Review: The Little Book of Talent, by Daniel Coyle


The Little Book of Talent: 52 Tips for Improving Your Skills, by Daniel Coyle. New York: Bantam Books, 2012. 160 pp. $18 (hardcover).

talent

A few years ago, on an assignment for a magazine, Daniel Coyle started visiting what he calls talent hotbeds, or “tiny places that produce large numbers of world-class performers in sports, art, music, business, math, and other disciplines” (p. xiii).

Coyle eventually published much of this research in The Talent Code, a book showing the characteristics of these places that account for the abundance of talent that flows from them, and explaining why the idea that talent is innate rather than developed is mistaken. After its publication, Coyle continued discussing the subject with various master teachers, and he compiled a large collection of pink Post-its on which he noted tips or strategies that were producing results. In his latest book, The Little Book of Talent: 52 Tips for Improving Your Skills, Coyle shares this collection with readers.

The book is organized into three categories. One pertains to getting started, and includes “ideas for igniting motivation and creating a blueprint for the skills you want to build” (p. xviii). Another focuses on improving skills, and includes “methods and techniques for making the most progress in the least time” (p. xviii). The last is about sustaining progress, and includes “strategies for overcoming plateaus, keeping motivational fires lit, and building habits for long-term success” (p. xviii).

The tips are often accompanied by a story of someone employing or exemplifying it in practice. Take tip #5, “Be willing to be stupid”:

Teammates of the hockey star Wayne Gretzky would occasionally witness a strange sight: Gretzky falling while he skated through solitary drills on ice. While the spectacle of the planet’s greatest hockey player toppling over like a grade-schooler might seem surprising, it actually makes perfect sense. As skilled as he was, Gretzky was determined to improve, to push the boundaries of the possible. The only way that happens is to build new connections in the brain—which means reaching, failing, and, yes, looking stupid.

Feeling stupid is no fun. But being willing to be stupid—in other words, being willing to risk the emotional pain of making mistakes—is absolutely essential, because reaching, failing, and reaching again is the way your brain grows and forms new connections. When it comes to developing talent, remember, mistakes are not really mistakes—they are the guideposts you use to get better. (pp. 13–14)

The tips are often very specific and easily put into practice. Consider tip #14, from the section on improving skills: “Take off your watch”:

Deep practice is not measured in minutes or hours, but in the number of high-quality reaches and repetitions you make—basically, how many new connections you form in your brain.

Instead of counting minutes or hours, count reaches and reps. Instead of saying, “I’m going to practice piano for twenty minutes,” tell yourself, “I’m going to do five intensive reps of that new song.” Instead of planning to hit golf balls for an hour, plan to make twenty-five quality swings with each club. Instead of reading over that textbook for an hour, make flash cards and grade yourself on your efforts. Ignore the clock and get to the sweet spot, even if it’s only for a few minutes, and measure your progress by what counts: reaches and reps. (p. 44)

The tips are also brief, often very brief. The entire content of tip #44, “Have a blue-collar mind-set,” is as follows:

From a distance, top performers seem to live charmed, cushy lives. When you look closer, however, you’ll find that they spend vast portions of their life intensely practicing their craft. Their mind-set is not entitled or arrogant; it’s 100 percent blue-collar: They get up in the morning and go to work every day, whether they feel like it or not.

As the artist Chuck Close says, “Inspiration is for amateurs.” (p. 99)

Because of the brevity, simplicity, and even cliché nature of many of the tips, one might be tempted to write off The Little Book of Talent as shallow or insignificant. But that would be unwise. The tips are simple—and this is a substantial part of their practical value. They are simple tips for simplifying success. Consider tip #15, “Break every move down into chunks”:

From the time we’re small, we hear this good advice from our parents and teachers: Take it a little bit at a time. This advice works because it accurately reflects the way our brains learn. Every skill is built out of smaller pieces—what scientists call chunks.

Chunks are to skill what letters of the alphabet are to language. Alone, each is nearly useless, but when combined into bigger chunks (words), and when those chunks are combined into still bigger things (sentences, paragraphs), they can build something complex and beautiful.

To begin chunking . . . [p]ractice one [element of a skill] by itself until you’ve mastered it—then connect more chunks, one by one, exactly as you would combine letters to form a word. Then combine those chunks into still bigger chunks. And so on.

Musicians at Meadowmount cut apart musical scores with scissors and put the pieces in a hat, then pull each section out at random. Then, after the chunks are learned separately, they start combining them in the correct order, like so many puzzle pieces. “It works because the students aren’t just playing the music on autopilot—they’re thinking,” says one of the school’s violin instructors, Skye Carman.

No matter what skill you set out to learn, the pattern is always the same: See the whole thing. Break it down to its simplest elements. Put it back together. Repeat. (pp. 45–46)

This tip, like so many in the book, is not new. As Coyle notes, we’ve all heard it many times. But the value of this and the other tips in the book is not their novelty, but Coyle’s clarity in showing how to put them into practice, day in and day out, the way top performers do.

Too often, people confuse reading about productivity with being productive—or reading about ways to improve something with actually improving it. (I know, as I’ve erred in this manner too often myself.) By providing specific tips, making them memorable, keeping them short, and concretizing them with anecdotes, Coyle makes it easier for readers to actually develop talents rather than just read about how it is theoretically possible to do so.

This little book holds big value.

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