Crème de la Crème: Innate Talent or Effective Practice?

We only have to look to media to observe very talented individuals and teams. Sports, theater, music, even businesses, all have individuals that stand out above the rest as more talented. But what makes one person appear more talented than another? How does one achieve excellence while another does not? Is it talent, environment, genes?
Daniel Coyle, in his book The Talent Code, seeks to find answers to these questions by traveling to what he calls “talent hotbeds” (Coyle, 2009, p. 12) i.e.,  places where there seems to be an unusually high number of talented individuals. According to Coyle, he expected to find “world-class speed power, and grace” (Coyle, 2009, p. 12). Although he doesn’t say it, I think what he means is that he expected world-class facilities, great coaches, and the finest equipment. Instead he found “chicken-wire Harvards,” which were small, underfunded environments. In these unlikely places were very focused individuals who arduously perfected at their craft by making “small failures” (Coyle, 2009, p. 13) and then correcting them until the skill could be repeated with perfection.

Coyle seems to suggest in his first chapter, “The Sweet Spot,” that talent is not innate; it is created. His premise is that talent is cultivated by making mistakes and correcting them, calling this method “deep practice” (Coyle, 2009, p. 16). According to the author, deep practice is the ability to practice “effectively” (Coyle, 2009, p. 13) which creates superior skills. An example Coyle uses for this hypothesis is that Brazilian soccer players developed crucial soccer skills because the players grew up playing a game called fotsal and thereby developed skills essential for soccer “without even realizing it” (Coyle, 2009, p. 28). Therefore, when the Brazilian soccer players are on the field, they have an advantage. Using Coyle’s reasoning, if one mastered riding a unicycle, riding a bicycle would be a breeze.

In this chapter, Coyle (2009) also conjectures effective practice involves purposeful practice (Coyle, 2009, p. 14). Often effective practice means that the person can practice something without fretting that the mistakes will be a negative experience. He uses an example of a simulator to practice flying before flying an actual plane (Coyle, 2009, p. 24). There are many mistakes a pilot can make while in the air that would be a very negative experience! Therefore, it would be prudent to find a way to practice on the ground using a simulator. Correcting mistakes goes beyond simulators of course; correcting mistakes allows individuals to perfect their craft. According to Coyle:When you’re practicing deeply, the world’s usual rules are suspended.

You use time more efficiently. Your small efforts produce big, lasting results. You have positioned yourself at a place of leverage where you can capture failure and turn it into a skill (Coyle, 2009, p. 19).

Although I agree the the conjecture that paying attention to how we practice will certainly make for better practice and if we practice “deeply” enough it may turn into a skill, Coyle is unable to prove that practice makes talent. Most of us have all heard the saying, “practice makes perfect,” but  the author goes beyond that with the supposition that practice “might be the way to forge the blade itself” (Coyle, 2009, p. 19). This is the argument that the writer is unable to prove. I have practiced many things that I can do much better for the effort, but a talented person beside me doing the same thing will produce better results. For example, I bake and decorate cakes. With years of practice, I can make a cake that is moist and delicious. I can also ice the cake very smooth and even. This takes skill; I have practiced for many years and I am good at it. But what I can’t do is create beautiful flowers to go on the cake. I have practiced making flowers out of icing  for several years and no matter how hard I try, I’m not good at it. (I use fresh flowers.) My eighteen-year-old daughter, on the other hand, can make flowers out of gumpaste icing that are so perfect, they look real. And she practiced, at most, two days. She has talent, it’s innate.  She can “practice deeper” and hone her skill, add a variety of flowers to her repertoire, but the talent is already there.

Innate talent aside, Coye makes a very convincing argument that effective, purposeful practice will make  stronger and better skills. He illustrates this argument by telling the story of Simon Clifford. After watching the Brazilians playing fotsal and being convinced that this is what makes them such good soccer players, Clifford took an underdeveloped group of soccer players, taught them fotsal (effective practice), and went on to foster winning soccer players (Coyle, 2009, p. 28-29).

After reading the first chapter of The Talent Code, I recommend the book. If you are wondering, like Coyle, why some people have the skills to make it to the top, while others do not, then this book will make you ponder, and perhaps practice harder, to learn that skill you always wanted to learn.

Coyle, D. (2009). “The Sweet Spot.” The Talent Code: Greatness Isn’t Born. It’s Grown. Here’s How. (pp 11-29). The Bantam Dell Publishing Group. Retrieved from:

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