The author of The Talent Code, Daniel Coyle, is a man driven to find out how people train for excellence. The Little Book of Talent is Coyle's attempt to distill this wisdom into one volume, arming you with the 52 tips that will help you improve your skills. Although I really wanted to like this book, I really felt that it fell short. The book gives a laundry list of great techniques to foster genius, but is too general to be successful.
That said, I have not read Coyle's Talent Code. It may well be that in conjunction with The Talent Code book, the Little Book of Talent is more helpful.
I doubt it though.
[Note (10/16/2012): since writing this review, I have read Coyle's The Talent Code and have now posted my reveiw. I do not feel that the information within The Talent Code added anything that would change this review, so I have let this review stand as is. After reading The Talent Code and researching the evidence for myself, I admit that I had severely underestimated the role of deliberate practice when it comes to developing talent. Even so, there is enough evidence for me to believe that there is still a significant component to talent and expertise that goes beyond deliberate practice. My opinion would be that this is an innate component, but this is only my opinion. See my review of The Talent Code for further details.]
Part of the problem lies in Coyle's method of discovering his tips to success. He does research, he speaks to educational scientists, and--most importantly--visits actual training grounds for successful musicians and athletes. He makes observations and takes meticulous notes. He then distills it all down and provides us with the tips--the very tools--for success.
Although the observations ring true, the problem is that the method is inherently flawed. We are left with an assortment of tools that might help us succeed; the problem is that knowing the tips isn't the tricky part. The secret to success is the way you put them together. You could put me in Leonardo's studio, hand over the master's actual paints and paint brushes, and put me in front of a canvas, but this won't mean that I can paint the Mona Lisa. You could give me every musical note used in a Beethoven symphony but I still couldn't replicate the works of the master...
The components of successful coaching and mentoring are not elusive or magic. In many ways they are well known and axiomatic. Knowing the tips may be a prerequisite for starting out, but the magic happens in the way master puts these components together and becomes successful.
This is why we can get opposing notions like 'slow it down' (tip #26) and 'speed it up' (tip #49) or that we should fix mistakes using the 'Sandwich Technique' (tip #34) but that it is important that we 'don't waste time trying to break bad habits--instead, build new ones' (tip #46).
The above pairs may seem paradoxical, but that does not mean that one tip of each pair is right and the other is wrong. There are some tips that directly contradict each other and other tips that merely clash. Nevertheless, each tip has its merit. You may need to apply different techniques in different situations or at different points in training. The laundry list of techniques is useful in terms of opening your mind to different approaches that might help you acquire and improve your performance, but the list doesn't tell you which technique to use for a particular situation or when it is best to use that technique. This is often where a coach or teacher comes in.
Additionally, it is important to realize that drawing concrete conclusions from the great incubators for talent that Coyle visits can be misleading. For example in tip #6 we are told to 'choose spartan over luxurious.' Coyle sites The North Baltimore Aquatic Club, which produced Michael Phelps and four other Olympic medalists and the "world's highest performing schools in Finland and South Korea" which are apparently dark and dreary places.
The problem is threefold: 1) There are plenty of world-class musicians, for example, that have emerged from pretty plush quarters, say the Julliard School of Music; 2) No matter where you go, there are far fewer break-out success stories from ANY school than there are mediocre students; 3) Success often breeds success, once one graduate of a school is successful, talented students will come in droves to that school to get a piece of the magic.
We may find it remarkable that a place with seemingly few resources can boast that they trained great people. Realize, however, that the surroundings--plush or spartan--are less important than simply having the appropriate tools at hand to train people. You might site the math genius who developed his technique in a spartan surrounding in Communist Russia. But that doesn't belie the fact that there plenty of math geniuses have trained in the ivy covered halls of Harvard. We love a surprise success story, but that's not how all success stories happen. The bare-bones training centers are more remarkable to us. They evoke Hollywood images of a Rocky, emerging from a small inner city gym, and so they are more momentous. It's not so romantic, but plenty of people at the top of their game get there through more conventional ways.
Moreover, all schools that train highly successful individuals can be thought of as pyramid programs. Many students will 'try out', few will pass to intermediate levels, and even fewer will make the final cut of greatness.
Spartan or plush, schools that graduate highly successful students actually select students before they enroll. The deck is stacked with raw talent during the admission process. They then whittle down the number of students until the most successful students reach the highest levels. Finally, once they have achieved a pattern of success, they actually attract more talented students to their ranks. And, don't forget, having the right coaches/teachers is important too.
If the book has an overarching theme it would be that raw talent is somehow overrated. I think that this sentiment is very encouraging to many of us average Joes out there but it is slightly off the mark. I am not a researcher in the field and I don't have the depth of experience that Coyle has, but I think that the overarching theme should really be that "practice and experience are usually underrated."
Here's what I mean. Michael Phelps didn't win 22 Olympic medals by sitting around. He put years upon years and hours upon hours of training. That said, Phelps may not have been a celebrated athlete had he chosen to become a power lifter or a gymnast. He may have been able to excel in any number of sports, but ended up picking one that worked well with his genetics.
Part of Phelps' greatness is no doubt the superhuman effort that he put into his sport, his laser-like focus of his practice habits, his work ethic, his dedication, and expert coaching . But because Lochte didn't win as many medals as Phelps, does that mean that Lochte didn't practice enough or wasn't focused enough? How about the guy that is still consistently one of the top 10 swimmers in the world, puts his heart and soul on the line for his sport every day of his life, but never even gets a medal? Please don't tell me that Lochte or that our top-ten-never-medaled athlete just didn't work hard enough or smart enough. They worked plenty hard and worked plenty smart.
Success in any field is both nature and nurture. You can almost certainly exceed all expectations if you dig in 100%, put your heart and soul on the line every day, and work smart every day. But there are still people out there who may exceed your abilities (and sometimes with far less effort than you put in) because they have a natural aptitude for something. That's sometimes hard to swallow but it is almost certainly true.
I don't know if Phelps has enough aptitude for math to become a mathematical genius. I don't know if he has enough latent musical ability that he could become a proficient violinist. And even if he took all the practice and dedication that he put into swimming into math or the violin there is no guarantee that he would be a top performer in either area. We like to trivialize the importance of our inherent, natural abilities because they aren't modifiable. We'd rather believe that success is simply due to working smart and working hard, but even perfect work habits do not ensure success.
That said, Coyle's tips when used correctly might help you maximize your natural abilities, but you will still be limited by your innate talent. So it is vitally important to carefully choose the skills that you want to improve upon if you really want to be 'the best' in a given field.
Then there is luck. Coyle doesn't directly address this. I suppose that this is one of those things that is mostly non-modifiable, but there are ways of persisting and making sure that you are frequently in the most favorable situations that can at least improve your chances to succeed in certain fields.
That said, there is a lot of sound advice in Coyle's book. The tips are generally well spelled out and reasonable. However, because there is no real advice as to how to put it all together, the tips often degrade into aphorisms. The book is at times compelling and interesting, but is really too general to be all that helpful. It does, however, review options of how one might approach practice or study and gives the reader some food for thought.