Cracking the Code on Talent

First, there was Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers.  A few months later, Geoff Colvin wrote Talent is Overrated.   Then, another book by Daniel Coyle called The Talent Code, continues the theme of “greatness isn’t born – it’s grown”.   Wow – three books within the last few years dealing with how talented people get to the top of their chosen professions.

Coyle is an author and contributor to Outside magazine who has tackled this topic in similar fashion to Gladwell and Colvin, citing medical research and examples of current celebrity talents such as Bill Gates or Tiger Woods to illustrate their points. Coyle’s book includes three main messages:

1) Deep practice. Coyle explains why so few of us are very good at certain sports (bowling, golf) or playing an instrument (piano, guitar). Our practice is shallow and sporadic, and we’re mostly practicing at the same level of talent for years – we tend to stay in a very narrow range of proficiency because we don’t devote enough time to allow a “break out” to a new level. For Coyle, the understanding of “deep practice” involves an understanding of myelin, which is the insulation that wraps around nerve fibers. According to Coyle, myelin is increased through deep practice and, in turn, increased myelin affects the signal strength, speed and accuracy of the electric signals traveling through nerve fibers. Which in turn allows for advanced levels of reaction, dexterity, control, etc. Again, this continues a theme of marrying medical science with performance – from sleep to the effects of hydration, etc., the learnings are coming fast and furious in this space. Imagine the insights people will have 100 years from now about the human body and it’s interaction with performance!

2) The ignition. What motivates us to break out and dive deeper into our functional areas of expertise? Where does this passion come from? What flips the switch? Ignition is a little mysterious, but for some it’s clearly sparked by having a positive role model (think a parent, coach or mentor).

3) Master coaching. Even the greatest golfer of his generation, Tiger Woods, has a coach – in fact he has more than one. Some say Tiger is farther ahead of his peers than any other talent in any other human endeavor (now that’s saying something). Yet even Tiger Woods seeks the advice and counsel of coaches and mentors; he can’t take his game to a new level all by himself. The point is that world class talent requires feedback and teaching from disciplined, committed, coaches. The development of great skill seems to benefit (maybe even require) the help of people who have the ability to develop talent in others. For those of us in the leadership development and coaching profession, we’re grateful for the validation, but this is something we’ve long known. Reflection and dialog about skills, talents, practice habits, etc, begets even greater performance.

Put The Talent Code alongside Outliers and Talent is Overrated on your bookshelf, and you’ve got a strong case for convincing anyone that talent and skill can be grown and developed. Not that you’re probably having this debate anymore, but these three books certainly cement the notion that the path to greatness is paved with practice, passion and feedback. As always, happy reading!