A Patchwork Quilt in Favor of Practice


Review: Coyle, Daniel: The Talent Code: Greatness Isn't Born.  It's Grown, Here's How.  New York: Bantam Dell (Extract from Chapter 1 - The Sweet Spot)

The inspirational self-help book has risen to popular prominence during recent years.  Riding this wave are numerous authors, each with their own prescription for methods and techniques to help you achieve success.  The trend continues today, with new authors adding their voices into the collective chorus of, "You can do it! Here's how."  In The Talent Code, New York Times best selling author Daniel Coyle rides this wave with his own narrative in which he makes the argument: Greatness Isn't Born.  It's Grown, Here's How. 

Coyle's main argument is encapsulated very precisely by the subtitle of his work.  Notably he argues that talent can be learned, Nurture is superior to Nature and, more specifically, a recipe to Nurture exists that produces superior results.  As with many in the inspirational self-help genre, Coyle's premise is built upon timeless adages.  In this case, he works from "practice makes perfect" and "that which does not kill you, makes you stronger."  Yet his treatise quickly draws an important distinction between rehearsal, mere rote and effortless practice and a method which Coyle has termed “deep practice.”  Deep Practice he describes as something akin to wading through highly challenging material, at a waist deep level, such that roadblocks and obstacles must be overcome.  In his words, "operating at the edges of your ability, where you make mistakes -- makes you smarter." (p. 18).  Not only does it make you smarter, he argues: it makes you smarter, faster.

Support for his claims about deep practice include a mix of approaches, woven together as a unique collection of colorful fabrics and forming a lovely patchwork quilt of support for his overall thesis.  Among his many methods we find appeals to empathy, story telling, anecdotal observations, appeals to authority, and engagements directly with the reader: all designed to highlight the benefits of deep practice.  As with any appeal that is not founded on deductive reasoning or science, the strength of his claim relies rather upon the strength of the his overall collection of inductive arguments.  The more numerous and varied a patchwork of arguments he can stitch, the more compelling his final thesis above and beyond any one of the component arguments by itself.

Coyle is an expert story-teller, drawing-in the reader with endearing narratives about persons and places.  He appeals frequently to empathy for the underdog.  He paints pictures of situations and obstacles, actions and "come-from-behind" results.  He tells us of Edwin Albert Link, Jr., "the son of a piano and organ maker .. who grew up working in his father's factory," (p. 21) and of Simon Clifford whose approach to teaching football in England placed the town's citizens into "grave danger of laughing themselves to death at the spectacle".  Both men overcome their obstacles and triumph to great success by way of deep practice.  In this way, Coyle's approach is one of wrapping you up in feelings of empathy for the character, perhaps even seeing yourself in their place, thereby wanting their victory as you want your own and feeling satiated when it arrives.

His text is adorned with anecdotes, used as sequins on his patchwork quilt.  He sprinkles them about as decorations, serving perhaps as useful distractions from the lack of objective science.  We're told briefly of Jennie, the twenty-four year old who after screwing up "stops, and thinks, then [tries] it again at a much slower speed." (p. 13)  We're told of Brunio, the eleven year-old who after failing "stops and thinks again .. breaking the move down into its component parts." (p. 13).  Unreliable as anecdotes may be, Coyle makes ample use of their charm.  In the end, his aims appear as much to entertain while convincing as they are to be objectively valid.

Appeals to authority and engaging his reader directly via experiment are also sewn into the stitch work.  He cites Dr. Robert Bjork, the chair of psychology at UCLA, who tells us that "Things that are obstacles turn out to be desirable in the long haul". (p. 18) And he implores the reader to perform a test whereby, of two memory exercises, the more challenging is the one that sticks with us. (p. 16)

In summary, Coyle's book – at least the extract that I have read – is an enjoyable and entertaining account of various individuals the world over, each surpassing their challenges by practicing deeply.  It is a narrative nicely adorned with the occasional reference to research and authority, as well as a superb art for telling a story.  Colorful and unique as this narrative may be, after-all the New York Times best seller's list is perhaps his only measure success, Coyle's  message of "You can do it! Here's how" is subjective and entertaining, certainly not objective or scientific. 

Word Count: 843


  1. Coyle, Daniel: The Talent Code: Greatness Isn't Born.  It's Grown, Here's How.  New York: Bantam Dell (Extract from Chapter 1 - The Sweet Spot).