Daniel Coyle: An interview by Bob Morris

Daniel Coyle is a contributing editor for Outside magazine and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestseller Lance Armstrong’s War. He has written for Sports Illustrated, The New York Times Magazine, and Play (including this March 2007 cover story which sparked The Talent Code), and is a two-time National Magazine Award finalist.  Coyle lives with his wife, Jen, and their four children in Homer, Alaska. His published works include the aforementioned Lance Armstrong’s War: One Man’s Battle Against Fate, Fame, Love, Death, Scandal, and a Few Other Rivals on the Road to the Tour de France and most recently, The Talent Code: Greatness Isn’t Born. It’s Grown. Here’s How.

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Daniel CoyleCoyle is a contributing editor for Outside magazine and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestseller Lance Armstrong’s War. He has written for Sports Illustrated, The New York Times Magazine, and Play (including this March 2007 cover story which sparked The Talent Code), and is a two-time National Magazine Award finalist.  Coyle lives with his wife, Jen, and their four children in Homer, Alaska. His published works include the aforementioned Lance Armstrong’s War: One Man’s Battle Against Fate, Fame, Love, Death, Scandal, and a Few Other Rivals on the Road to the Tour de France and most recently, The Talent Code: Greatness Isn’t Born. It’s Grown. Here’s How.

Morris: Before discussing one of your books, a few general questions. First, at which point in your life did you decide that you wanted to become a professional writer?

Coyle: For me the conscious decision happened pretty late – after college. Up to that point I was on track to be a doctor. But when I look back the fascination with writing was happening all along. As a kid I wanted to write for Sports Illustrated.  That was the dream job.

Morris: Here’s a related question. During the subsequent years, how have you decided what to write about?

Coyle: I fall in love with certain stories. Those stories tend to be connected to my life some way – for instance, with my first book I was writing about the experience of coaching Little League in the Chicago inner city.  But the common thread tends to be exploring some kind of mystery.  Simple questions that spiral deeper.

Morris: Looking back over your career thus far, which other writers have had the greatest influence on your development? How so?

Coyle: I was nuts about Tom Wolfe when I was in my twenties – for my money, The Right Stuff still rocks, because it combines tremendously deep reporting with fabulous writing to create a world of its own. I love John Le Carre, Saul Bellow, Michael Chabon, Michael Cunninghmam, and Zadie Smith. Is there a pattern there? I tend to go for a certain feeling – as Emily Dickinson said, you know it’s great when you can feel the top of your head lifting off.

Morris: Now please focus on Lance Armstrong. Of all that you learned about him while preparing to write the book about his  “war,” what did you find most surprising?

Coyle: How crazy his life is. We all know him as this resolute, granite-willed guy – and to some extent that is true. But in truth his life is a tornado of improvisation and flexibility – a never-ending flow of fights, projects, lawsuits, technical secrets, politics, etc.  As someone pointed out to me when Armstrong began dating Sheryl Crow: “He’s one of the few people who could date a rock star and whose life would actually calm down.”

Morris: Armstrong seems to demonstrate what has been revealed by research conducted by Anders Ericsson and his associates at Florida State University: With all due respect to whatever natural talent Armstrong possesses, his world-class performances in competition are the result of about 10,000 hours of what you characterize as “deep” practice, in combination with having sufficient resources (e.g. the interest and assistance of others) and being born at the right time, and in the right circumstances. Is that a fair assessment?

Coyle: Absolutely.  Of course, endurance sports have a larger genetic element, but the 10,000-Hour Rule applies to all experts in all fields, from violinists to darts players to politicians.

Morris: For those who have not as yet read The Talent Code, to what does its title refer?

Coyle: I spent two years visiting talent hotbeds around the planet – tiny places that produce impossibly large quantities of talented people, in sports, art, music, math, and academics. My argument is that all these places share the same behavioral fingerprint – because they are factories for building the beautiful, high-speed neurological circuits that underlie every human talent.

Morris: You disagree with those who insist that “practice makes perfect.” On the contrary, you suggest, “The truth is, practice makes myelin, and myelin makes perfect. And myelin operates by a few fundamental principles” that explain where extraordinary talent (defined as “the possession of repeatable skills that don’t depend on physical size”) comes from and how it can be developed.” For those who have not as yet read your book, what are a few of these principles

Coyle: The main principle of myelin is that you have to fire the circuit (perform the action) in order to grow it.  We are built to learn by doing. Situations where we passively take in knowledge (i.e., a class lecture) are of extremely limited value. Situations of doing, making mistakes, and fixing those mistakes, are of high value.

The difference is not subtle. In the book we meet Clarissa, a clarinet player who accomplishes a month’s worth of practice in five minutes.  Small differences in strategy create massive changes in learning velocity.

Morris: At one point is your narrative (Page 72), you observe, “We are myelin beings.” Please explain.

Coyle: Myelin is like broadband—it increases the speed and the amount of information our brains can process. Our brains are exactly like the Internet: they function best when they are connected with broadband.  To say that we are myelin beings means that we are built with broadband. The trick is, we have to learn how to install it.

Morris: Who are “talent whisperers” and what do they do?

Coyle: When I visited the talent hotbeds (from Brazil to Texas to the Caribbean to New York) I kept meeting the same person. They were older, humble people. They were emotional athletes – able to connect to their student quickly and deeply. They gave short, concise instructions in real time.  I called them “talent whisperers” because they are mirrors of the two key elements of the talent process: 1) they ignite the passion; the fuel tanks of motivation; 2) they create deep practice, helping to make the neural connections that underlie all skill.

Morris: For me, some of the most interesting material in your book is about your visits to schools in the Knowledge Is Power Program (aka KIPP) and your conversations with the program’s co-founders, Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin. What are the most important lessons that can be learned from what this program does and how it does it?

Coyle: The first big lesson for me was that there is hope for these neighborhoods, these kids. I’ve seen a lot of efforts to turn around schools in the inner city, but as someone at Harvard put it, these guys have cracked the code.

The second big lesson for me is that culture can be taught if it’s taught in the right way. KIPP has to construct an entirely new world – it’s as if the students enter another planet when they walk on school grounds. This is not an accident. To teach new behaviors, teachers need to be willing to build a new, cohesive world. Like Geoffrey Canada is doing in the Harlem Children’s Zone.

Morris: In your opinion, what lessons can be learned from KIPP’s “talent whisperers” that are most relevant to the improvement of instruction in corporate training and development programs for their employees?

Coyle: The first lesson is that you have to be willing to stop and fix. Deep practice requires a willingness to do what many of us find uncomfortable: to admit to our errors, and focus on them.  Toyota is a good example of this which I discuss in the book. The culture there tilts towards recognizing mistakes and fixing them.  On the factory floor, there is a cord called a “gandon” which can be pulled to stop the assembly line – and which is pulled when a mistake is noticed. Every employee, from janitor to CEO, is authorized to pull the cord.  KIPP functions the same way – when there is a problem, they have a custom called “stopping the school” where the problem is brought to light and discussed. It sounds counterproductive, but in fact it works.  Because they are constructing a new neural circuit – building new behaviors.

The other lesson is that leadership matters. Leaders can tilt the landscape toward these kinds of Deep Practice moments, or they can be allergic to them.

Morris: Is there a “talent code” for the business world?

Coyle: Absolutely.  These rules apply to all organizations. The talent hotbeds are exactly what we want every good organization to be: a place that makes the most of its potential; a place that builds itself fluid, fluent, fast neural circuits.  A great company is exactly like a giant brain.

Morris: Is there a “talent code” for leadership development?

Coyle: A true leader is someone who maximizes the potential of their people; who ignites their passions and gives them the opportunity to make the most of their gifts in the service of a larger goal. The leaders I met at the talent hotbeds embodied those values.

Morris: Long ago, Henry Ford observed something to the effect, “Whether you think you can or think you can’t, you’re right.” To achieve great performance, how important is attitude or does it mostly depend on myelin?

Coyle: Ford was absolutely right. The key ingredient here can be called attitude, or passion, or love, or obsession, or, as I call it in the book, ignition. Constructing big, fast neural circuits is hard work (there’s that 10,000 Hour Rule again!), and it cannot be done without a fuel tank of passion.  Passion is all about attitude – and that’s why understanding this process is so important.  The lesson of the talent hotbeds is that failure is not a verdict; making mistakes is the price of the ticket.

This reminds me of a marvelous music teacher named Benjamin Zander, who teaches his students this mindset. When they make a mistake, Zander instructs them to throw their arms in the air and say, “How interesting!” To expect mistakes – indeed, to welcome them, to use them as navigation points – is the attitude we see in the talent hotbeds.

Morris: As a father lf four and grandfather of ten (so far), I have a special interest in knowing your response to this question. What are the implications of the talent code insofar as pre-collegiate education (especially at grade levels K-4) concerned?

Coyle: The talent hotbeds I visited are proof of the importance of the early years, for two reasons. First, the moment of ignition – when someone falls in love with a task – happen at a surprisingly young age. The moments when our own identities become linked with those of the people around us – when we decide we want to become a great musician, or writer, or businessman – happen at a surprisingly young age. To be in a rich environment, full of role models (think of a child growing up in Florence during the Renaissance, or a kid playing baseball in the Caribbean today), is like a turbocharger.

That’s not to say it can’t happen later – it does all the time. But with youth comes opportunity.

The other implication, I think, has to do with the way we teach.  In our culture we are taught (in books, in movies, in school) that talent is something you are born with.  But the lesson of the talent hotbeds – indeed, of modern neurology – is vastly different.  Schools like KIPP that teach that the brain is a muscle – that you have to stretch and reach and struggle and repeat in order to grow your skills – succeed because they are telling kids the truth about themselves.

For the last 150 years, our culture has been ruled by the idea of the gene. I hope for the next 150 years a new idea might take hold – that of the 100,000 miles of wiring contained inside each human mind.  That 100,000 miles (enough to encircle the earth four times) is a true measure of human potential.

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Coyle invites you to visit http://www.thetalentcode.com.

 

 

 

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