Book Review: The Talent Code

About two weeks ago, I made my semesterly pilgrimage to the McGill bookstore for this semester’s allotment of overpriced textbooks. Since there were relatively few textbooks on my list, I decided to let myself browse. Browsing in bookstores is always dangerous for me, but it’s especially in university bookstores; there’s just so much knowledge in there, and I want to read it all. It’s different from a library, where many of the books are out of date, or hardly read; these are books that thousands of people are going to be studying in the immediate future, which seems to make their information more valuable in some way. To summarize how my browsing adventure went, I ended up reading the entire reading list for a psychology class I’ve never even heard of.

Psychology has always fascinated me, and lately I’ve been interested in motivation, willpower, and decision making. I looked at the prominently featured book called The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle, thinking it was yet another way to make money and succeed in the corporate environment. It seemed like another book that was going to “change my life around”, and make me rich, and make ALL the women want to have my babies, partially because of the golden, brushed metal spine on the dust cover. As I read the description of the book, my visions of imagined corporate and reproductive success vanished, and were replaced by visions of a gateway into the way we learn things. I had to read it, and I wasn’t disappointed.

The Talent Code belongs to a special class of books written by journalists that summarize scientific data. I’m always careful when journalists tell me about science, because they seem to rarely know what they’re talking about. I’m not interested in the latest thing that is purported to cause cancer, prevent or induce Alzheimer’s, or make you lose or gain weight. I take about as much stock in sensationalized articles in the newspaper as I take in those online ads that want me to read all about the sixty year old mom who discovered a miracle cure for ageing. My test for whether or not I believe a journalist who wants to tell me about new science is 1) does it make sense to me, and 2) are these claims supported by references. I’m happy to say that this book passes both tests.

In The Talent Code, Coyle presents a relatively new way of looking at talent and ability. The core idea behind the book is that talent is little more than neuronal “broadband,” which can be built and maintained over time. You’ve probably heard that your brain is made up of lots of cells, some of which are called neurons. You may even have heard that those neurons connect to each other with things called axons. But what you might not have heard of, is that those axons are covered in something called myelin. Myelin makes the connection work faster and better, which allows whatever task those neurons and axons are performing to happen faster as well. You can increase the amount of myelin by doing something Coyle calls “deep practice.” I’ll leave the details of deep practice for you to read about, but suffice it to say that deep practice is repetitive, error focused training that fires just the right neurons, with the purpose of building up the myelin sheath around just the right axons. And the best part is, you’ll have an intuitive sense that he’s right*.

Not only does The Talent Code make intuitive sense, however, it’s also backed by a wealth of research, which Coyle references properly. I can’t say how many newspaper articles I’ve read telling me how much of what food I should eat, without any references, citations, or even clues as to whose research they’re using. There are nine pages of notes on the sources included in this book, so you can delve deeper into the theory behind deep practice, and maybe even make your own decision about what constitutes talent.

My only criticism of the book is that information is sometimes presented in a causative, “this happens because,” context, when the research doesn’t necessarily imply causation. For example, can we say for sure that the increase in the number of female South Korean LPGA golfers was due to Se Ri Pak’s Winning the LPGA in 1998? No, there’s not enough information to say for certain. Perhaps Se Ri Pak was in fact part of the trend rather than the cause of it, and the actual cause happened earlier, or maybe the two events were simply linked by coincidence. We can guess, and since a similar pattern has appeared multiple times across the world, the hypothesis seems to be correct, but I don’t think it’s correct to assume causation from the data provided in the book**. But I’m just a stickler for making the distinction between causation and correlation. I think Daniel prevents a very convincing argument for his findings, and in the end, I think that’s most of what science is all about: presenting what you believe to be the case, and letting people make up their own minds.

All in all, my little excursion through the bookstore was worth it, I think. It’s great to dive into a field other than your own. Not that this book is an example of a great psychological text, or that it’s even a textbook (it’s not, actually, it was written for general consumption,) but it’s interesting to try and expand my mind, and to learn things simply for the sake of learning. The fact that this book is immediately applicable in my own life is a bonus.

If you’re at all curious about how talent, practice, and inspiration work, you should definitely read The Talent Code. It’s a fairly quick read, and it’s readily understandable.

*Of course, cognitive scientists know that our intuitive senses about how the brain works are seldom correct. But this feels right, and it’s backed by scientific data.

**It’s possible that there’s more data in the actual studies which proves or more strongly implies a causative relation between Se Ri Pak’s win and the increase in LPGA golfers, but it’s not presented.

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