Book Notes: The Talent Code

A huge part of DMM training is coaching and mentoring. On this subject, “The Talent Code” is a fascinating book we can learn from.

IS ABOUT: the development of talent: “greatness isn’t born, it’s grown. Here’s how.”


  1. Skill is stored bio-chemically in the brain: circuits, wrapped in myelin.
  2. Not everyone can be great, but greatness isn’t innate–it’s grown, by definable processes.
  3. Growing takes time, so people who ignite passion & excitement that helps you endure are important.
    — Example: early piano teachers
  4. Great skill growth involves early attendance to errors & repetition, so precision coaches are important as you develop.
    — Example: basketball coaches
  5. Talent hotbeds can develop as communities of peers seeking to grow with guidance from coaches.
    — Example: music schools

ORGANIZED AS: 3 Parts and 10 Chapters: (1) Deep Practice, (2) Ignition, (3) Master Coaching



  1. Talent is driven by neural insulator myelin.
  • Every human skill is created by chains of nerve fibers carrying electrical impulses.
  • Myelin wraps fibers in an insulator that makes the signal stronger & faster.
  • When we fire circuits, more myelin added, adding more skill/speed.
  1. Skill is a cellular insulation that wraps neural circuits and grows in response to certain signals.
    All skills, language, music, movements are made of living circuits that grow according to certain rules.

Part 1: Deep Practice – all about Myelin and the skills of practicing

Ch1: The Sweeet Spot

  1. We think of memory as a tape recorder, but it’s not.
  • it’s a living structure, a scaffold of nearly infinite size.
  • impulses generated by encountering, overcoming difficulties build the scaffold
  • the more scaffolding we build, the more we learn.
  1. Deep practice takes mistakes, turns them into skills.

Ch2: The Deep Practice Cell

  1. The more we fire a circuit, the more myelin optimizes it
    — which is why it’s important to catch mistakes early.
  2. The best way to build a circuit is to fire it, attend to mistakes, and fire it over and over. Struggle is a biological requirement.
  3. Wrapping myelin requires immense energy and time. If you don’t love it, you’ll never work at it long enough.
  4. Neurons are binary—fire or not-fire.
  • whether they fire: if incoming impulse > threshold of activation
  • myelin helps impulses get to neurons at right time, right level.
  1. Myelin wraps – it doesn’t unwrap. Be careful what you learn.
  2. Myelin = certain talent hotbeds succeed because people practicing in the right way, not just harder.

Ch3: The Brontes, the Z Boys, and the Renaissance
Lots of various examples of people who became great through deep practice

Ch4: The Three Rules of Deep Practice

  1. Rule 1: “Skill consists of identifying important elements and grouping them into a meaningful framework.” = Chunking
  2. Chunking: skill is the nested accumulation of small, discrete circuits.
  3. To chunk: absorb the whole thing – start by imagining yourself doing it.
  4. … break it into chunks
    84: … slow it down
  5. Going slow allows you to attend to errors, creating a higher degree of precision with each firing. “It’s not how fast you did it—it’s how slow you can do it correctly.”
    — going slow also allows you to understand how the underlying skill fits togethere
  6. Experts practice differently, strategically. When they fail, they don’t blame—they have a strategy to fix.
  7. Rule 2: REPETITION – There is no substitute for attentive repetition—nothing you can do is more effective in building skills.
  8. Stopping firing the circuit for 30 days leads to myelin degrading {but what about “myelin doesn’t unwrap”?}
  9. Rule 3: Learn to feel it – Xref, familiar enough for intuition to engage – get it into System 1 thinking
    — To avoid mistakes, you must feel them immediately.
  10. You don’t learn by gliding.

Part 2: Ignition

Ch5: Primal Cues

  1. Repetition requires motivational fuel.
  2. Deep practice is about staggering baby steps. Ignition is about forming an identity we stagger toward: “This is what I want to be.”
    — passion comes first from the outside world
    — you say to yourself, if they can do it, why can’t I?
  3. Everyone starts with a “tiny, powerful idea”–“they picked up something that said, yes, that’s for me”
  4. “We think of each student as a blank slate” but the ideas students bring to the first lesson are more important than anything a teacher can do. It’s about perception of self. When long-term commitment combines with high levels of practice, skills skyrocket.
  5. “Awestruck by the music… entranced…”
  6. We speak of motivation as a rational assessment of cause & effect. In fact, it’s closer to a bet, and a highly uncertain one at that.
  7. We are inspired by signals: (1) future belonging. “Those people over there are doing something worthwhile…” each signal is about future belonging
  8. If we’re in an easy environment, we naturally shut off effort.
    — if people get the signal that it’s rough, they get motivated.
  9. signal of (2) safety: “Suddenly it was us doing this, not just me
  10. “The orphans rule the world?”
  11. Signal (3): scarcity & belonging – the lottery for entrance
  12. “Watching every move, absorbed…” Tom Sawyer example: kid who saw something & was ignited.

Ch6: The Curacao Experiment

  1. Little League baseball.
  2. Ignition doesn’t come with guarantees: for every breakthrough performance, dozens that peter out. [xref Ratatouille]
    — Talent hotbeds are more than just the initial cue: they have complex signals that maintain ignition for the months or years skill-growing requires.
  3. The language of ignition: “skill building is confidence building. You have to be super careful.”
  4. Studies show motivational language (before) does not ignite people.
    — What ignition is: reaching down, speaking to the effort (already done), affirming the struggle.
    — praising effort reflects biological reality—skill circuits are not easy to build

Ch7: How to ignite a hotbed
139-148: the “Knowledge is Power Program” school example

  1. To ignite a hotbed:
    — (1) you belong to a group
    — (2) your group is together against a strange & dangerous world
    — (3) there is a goal you can reach
  2. “Stopping the school” – when someone violates a significant rule, everything stops, teachers + students hold meeting to discuss how to fix it

Part 2: Master Coaching

Ch8: The Talent Whisperers

  1. It’s not about “recognizing talent.”
    — “I’ve never tried to go out and find someone who’s talented.”
    — “You work on fundamentals, and pretty soon you find out where things are going.”
  2. The teachers & coaches who were “talent whisperers”:
    — quiet, even reserved
    — many had been teaching 30 or 40 years
    — gaze – steady, deep, unblinking
    — allergic to pep talks or inspiring speeches
    — listened far more than they talked
    — spent most of the time offering targeted, highly specific adjustments
    — sensitive to person being taught, customize to personality
    — more like farmers, deliberate cultivators of myelin
    — don’t just tell, become an example of what they should do
    — possible to look at two seedlings and tell which will grow taller? “No—it’s early, and they’re both growing”
    — no lecture, no extended harangues, rarely more than 20 seconds
    — show right way, show incorrect way, then remodel right way.
  3. “Is it possible to look at two seedlings and tell which will grow taller?” No.
    166-172. Case Study: John Wooden, coach.
  4. Would spend 2 hours each morning with assistants planning practice
    — write out minute-by-minute schedule on 3×5 cards
    — keep cards year-to-year to compare and adjust
  5. Laws of learning: (1) explain (2) demo (3) imitate (4) correct (5) repeat
    — don’t look for the big, quick improvement. Seek the small improvement one day at a time. That’s the only way it happens—and when it happens, it lasts.
    — his success less a result of character, more his error-centered, well-planned, information-rich practices.
  6. Case Study: Mary Epperson, piano teacher
  7. Piano teachers tapping second element: ignition: creating, sustaining motivation—teaching love for the art
  8. Myelin requires both ignition & deep practice

Ch9: The Teaching Circuit: a Blueprint

  1. “Knowledge, recognize (perception), connect.”
  2. Great teachers are knowledgeable enough to recognize students fumbling, connect them to a targeted message.
  3. Great coaches have a matrix/grid of task-specific knowledge.
  4. Great coaches are perceptive—less about friendship, more about figuring you out
  5. Great coaches are honest but subtly theatrical.

Ch10: Tom Martinez and the $60 million bet

  1. A teacher is one who makes himself progressively unnecessary. ~Thomas Carruthers.
  2. 60% of what you teach applies to everyone. The trick is how you get that 60% to the person. Teach in a way that’s right for the person.