Talent is dead, long live Practice: A critical review of Coyle’s book

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Daniel Coyle, the journalist and New York Times bestselling author, wrote in 2009 The Talent Code: Greatness isn’t born. It’s grown. Here’s how.  For writing the book, he visited very different tiny places that produce huge amounts of talent, from an inner-city school in California to the baseball-mad islands of the Caribbean. His objective with this “Great Expedition” (pg. 12), as he has framed it, was to find how is possible to create so many talent in so a small “chicken-wire Harvards”. His findings give us a new way to think about talent as it is explained in the second chapter of his book, “The sweet spot”.

Coyle’s argument is that talent does not exist. At least, talent understood as “the possession of repeatable skills” indicator of long-term success (pg 11). For Coyle the innate potential certain people has, is not the way to become an expert in a field. For him the only way to achieve expertise is through practice. Of course, natural ability is important but it is nothing without hard work. Deep practice is the secret to improve performance. An adequate practice, that “microsecond for struggle” (pg. 17) is the surest way to reach perfection. Coyle even dares to propose an “intriguing possibility (pg. 19), that practice is the building block that creates talent.

This type of practice has certain characteristics although he does not give a clear definition of what it is. First, it is a focused practice at the edge of your ability where you are forced to slow down (pg. 18). Second, this practice makes possible to commit errors, “making progress became a matter of small failures” (pg. 13). So, deep practice is based on errors. Mistakes are the signals where to focus the practice. From this point of view, this experience, the “sweet spot” as UCLA psychologist Robert Bjork named it, is slow and permits learning from errors. To achieve expertise through practice is necessary to find the ideal level of difficult that permits to fill the “the gap between what you know and what you are trying to do” (pg. 19).

Some examples support Coyle’s argument. He observed how different people became experts on several fields. He explained the process as a combination of elements which produced expert performance. In all of these cases, deep practice was present.  He describes in detail two cases: Link’s device and football players in Brazil.

Edwin Link invented a machine where plane pilots could train without being in the air. He built a device that compressed the key elements of a plane into a small space. So, the training pilot can commit all the common mistakes without being in death risk.

The other example Coyle uses is the way football players learn how to play football in Brazil. He assures that kids play Futsal a “strange game” (pg. 25) that resembled soccer but it is not soccer. Playing this game, children learn the basic skills of moving the ball and makes Brazilian football technique different from the rest of the world.

While reading Coyle’s text I made myself two questions. First, what the relationship between mistakes, practice and perfection is. Second, the role that natural ability plays in becoming an expert. I find, initially, that Coyle basic idea is good: we have always heard that practice is the base of everything and that without effort nothing is possible. Truly, he gives an initial reflection of how this practice should be. But beyond that, his argument is weak and I find the evidence he proposes rather casual. He does not explain the mechanism to transform mistakes into expertise. He does not give the pattern that practice must follow to generate the “good” mistakes that will push the practitioner to perfection. In his text, the deep practice experience seems as something mystic, a spiritual second that nobody knows if it is going to appear in that practice session.

Besides, he almost forgets the big amount of other factors that can have a roll in the process to become an expert. It is true that, in the football example, he speaks about poverty, climate and passion (pg. 28) but from my point of view he does not incorporate these other factors in his general framework. He does not give almost any importance to natural ability and I think he should recognize that for many fields of expertise a basic natural skill is necessary, especially in art, music, painting, sports….

In summary, this second chapter from Coyle’s book seeds some good intuitions about how to promote expertise through practice. Perhaps, it is necessary to read the whole book to extend to all depth the argument and have the tools to become an expert without talent and only practicing.

References

Coyle, Daniel (2009). The Talent Code: Greatness isn’t born. It’s grown. Here’s how. London. Bantam;  1st edition.

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