The Talent Code: Summary & Review

The Talent Code” teaches readers how to best train to grow myelin and achieve peak performance by training at the edges of their comfort zone.

Bullet Summary

  • The Talent Code is: Ignition + Master Coaching + Deep Practice = Talent
  • To learn quickly you must struggle and make mistakes at the edge of your comfort zone
  • To achieve mastery you need to love your craft so you will stay long at it


About The Author:
Daniel Coyle is an American journalist who has been covering sports and top performers.

How Myelin Impacts Performance

Myelin is a fatty tissue that surrounds the axon of the nerve cells in our body and, importantly, in our brains.

Axons are a bit like the connecting cables of our brains, and myelin is the sheath surrounding these cables.

Myelin can grow with usage similar to how a muscle can grow with usage, and the more myelin we build to connect some specific paths of our brain, the more skilled we will become at that specific craft we’re working on.

Put simply: practice builds myelin, and myelin makes your moves more natural.

Skill is myelin insulation that wraps neurocircuits and grows according to certain signals.
The story of skill and talent is the story of myelin.

The whole point of The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle is to explain how we can optimize our practices to build myelin quicker and more efficiently.

The Talent Code PART I: Deep Practice

Daniel Coyle says that Deep Practice involves “doing it yourself” first and foremost.

For example, if you’re struggling to remember a name and you remember it yourself you’re more likely to remember it later on.
And if you try to put a safe vest by yourself you’re more likely to remember how to do it compared to simply watching a flight attendant do it.

It’s because you fire those connections in your brain and you build myelin around them.

Do It Often: Action

The more often you repeat a certain action, the more myelin you build.

The deep practice involves quick cycles of repetition based on mistakes and quickly fixing them.

Daniel Coyle explains the huge number of talented Brazilian players in a game they all play growing up: futso.
Futso is played on a small field and allows the player to touch the ball up to 600% times more often.

Being so often actively involved in the game allows the futso player to pack much more practice in a much shorter time.

The Sweet Spot: Make Mistakes

Daniel Coyle says the best way to build a good circuit is to fire it, attend to mistakes, then fire it again over and over.

You must teach that circuit how to fire correctly. The struggle is not an option, it’s a requirement.

And that’s why passion and persistence are key to talent: wrapping lots of myelin requires lots of energy and repetition. If you don’t love what you’re doing, you won’t do it often enough.

The author says effortless is a terrible way to perform and so is working against insurmountable odds with no solution in sight.

The sweet spot of deep practice is at the edge of your ability, where you can target the struggles that are near your ability level, make those mistakes and correct them.
Incidentally, the sweet spot at the edge of your ability is also a key to finding inner motivation, as explained by Daniel Pink in Drive.

Repetition Builds Automaticity

Daniel Coyle says our brain is built to make the skills we master automated. The more we build a skill circuit, the more we are aware of actually using it.

Myelin Buildup Cannot be Undone

Myelination -the growth of myelin- happens in one way only: once it’s built it cannot be undone.

The only way to change a pattern of behavior then is to build a new habit by building a new behavior.

We Can Myelinate During Our Whole Life

Daniel Coyle goes a bit into the age question and says that in children myelin arrives in a series of waves lasting until our thirties.

These waves vary depending on the person, and they form critical periods in which the brain is extraordinarily receptive to learning new skills.

We keep building myelin until around 50 when overall myelin tips towards loss rather than accrual.
But we retain the ability to myelinate during our whole life. That’s why it’s easier to learn young: our genes stay the same, but the ability to build myelin changes.

10 Years Rules

Top mastery requires around a decade, or 10.000 hours of deep practice.

This is one of the most misquoted and most popular notions coming out of Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Outliers.
It’s also one of the most misunderstood, as Daniel Coyle himself says it’s more about how you practice than simply clocking hours.

Also, read: 

The Three Rules of Deep Practice

The three rules of deep practice are:

#1. Chunk It Up:

Look at the task as a whole first.

Listen to the whole song, and watch the whole movement sequence.

Then break it into chunks and do them slowly first.
Going slowly allows you to attend to errors more effectively and reach a higher degree of precision whenever you fire signals.
So your myelin grows over the correct portion of neurons more precisely and quickly.

Master the pieces individually, then start linking them together in progressively bigger chunks.

#2. Repeat It

You have to continuously keep working on your skill.

Myelin is a living tissue, it breaks down and repairs, so daily practice matters.

Repetition though is only as good as the quality of the practice. Coyle says that most top talent schools he visited practice no more than 3 hours a day, and doing that in a state of deep practice is not only enough, but it will often exhaust you.

My Note 1:
I don’t fully understand here why the author says myelin breaks down while earlier he says that myelin cannot be undone (unless through age or illness).

My Note 2:
I was intrigued about this 3h day practice only that I had to research deeper. I expected to find out 3h only is not enough.
Well, Daniel Coyle in his blog actually takes it even further.
He mentions Barcelona’s talent school practices only 70 minutes a day. And he suggests you quit when you’re exhausted. 

#3. Learn to Feel It

Daniel Coyle says that Deep Practice should feel to you as being a staggering baby learning to walk.

It’s an uncomfortable sensation that most sensible people would seek to avoid. Yet the longer you endure in this sensation, the more myelin you build and the more skills you build.

The author then drops another gem when he says that to get good, you must love, or better be enthusiastic, about being bad.

To get good you must love being bad

We Can Be Heroes (All Of Us)

Daniel Coyle says that genes matter and IQ matters.

But we have a good deal of control over what skills to develop and we have more potential than we might have ever presumed.

The Talent Code PART II: Ignition

Motivation is started and sustained through a process called ignition.

Let Your Skill Become Your Identity

Students who performed best in music classes answered they were going to practice longer than students who weren’t sure.

The students who performed the best thought and felt like the art they were studying “was their thing”.

They had acquired the identity of being musicians (read more on how to build a supportive identity)

It’s also a social construct: the willingness to be like someone.
So if you had a musician in the family, it could feel to you like that’s part of your heritage, which will also come to share your identity.

Ignition is that spark that leads us to decide who we want to be. Ignition shapes our identity.

Long term commitment always beats short term commitment.

Believing You Can – And You Will

Ignition is also what makes us believe we can do it.

Daniel Coyle uses the example of Korean golfers.
There had never been a golfer in Korea, but the moment one appeared, it suddenly seemed possible that a Korean could be great at golf.

She became a star and a few years later Korea started dominating golf.

Similarly, it was for the first man who ran a mile in under 4 minutes. Before then it was thought to be impossible, but after Bannister did, many more did.

My Note:
this story always smelled fishy to me and it might be one of those fake “you can do it” cheap motivational stories with little truth behind it.
The more likely truth is very well explained in my list of self-help myths. You don’t need fake “you can do it” motivational psychology to empower yourself.

Ignition Through Competition

Daniel Coyle notices that even in sports where genetics seem to reign supreme, like running, there are strong indicators that there’s more than meets the eye.

Most runners, for example, were younger brothers or sisters in the family.

To keep up with their older brothers they had to put in more effort, which worked as the ignition element to always put them at the edge of their skills, effectively leading them to deep practice every day.

Language of Ignition

Daniel Doyle gives a few examples of how throwing a challenge to someone can set out an ignition spark.

Sentences such as “you don’t stand a chance” are perfect.

The author then talks about Carol Dweck and her research on Growth Mindset.

Telling children they were smart or telling them they worked hard had incredible consequences.
The kids praised for being smart were subsequently looking for easy tests to confirm their intelligence, while children praised for working hard sought difficult tests.
When presented with difficult tests the kids praised for intelligence hated those tests and gave up early. The kids praised for working hard were more likely to relish the challenge and stayed at it much longer.

In light of the myelin and Deep Practice point of view, we can now see how a Growth Mindset naturally leads people into Deep Practice (learn how to develop a growth mindset).

The Talent Code Part III: Master Coaching

I found Daniel Coyle’s description of the master coaches inspiring and eye-opening.

The best coaches were quiet, mostly older, and have been coaching for decades.
Their gaze was deep and unflinching, they listened more than they spoke. They didn’t give Hollywood-style prep talks but instead offered small and highly specific adjustments.
They are also a master in psychology and communication

John Wooden, probably the most famous of them all, wasn’t looking for big improvements but was constantly working on smaller incremental improvements.

Daniel Coyle says that John Wooden’s rules of learning on could be called the rules of myelin. The steps are:

  1. Explanation
  2. Demonstration
  3. Imitation
  4. Correction
  5. Repetition

Also, read Eleven Rings” by Phil Jackson.

Deep Practice and Psychology

In this part, Daniel Coyle talks about social improvement and how it’s similar to deep practice.

Cognitive Behavior Therapy & Deep Practice

The secret to improving socially, as for most anything else, is to move to the edges of our comfort zone.

Then, linger in that uncomfortable area and learn to tolerate the anxiety.

Albert Ellis was a painfully shy kid and decided to react to his shyness problems with his actions.
One afternoon he sat on a bench and chatted with every woman who sat down. In one month he spoke with 130 women. 30 walked away and he spoke with the other 100, for the first time in his life, no matter how anxious he was.

Ellis went on to build an action-oriented approach to psychotherapy came to be known as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, which works equally or better than prescription drugs according to the New York Times.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy challenges the Freudian model of examining childhood experience and proposes action instead.

The issue with most therapies, Ellis said, is that they help you feel better. But you don’t really get better. You gotta back it up with action and action.

Albert Ellis: “neurosis” is just a high-class word for whining

This is similar to what Tony Robbins said in which Freudian psychoanalysis looks for the issues instead of looking for solutions.
The problem with looking for issues is that you find what you look for, so you will find them. So if you look for solutions instead you’ll find solutions.

Prolonged Exposure Therapy: Building New Connections

Daniel Coyle says you can’t undo myelin wrapping, but you build a new connection to link the traumatic stimulus to a new normal everyday event.

So, for example, doctors use software -Virtual Iraqui- to administer all the war sensations to the returning Iraqui soldiers dealing with Post Traumatic Stress Disorders.
The idea is to relive the memory without triggering the debilitating connection.

You can’t easily unbuild the circuit of war memories and stressful reactions, but you can build another road where the war memories don’t lead to any negative reactions.

This way the war memories and sensations, played and played again, become the new normal.

For more on trauma read “The Body Keeps The Score“.

The Talent Code book quote: to get good you must love being bad

Real-Life Applications

Two huge lessons learned you can readily apply:

  1. Use the Deep Practice methods in your craft of choice
  2. Pick the identity of what you want to become to solidify behavior and long-term commitment


Naive empiricism
Doyle says Brazil has won the most World Cups and has the top players, so… It’s got the results to prove Brazilians must be doing something “special”, right?
At the time of writing, Brazil has 5 world cups, and Italy and Germany have 4. But if you divide the world cups tally by population, then Italy has more world cups per inhabitant, which matters far more if you’re looking at the country that produces the best talent.

Jumps to conclusions
The author says that Brazilians learn better than anyone else because they play on five-men smaller pitches.
Doyle ignores that most guys in European countries also play on those same smaller pitches. For his theory to be even a valid hypothesis, he should have made sure that Brazilians play significantly more in smaller pitches than any other country.

Also, read “naive empiricism” in our foundational naive self-help article:

Naive Self-Help: 10 Most Dangerous BS to Avoid

Does myelin undo or not?
In one part Daniel Coyle says you need to keep practicing all the time or the myelin scaffolding will undo itself. In several other instances, he says you can’t undo myelin.

Which is which?


The Talent Code” is a wonderful book.

It will improve your understanding of how the brain works and what you can do to reach mastery of your craft even faster.
And all information is applicable and supported with examples to make it easier for you to understand.

If I had to leave you with one key piece of advice to take away from The Talent Code, it’s this:

Love The Struggle

Further Readings
Read more book Summaries or get the book on Amazon.

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