the author tells us. He goes on to explain how you:

  • stopped.
  • stumbled briefly on those words and thought about them.
  • experience a microsecond of struggle, which makes all the difference.
  • didn’t “practice harder when you looked at column B. You practised deeper.”

It can be summarised as follows: every time you undertake something new, you automatically make mistakes. You go on to learn from your errors and make corrections to gain perfect control over your posture or your actions.

At this point, Daniel Coyle brings up the research by Robert Bjork into the importance of practice over learning. According to Bjork, our memory is a living structure. Instead of comparing it to a tape recorder, we should compare it to a scaffold that has an almost limitless capacity to expand: “The more we generate impulses, encountering and overcoming difficulties, the more scaffolding we build. The more scaffolding we build, the faster we learn,” states Bjork.

The idea is that repeated learning, even for short periods, strengthens your skills. The repetition is what offers lasting results.

1.2 – Edwin Link’s unusual device

Edwin Link invented the first flight simulator, the “Link Aviation Trainer”, in 1927. As an aviation enthusiast who was frustrated that he had not been able to touch the controls during his first flying lesson, he used his inventive skills to make a machine for learning to fly.

When it first appeared, the simulator was not the success he had hoped for? However, in the 1930s, after the death of a number of pilots, Link’s machine turned out to be THE solution that had been missing up to that time.

A flight simulator now plays a fundamental role in learning through trial, deep and repetitive practice.

1.3 – Brazil’s secret weapon 

Simon Clifford, a British football coach, went to Brazil to discover the “secret” of the country’s success at football. Apart from more intensive training, he discovered futsal, a “miniature” version of traditional football with just five or six players per team and a playing field the size of a basketball court.

Futsal involves another technique, and different learning that is multiplied through far more frequent contact with the ball than in traditional football. This makes futsal the flight simulator of football.

“Futsal compresses soccer’s essential skills into a small box; it places players inside the deep practice zone, making and correcting errors, constantly generating solutions to vivid problems. Players touching the ball 600% more often learn far faster, without realising it than they would in the vast, bouncy expanse of the outdoor game.

Chapter 2: The deep practice cell

2.1 – Installing natural broadband 

“The story of skill and talent is the story of myelin” 

According to Daniel Coyle, deep practice can accelerate learning tenfold, thanks to myelin.

In fact, every human gesture, thought and emotion creates an electric signal through a chain of neurons, “a circuit of nerve fibres”. Myelin is the insulation that envelops these nerve fibres. It increases the strength of the signal, its speed and precision. From then on, “the more we fire a particular circuit, the more myelin optimises that circuit, and the stronger, faster and more fluent our movements and thoughts become.”

In short:

“Skill is myelin insulation that wraps neural circuits and that grows according to certain signals. The story of skill and talent is the story of myelin.”

Myelin is activated by failure, as it stimulates the neurological circuits. That is why the more you put your heart into something you undertake, your talent will shine more intensely.

Automating skills

To properly understand the role of myelin, the author of The Talent Code reminds us that our acts depend on electrical messages that are exchanged through circuits. These circuits are neurons, connected through synapses. Daniel Coyle compares the workings to the way a string of Christmas lights light up in certain places. Our movements are commanded by circuits. The more we train these circuits, the better the results:

“The more we develop a skill circuit, the less we’re aware that we’re using it. We’re built to make skills automatic, to stash them in our unconscious mind. This process, which is called automaticity, exists for powerful evolutionary reasons.”

That is why skills that have been mastered appear to be innate.

“These two insights – skills as brain circuits and automaticity – create a paradoxical combination. We’re forever building vast, intricate circuits, and we’re simultaneously forgetting that we built them.”

The role of myelin in brain plasticity

For a very long time, researchers focussed on neurones, but myelin contributes just as much to brain plasticity. What we call white matter increases in the same proportion as the synapses when it is stimulated.

Myelin’s role is secondary, but “within the vast metropolis of the brain, myelin quietly transforms narrow alleyways into broad, lightning-fast super highways. Neural traffic that once trundled along at two miles an hour can, with myelin’s help, accelerate to two hundred miles an hour. The refractory time (the wait required between one signal and the next) decreases by a factor of 30. The increased speed and decreased refractory time combine to boost overall information-processing capability by 3,000 times – broadband indeed.”

Myelin also acts as signal regulating agent so that they arrive at the perfect moment: this is known as “myelinisation”.

Daniel Coyle sums up all the research of recent years in this way:

“Nerve firings grow myelin, myelin controls impulse speed, and impulse speed is skill. Myelin doesn’t make synapses unimportant […] but [it] plays a massive role in how that learning manifests itself.”

Skills: a muscle to exercise constantly

Like the laying of a broadband network, deep practice is a slow process. Through a phenomenon of reiteration, it can enrich the circuits and therefore improve skills.

Struggle is not optional – it’s neurologically required: in order to get your skill circuit to fire optimally, you must by definition fire the circuit sub optimally; you must make mistakes, and pay attention to those mistakes; you must slowly teach your circuit. And you must also keep firing that circuit – i.e. practising – in order to keeps myelin functioning properly. After all, myelin is living tissue.”

The discovery of the role of myelin in deep practice allows us to picture skills like a muscle that must be trained constantly, starting as early as possible.

2.2 – Anders Ericsson’s big adventure

Ericsson was a psychology researcher who studied short term memory, which until then had been considered fixed and limited. He proved that it was limitless and can be constantly improved. Ericsson went on to apply this discovery to other parts of memory, including skills.

To do this, he began to take an interest in all kinds of activities, in fields varying from medicine to sport, to policing, etc. He went on to define expertise:

Every expert in every field is the result of around ten thousand hours of committed practice.” Ericsson specifically says “committed practice”. He defines this as “working on technique, seeking constant critical feedback comments and focusing ruthlessly on shoring up weaknesses.”

Daniel Coyle points out that Ericsson does not talk about “deep practice” but “committed practice”. He is not referring to myelin, but to his observation of the mental condition of a subject in his role as a psychologist. Despite this, the two broadly cover the same concept.

Ericsson is also behind what is known as the “ten year rule”. This states that ten years of deep and committed practice is required to reach an expert level. This approach does however question the aptitude of geniuses or savants, like Mozart:

“The true expertise of these geniuses, the research suggests, resides in their ability to deep practice obsessively, even when it doesn’t necessarily look like they’re practising.”

Chapter 3: The Brontes, the Z-Boys and the Renaissance

3.1 – The girls from nowhere 

Daniel Coyle now turns to stories in Western culture in which a child appears from nowhere with magical and miraculous talent. Among these stories is that of the Bronte sisters: three young motherless girls who wrote books that are now considered to be among the greatest literature of all time, before dying at a young age. Little information was gathered about them until historian Julie Barker took an interest. She would demonstrate that their talent was not innate, or guided by destiny. Among others, she discovered manuscripts they wrote as young girls that would of poor quality or plagiarised.

“Their childhood writings were collaborative deep practice, where they developed storytelling muscles.”

3.2 – The myelin skaters

The Z-boys in California transformed skateboarding by adding in certain surfing techniques that they had mastered elsewhere. They also started to train in empty swimming pools, and developed new skills.

“From a deep-practice point of view, the empty swimming pool created a world not unlike that of the little books of the Bronte sisters or the futsal courts of Brazil. Circuits are fired and honed. Mistakes are made and corrected. Myelin flourishes. Talent blooms. Skill is insulation that wraps neural circuits and grows according to certain signals.”

3.3 – The Michaelangelo system

Here, the author of the The Talent Code returns to the question put by the statistician Banks about the “massive” production of talent at certain periods or in certain regions. The city of Florence is one example, with its many artists who are universally renowned for their works of art.

Daniel Coyle reminds us that guilds were born in Florence and that their role was to encourage talent among young boys. This practical apprenticeship with “masters” allows them to put their skills into action and improve them on a daily basis. The guilds were also great places for networking, creating a “chain of mentors” that linked De Vinci to Donatello and Michaelangelo to name but the most famous among them. Surrounded by the best, the young boys were bound for excellence.

“They each took part in the greatest work of art anyone can construct: the architecture of their own talent.”

3.4 – Meet Mr Myelin

Daniel Coyle introduces George Bartzokis, a professor of neurology, as  “Mr Myelin”. This researcher explains, among other things, that the wisdom of older people is related to myelin, that monkeys do not speak because they possess 20% less myelin than humans, that unlike humans, horses can walk from birth because their muscles already contain myelin, etc. This puts the Darwin’s theory in question, the idea that skills and talent are a blend of what is natural and what is acquired, in which destiny can add a little spice to determine a superior individual, a “genius”.

To reconsider Darwin’s theories about genetic and environmental influences, the author of The Talent Code stresses that genes, those “pre-built neuronal wiring” work perfectly for concrete actions, but they need myelin to co-opt and allow us to develop higher skills through the previously described processes.

“This system is flexible, responsive and economical, because it gives all human beings the innate potential to earn skill where they need it. […] 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.”

Chapter 4: The three rules of deep practice 

4.1 – Adriaan de Groot and the HSE

The author of The Talent Code conceptualises what he calls the  “Holy Shit Effect”, or HSE:

“This refers to the heady mix of disbelief, admiration and envy (not necessarily in that order) we feel when talent suddenly appears out of nowhere. […] The HSE is the feeling of seeing talent bloom in people who we thought were just like us.”

Based on his observations of talent hotbeds, he demonstrates that this phenomenon only exists on the side of the person observing: the apprentice does not notice it and this non-reaction is part of the process of skills development.

Daniel Coyle introduces the work of Adriaan de Groot: by analysing chess games between beginners and experts, he demonstrated that experts use a “picture” strategy. They memorise the pieces by picturing the way they are laid out on the board. If the layout changes, they lose all their advantage. This structuring operation is called “chunking”.

The author uses the example of two sentences to explain the concept: the first sentence is “We climbed Everest on a Tuesday morning”, and the second one contains the same letters but in an order that makes no sense to our brains. The letters – sorts of mini chunks – in the first version form words, middle-sized segments, that then form larger segments (a proposition or sentence…). Chunking operates on the principle of Russian dolls.

Using chunking to study skills is relevant. It allows us to see them as the result of a process of accumulation of electrical circuits made with myelin. In the end, each of our actions are chunked, whether or not we are aware of it: repetition, acquired through deep practice, allows them to appear natural, or innate.

4.2 – Rule number 1: Chunk it up

Daniel Coyle compares deep practice to finding your way around a dark room: You make mistakes, go back, feel your way around, and little by little you build a mental picture of the room.

“Most of us do a certain amount of this practising reflexively. The instinct to slow down and break skills into their components is universal.”

We do not acquire skills in one day. That is why it is important to mentally absorb each step. Daniel Coyle notes three dimensions to chunking in talent hotbeds:

    • The participants first approach the task as a whole, “the mega circuit”;
    • Then they divide it into the smallest possible chunks;
    • Finally, they play with time (speeding up or slowing down) to see the task from every angle.

These three dimensions lead us to:

Absorb the whole thing 

“This means spending time staring at or listening to the desired skill – the song, the movement, the swing – as a single coherent entity.” More than simply observing, Daniel Coyle refers to this as absorbing the picture: this helps to better reproduce the movement or the task moving forward.

Break it into chunks 

Daniel Coyle takes the example of the school of music in Meadowmount. The speed of learning at this school appears to be 500 % faster than any other school. This is explained by learning in chunks. All the pieces of music are broken into mini-chunks and chosen randomly to work on.

“The goal is always the same: to break a skill into its component pieces (circuits), memorise those pieces individually, then link them together in progressively larger groupings (new interconnected circuits).”

Slow it down

The author of The Talent Code invites us to slow learning down. There are two main reasons for this, both related to myelin:

    • A slow pace allows you to focus on your mistakes and imprecisions;
    • A slow pace encourages better skills development in the learner: the ability to see the internal workings of the skills, shape and rhythm.

Daniel Coyle also introduces the theory of self-regulation studied by Barry Zimmerman. According to this theory, people can work on their own skills once they have analysed them deeply. According to the research, the best people in every field have developed, above and beyond natural aptitude, “detailed conceptual understanding that allowed them to control and adapt their performance, to fix problems and adjust their circuits to new situations. They were thinking in chunks and had built those chunks into a private language of skill.”

4.3 – Rule number 2: Repeat it

As Daniel Coyle explains throughout his book The Talent Code, myelin and its circuits only exist though repetition. This repetition keeps the circuits firing.

“Spending more time is effective, but only if you’re still in the sweet spot at the edge of your capabilities, attentively building and honing circuits.”

4.4 – Rule number 3: Learn to feel it 

While the development of myelin is imperceptible, Daniel Coyle does underline the importance of focus and full awareness during training. Every element, however small, can be the sign of significant progress. He has compiled a list of terms for this: “alert”, “focus”, “mistake”, “repeat”, “tiring”, etc.

They all refer to the process that leads learners to their goal, at the cost of effort, failures and repetition.

“Deep practice is not simply about struggling; it’s about seeking out a particular struggle, which involves a cycle of distinct actions.”

The author of The Talent Code describes this cycle as having key stages:

  • Pick a target
  • Reach for it
  • Evaluate the gap between the target and the reach
  • Return to step  1.

To summarise this process, he uses the image of a baby learning to walk: It is a perilous exercise, long and not always pleasant, but the walking is progressively learned at the price of a certain amount of struggle and staggering (thereby developing myelin).


Chapter 5: Primal cues

5.1 – “If she can do it, why can’t I”

To introduce this new part of the book, Daniel Coyle reminds readers that motivation is a very important part of the talent code. He defines the “ignition” behind this motivation:

“Ignition and deep practice work together to produce skill in the same way that a gas tank combines with an engine to produce velocity in an automobile. Ignition supplies the energy, while deep practice translates that energy over time into forward progress, aka wraps of myelin.”

To understand the origins of motivation, combining it with passion is not enough. Using several examples, Daniel Coyle demonstrates that ignition takes place once we admit that the goal is real and attainable: he talks about “awakening, flashes of images and emotions”. Finally, drawing inspiration from the success of others, other talented people, can bring passion into existence. This leads the author of The Talent Code to picture it as the result of a process that is both internal and external.

5.2 – The tiny, powerful idea

Daniel Coyle returns to McPherson’s study. The example of the clarinet player previously developed comes from here. He explains that the researcher asked the children in the study how much time they intended to continue playing the instrument they were learning to play at the school of music. He then compared their answers to the length of time spent practising every week. It turned out that the success was 400 % greater among those who said that they wanted to play all their lives, even if they spent less time playing every week. McPherson calls this the “snowball effect”:

“It’s all about their perception of self. At some point very early on they had a crystallizing experience that brings the idea to the fore, that says “I am a musician”. That idea is like a snowball rolling downhill.”

The concept of self-perception is decisive: the student pictures the future, and this may be one of the keys to motivation. Whether projection through a champion, the desire to succeed or a “bolt of lightning”, the element that ignites is connected to emotions and this goes on to generate deep practice.

“What ignited the process wasn’t any innate skill or gene. It was a small, ephemeral, yet powerful idea: a vision of their future selves, a vision that oriented, energized, and accelerated progress, and that originated in the outside world.”

5.4 – Flipping the trigger

Because it is a question of emotions, ignition has nothing rational about it. This explains the acceptance of different stages – including failure – to reach the final goal, however uncertain it may be at the beginning.

Using the different examples seen previously (athletes, musicians…), Daniel Coyle now turns to the social aspect of ignition, related to identity and groups, with “future belonging”. This idea can justify the strength of motivation, even though it is unconscious.

Cohen and Watson compare ignition to turning on a light switch. This makes it a primal cue, explaining motivation as a response to a natural need: for safety, recognition, etc.

Daniel Coyle summarises this as follows: “Talent requires deep practice, deep practice requires vast amounts of energy, primal cues trigger huge outpourings of energy.”

The author of The Talent Code goes on to talk about another form of research he conducted. He noted that the youngest child in a family often turns out to be the best runner, faster than their elders. He explains this by the primal need to “catch up” when you are the youngest, setting up strategies for evolution.

5.5 – O lucky me!

At this point in The Talent Code, Daniel Coyle takes the example of three schools of music that opened in the poor districts of Harlem and Brooklyn. In contrast to what you might think, the one with the most means was not the one with the best results.

The other two held a lottery to draw up the list of students. And this is where the future success lay: the children had all won their place, and this victory fuelled their motivation. Daniel Coyle talks about “primal cues of scarcity and belonging”.

He also looks to a passage from Tom Sawyer that he quoted previously: in this extract from the book by Mark Twain, the main character turns down an invitation on the pretext that he wants to whitewash a fence instead. In doing so, he manages to make his friend jealous of his chore. Using primal cues (exclusivity or the notion of talent) together, Tom gets Ben to gives up his plans and help him paint the fence.

Chapter 6: The Curacoa experiment

6.1 – The earthquake

To start chapter six, Daniel Coyle takes the example of a competition that recreates the combat between David and Goliath in a team setting in Pennsylvania. One team stood out from the others: the team from Curacao, a small Caribbean island, nicknamed “the little island that could”. Even though they were not the strongest, or the best equipped in terms of facilities, their talent was undeniable.

This talent hotbed came about after a match at Yankee Stadium. A player from Curacao changed the course of the match. This local hero was the ignition factor. His success encouraged many young players to sign up for Little League.

The example of Curacao is especially interesting because a neighbouring island that shares the same culture, roots and attraction to baseball did not turn into a talent hotbed. As the author of The Talent Code puts it: Curacao “found a way to do a very important and tricky thing: to keep the motivational fire lit.”

6.2 – The Sistine Chapel effect

At this stage in the book, Daniel Coyle questions ignition. The example of a champion is not enough to ensure the growth of a talent hotbed. The explanation lies in the presence of several factors that are primal cues.

“They contain complex collections of signalspeople, images and ideasthat keep ignition going for the weeks, months and years that skill-growing requires. Talent hotbeds are to primal cues what Las Vegas is to neon signs, flashing with the kind of signals that keep motivation burning.”

He goes on to develop the example of the little island of Curacao: the commitment of the founder of the league, the constant presence of talent spotters, the support of parents, the teenagers who had already played at LLWS and the story of their experience… The goal is always in sight and it strengthens the desire to belong to “all that”. Which leads us to the metaphor of the Sistine chapel:

“The proof of paradise is right here: all you have to do is open your eyes.”

To get back to the factors of ignition, Daniel Coyle highlights the timing of ignition: the champions on the twin islands did not follow the same paths (one was a shining talent, the reputation of the other was spoiled by violence and problems with alcohol). This could explain why the ignition did not last on one of the two islands.

6.3 – The language of ignition 

Daniel Coyle now looks at the power of words. He returns to the example of the Z-boys, the prodigious skaters, and their journey. He tells the story of their “coach”, Engblom, explaining that he did not have much influence on the technical side of things, but he always encouraged them in the same way. The little phrases he used seem unimportant, but they carried them to the top.

“What skill-building really is, is confidence-building. First they got to earn it, then they got it. And once it gets lit, it stays lit pretty good.”

The verbal signals and guiding words encouraging people to do better and excel ignite new levels of motivation.

The author of The Talent Code now introduces the work of Dr Carol Dweck on the relationship between positive verbal communication and motivation. He describes an experiment based on the story of The Princess and the Pea: by praising a group of students in two different ways (one based on the work accomplished and the other on their intelligence), she obtained very different results. This confirmed her theory on the role played by words in igniting motivation.

Language produces a spark or a “boing effect” that opens a field of possibilities and strengthens motivation. This is “motivational language”. However, positive communication is not enough in itself. The entire road to be travelled must be considered.

“High motivation is not the kind of language that ignites people. What works is precisely the opposite: not reaching up, but reaching down, speaking to the ground-level effort, affirming the struggle. […] Effort-based language works because it speaks directly to the core of the learning experience, and when it comes to ignition, there’s nothing more powerful.”

Chapter 7: How to ignite a hotbed 

7.1 – Mike and Dave’s ridiculous idea 

In the next chapter of The Talent Code, Daniel Coyle presents the initiative of two young Houston teachers. Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin created the KIPP project (the Knowledge Is Power Program), an alternative teaching method. Inspired by best practice from other methods, they set up their own system:

  • Longer classes;
  • Uniforms;
  • Rewards;
  • Available, approachable teachers;
  • etc.

Things were difficult at first, and they found it hard to get their methods accepted. But they had a clear goal: get more children to the gates of universities.

By focussing on hard work and student commitment (“Work hard, be nice”), the KIPP programme began to be successful. Today, there are several KIPP schools across the United States. This is another ignition model.

7.2 – Curtain up

Sense of pride, public praise and the concept of merit

To understand how this talent hotbed has endured over time, without a notable personality or event, Daniel Coyle describes the precision operation of how the school year begins in KIPP institutions. Everything is planned and nothing is left to chance.

The reputation of these schools has already been proven. The goal of entering university is enough to ensure long waiting lists and to maintain the sense of pride and responsibility of the students who enrol there. Every act and deed in the school is subject to a precise rule that is integrated, reproduced, corrected and reinforced through public praise and rewards. The concept of merit also appears (for example, there are no desks in the classrooms at the start of the year, because the pupils have not done anything to earn them yet).

The 3 factors for ignition in KIPP schools

“There are a lot of people who think you can’t do it. […] But here at KIPP, we believe in you. If you work hard and are nice, you will go to college and have a successful life. You will be extraordinary because here we work really, really hard, and that makes you smart. You WILL make mistakes, you WILL mess up. We will too.  But you will all have beautiful behaviour. Because everything here at KIPP is earned. EVERYTHING is earned. Everything is EARNED.” ”

Daniel Coyle picks up on three factors in Ms. Ali’s start of year speech.

    • You belong to a group
    • Your group is together in a strange and dangerous new world
    • That new world is shaped like a mountain, with the paradise of college at the top.

The association of elements, repeated at every opportunity during the time at school, creates enough signals to engage the motivation of the pupils and establish a new talent hotbed.

“As Feinberg likes to say: “Everything is everything” This sounds like new-age palaver, but what he’s really talking about is KIPP’s insistence on environmental coherency: the way every element of this world, from the painted stripes on the floor to the eyes of the teacher, to the angle with which the students carry their binders, sends clear, constant signals of belonging and identity.”

“Good” behaviour

KIPP schools also place particular emphasis on “good behaviour”. If the rules are broken or there is a lack of respect, classes are interrupted to hold a meeting about how to fix the problem. “KIPP has found that it’s the most efficient way to establish group priorities, locate errors, and build the behavioural circuits that KIPP desires,” explains the author.

This method reminds us of the deep practice as presented by Daniel Coyle throughout the book. To activate the circuits, the KIPP method uses the signal of university: instilled into every part of the students’ schooling (from exam results to visits to college campuses). It is imprinted in their minds to ignite changes to behaviour.

After meeting a KIPP student, Daniel Coyle came to reconsider the notion of personality.

“I’m struck by how KIPP alters our instinctive notion of character. Usually, we think of character as deep and unchanging, an innate quality that flows outwards, showing itself through behaviour. KIPP shows that character might be more like a skill – ignited by certain signals and honed by deep skills.”

The entire KIPP method works on myelin by impacting electrical circuits, motivation and skills.


Chapter 8: The talent whisperers

8.1 – The ESP of Hans Jensen

To introduce chapter eight of The Talent Code, Daniel Coyle talks about how bank robbing techniques changed in the 1920s. He quotes the methods of Herman Lamm, known as “the baron”:

“Lamm was able to communicate his ideas and translate them into the seamless performance of an immensely difficult task. He was an innovator who taught with discipline and exactitude. He inspired through information.  In short, Baron Lamm was a master coach.”

The author attempts to define what makes a “master coach”:

  • Quiet, reserved
  • Significant experience in the field
  • A temperament that leans towards wisdom
  • Observation and listening as drivers
  • Special attention paid to details to aim for perfection
  • Exact knowledge of the other person to allow targeted and personalised discussions.

Daniel Coyle takes the example of Hans Jensen, a cello professor at Meadowmount (a talent hotbed previously seen in The Talent Code). Apart from his notably successful musical career, the author highlights Jensen’s “ESP”, his “aptitude to feel the student’s needs and instantly produce the right signal to meet those needs”. Even without knowing his students, Jensen only needed a few seconds to adapt his posture to their needs:

“He didn’t only tell them what to do: he became what they should do, communicating the goal with gesture, tone, rhythm and gaze. The signals were targeted, concise, unmissable and accurate.”

8.2 – The wizard’s secret

Clarity and mentally absorbing information 

Daniel Coyle now develops the example of John Wooden: a UCLA basket coach who was the subject of an in-depth observation by Ron Gallimore and Roland Tharp, education psychologists. Wooden was considered to be the best coach. The two researchers wanted to discover his coaching method, and they noted 2,326 acts of teaching. Among them:

    • 6.9 % were “compliments”
    • 6.6 % were expressions of displeasure
    • 75 % were purely informational: what they players needed to do, when and how to add intensity And the most common teaching method used by Wooden was based on a three-part demonstration, where he showed:
      • The right way to do something
      • The incorrect way
      • The right way to do it again.

Gallimore and Tharp demonstrated that Wooden used clear explanations that left an image in the mind. Each training session was minutely prepared.

Minute preparation

“As Gallimore and Tharp wrote, Wooden made decisions “on the fly” at a pace equal to his players, in response to the details of his players’ actions. Yet his teaching was in no sense ad hoc. Down to the specific words he used, his planning included specific goals both for the team and for individuals.”

By selecting the type of information to pass on, by seizing the right moment and the right method, Wooden grew his students’ mental circuits.

“He taught in chunks, using what he called the “whole-part” method – he would teach players an entire move, then break it down to work on its elemental actions. He formulated laws of learning (which might be retitled laws of myelin): explanation, demonstration, imitation, correction and repetition.”

Repetition, automation and error correction

According to this “master coach”, repetition leads to the acquisition of the skills needed to succeed. To take things further, you must know how to move forward slowly and repeat things until they become automatic. Once again, The Talent Code highlights the importance of correcting imperfections in the learning process.

8.3 – Coaching love

Daniel Coyle now investigates the role of the first teachers or coaches of major talents: were they excellent? Are they behind the success of their students? He looks at a study led by Benjamin Bloom of the University of Chicago.

He asked 120 people (musicians, artists, athletes…) to grade their first instructor: “Very good”, “Better than average” or “Average”. When the results came out, it clearly appeared that the future fame of the students did not depend on having a “very good” teacher at the start of their career.

By examining the rankings, Daniel Coyle realised that the categories based on the level of “professionalism” of the teacher (comprehensive training, good training, no training) did not determine the reality of the relationship between the teacher and the student.

In reality, the teachers that were successful were “tapping into the second element of the talent code: ignition”.  They were creating and sustaining motivation; they were teaching love.”

This perception is even more important when it is the student’s first encounter with the discipline. If it is positive, the student will get more involved and want to improve. It is, therefore, an emotional trigger.

“They succeed because building myelin circuits requires both deep practice and ignition; they succeed because they are mirrors of the talent code themselves.”

Chapter 9: The teaching circuit: a blueprint

9.1 – The four virtues of master coaches

“In the most literal sense, master coaches are the human delivery system for the signals that fuel and direct the growth of a given skill circuit, telling it with great clarity to fire here and not there. Coaching is a long, intimate conversation, a series of signals and responses that move toward a shared goal.”

Master coaches are able to detect the smallest breaches in their students with the goal of guiding them to excellence. They correct their errors and always keep motivation alive. Daniel Coyle talks about a combination of qualities, of “four virtues” to fully master the art of coaching.

The matrix: the first virtue

The one thing that master coaches have in common is their age: Daniel Coyle returns to the notion of experience already mentioned in the typical profile.

“Matrix is Gallimore’s word for the vast grid of task-specific knowledge that distinguishes the best teachers and allows them to creatively and effectively respond to a student’s efforts.”

The link between experience and myelin is therefore key to determining a master coach:

“Years of work go into myelinating a master coach’s circuitry, which is a mysterious amalgam of technical knowledge, strategy, experience and practised instinct ready to be put to instant use to locate and understand where the students are and where they need to go.”

In the end, being a master coach is the synthesis of everything the students will need to produce along the path to success. In particular, awareness about errors and working tirelessly to correct them to reach excellence and the ideal learning method.

Daniel Coyle presents the path taken by Linda Septien, a former opera singer who is now a singing teacher – with the ability to detect the biggest stars of today.

Perceptiveness, the second virtue

“Super coaches” possess one great strength: the individual attention they pay to each of their students. Knowing them better means that they can help them better.

“They are listening on many levels,” Gallimore said. “They are able to use their words and behaviours as an instrument to move the student forward.”

The GPS reflex, the third virtue

Information transmission is decisive: it must be short and impactful to be assimilated rapidly and easily.

“The directions weren’t dictatorial in tone (usually) but were delivered in a way that sounded clinical and urgent, as if they were being emitted by a particularly compelling GPS unit navigating through a maze of city streets.”

The role of the GPS, like that of the coach, is to guide in the most efficient way possible. The advantage of the coach is to be able to highlight what is wrong in real time to improve it immediately. Adapting solutions to a given moment is another point that master coaches have in common.

“If A didn’t work, they tried B and C; if they failed, the rest of the alphabet was holstered and ready. What seemed like patient repetition from the outside was actually, on closer examination, a series of subtle variations, each one a distinct firing, each one creating a worthwhile combination or errors and fixes that grew myelin.”

Theatrical honesty, the fourth virtue

When he talks about “theatrical honesty”, the author of the The Talent Code explains that some coaches have a role and an image. The more they cultivate them, the bigger the impact. Whether a style of dressing, perfect mastery of rhetoric or a certain kind of behaviour, master coaches use these tactics to bolster what they are saying, and they adapt it to the other person. This works even better when it comes to fixing mistakes.

9.2 – Circuit-growing: why teaching soccer is different from teaching violin 

Daniel Coyle presents a case study between Brazilian soccer coaches and Suzuki violin teachers. The most obvious difference is that the former speak very little and the latter speak a lot. He analyses the two styles of coaching independently. He then explains why both methods work:

“The answer lies in the nature of the skill circuits that each technique is trying to develop. From the myelin point of view, the two coaches only look as if they are doing the opposite thing.  In fact, they are both doing precisely what good coaches should do: they are helping the right circuit to fire as often as possible. The difference is the shape of the circuits each is trying to grow.”

In other words, each skill needs a different form of learning, and so the circuits are different. That is why the coaching methods vary.

So the circuits have a different shape depending on the practice:

“Skills like soccer, writing and comedy are flexible-circuit skills, meaning that they require us to grow vast ivy-vine circuits that we can flick through to navigate an ever-changing set of obstacles. Playing violin, gymnastics, golf and figure-skating on the other hand, are consistent-circuit skills, depending utterly on a solid foundation of technique that enables us to reliably re-create the fundamentals of an ideal performance.”

Finally, master coaches all have the ability to activate the right circuits to help their students to improve. The form of coaching does not really matter.

Chapter 10: Tom Martinez and the $60 million dollar bet

Know how to connect: the first step towards a successful learning dynamic

The author of The Talent Code now focuses on the place of the coach once the talent has launched. The coach retires into the background when the student becomes successful.

Daniel Coyle tells the story of Tom Martinez, called in to help the Raiders (American football) choose a future player and at the same time save the club’s reputation. The team was hesitating between two players. One was well-known, Johnson, and he seemed to be the reasonable choice. The second player, Russell, looked like he had a promising future.

Martinez met Russell to get a better idea about the player as nobody really knew anything about him. He explains his method like this:

“With a new kid, it’s no different from meeting a girl you might want to go on a date with,” Martinez said. “You make eye contact, and there’s something happening there, underneath. Something hits a nerve, something is transmitted through eye contact that tells you to say hello. That’s what I look for first in a kid, something to take our connection to a potentially different spot.”

The “connection” Martinez is taking about is the way he teaches his student, establishing a relationship of trust. This is the first step towards a successful learning dynamic.

Knowing how to adapt your guiding technique: the second condition for successful coaching 

Daniel Coyle also watched a coaching session. He noticed that Martinez used different techniques to describe the movement to perform, making use of metaphors. He felt that it was a more direct way of leaving an impression on minds.

“Sixty percent of what you teach applies to everybody,” he continued. “The trick is how you get that sixty percent to the person. If I teach you, I’m concerned about what you think and how you think. I want to teach you how to learn in a way that’s right for you.”

After a rapid 20-day course, Martinez backed Russell for the Raiders, who went on to select him.

“The Raiders listened to Martinez because he possesses a rare and valuable talent. He can walk up to somebody he’s never met, in an atmosphere thick with unknowns and money and wariness, and forge a connection. He can use that connection to find the truth about someone whose talent is yet to be known to the world and maybe even to himself.”

To end the story, Martinez tells Daniel Coyle that he advised the Raiders to keep a “mentor” close to Russell. This highlights the fact that success is very often coupled with the right guidance.

Epilogue: The myelin world

To end his book The Talent Code, Daniel Coyle proposes the following talent code diagram:

Diagram of the talent code, taken from the book The Talent Code

Daniel Coyle goes on to describe the different parts of life where myelin predominates.


Daniel Coyle returns to the hot debate in the United States about ways to learn how to read and write. He demonstrates, thanks to what has been developed throughout the book that the whole method and the phonics method are complementary. They each activate different circuits.

“To understand myelin is to understand that the Reading Wars should not be a war. Students need both to succeed.”


“Businesses are groups of people who are building and honing skills circuits in exactly way as the tennis players at Spartak or the violinists at Meadowmount. The more an organisation embraces the core principles of ignition, deep practice, and master coaching, the more myelin it will build, the more success it will have.”

The author of The Talent Code takes the example of Toyota factories: the employees can add their own adjustments to the assembly line, which acts like a form of deep practice in which errors are corrected to achieve excellence.


When it comes to the role of myelin in psychology, Daniel Coyle mentions the Shyness Clinic.

“The clinic is built around the idea that social skills are just like any other skill. Founders Philip Zimbardo and Lynne Henderson call their concept social fitness training – we might call it myelinisation through deep practice.”

Shyness is caused by a lack of “social practice”. Dr Albert Ellis created cognitive behavioural therapy to help with this, with an action-oriented approach. By repeating things that one was previously unable to do and with the help of adjustments from the therapist, patients discover that shyness is a skill they can improve and not something innate and unchangeable.

It appears that myelin has a role to play in managing post-traumatic shocks. While we cannot deconstruct circuits, it can establish new ones that allow an individual to live with the impacts of past events.


In order to slow the effects of ageing on the body, it is important to mobilise a variety of skills and to acquire new ones. Myelin works over the course of a lifetime. By building new circuits, it would appear that there are cognitive reserves that can help to resist illnesses such as Alzheimer’s over time.

Bringing it home

“Carol Dweck, the psychologist who studies motivation, likes to say that all the world’s parenting advice can be distilled to two simple rules: pay attention to what your children are fascinated by and praise them for their efforts.

Daniel Coyle adds that it is important to explain how myelin works to your children. He believes that each increase in myelin bears the trace of a past event: whether a direction from a coach, the encouraging gaze of a parent, or listening to a nice piece of music.

“In the whorls of myelin resides a person’s secret history, the flow of interactions and influences that make up a life, the Christmas lights that for some reason, lit up.”

Conclusions about The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle

The key message in the book

Greatness isn’t born. It’s grown. Here’s how.

This sentence is the sub-title of The Talent Code and it is the perfect summary of what the author has to say. He invites readers to look at talent not as something that is innate or miraculous, but as the fruit of a learning process.

He explains throughout the book how success is within everyone’s reach on condition of carrying out deep practice in which errors are corrected and progress is encouraged. All these factors are generally linked to an ignition factor that allows the growth of myelin inside the brain, an essential component of technical progress. It strengthens skills and works like a muscle that must be constantly trained.

What this book offers readers

The Talent Code teaches us how to optimise learning from a neuroscientific point of view.

Teachers or coaches, in every field, along with students or teachers will understand the fundamental role of myelin in improving skills, the growth process of this substance, and all its secrets. It is up to the reader to take ownership of this knowledge and act efficiently to improve their own learning methods. It is important to take the following into account:

    • The major role of ignition, emotions and language on motivation;
    • The power of repeated practice where errors are made and the corrected.

Strong points: 

  • Practical case studies: Daniel Coyle lays out a number of observations made in the field.
  • A diverse range of experience: the author wants to show how myelin works in a broad range of situations.
  • The summary at the end of the book across all aspects of life (work, parenting, etc.) is wider than the sporting and musical examples mainly developed in the book. This allows us to grasp the importance of myelin across all areas of life.

Weak point: 

  • Sometimes the explanations are too “technical”, using a vocabulary specific to the field of neurology.

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