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Good as far as it goes
on 1 September 2012
Daniel Coyle's thesis is fairly basic. Talent is not inherent, but can be grown. This puts him fairly firmly on the side of the nurture side of the nature/nurture debate. But that's not what's central, as he says; that debate is pretty unproductive. He's trying to define what kinds of nurturing factors can grow talent, and splits them into two main groups: ignition and learning.
The learning techniques he describes well, calling the most successful process he identifies 'deep practice'. With examples, he demonstrates how even the most successful talents have put huge amounts of carefully coached effort into becoming great. As he quotes Michelangelo as saying, if only they knew how much work it took. This is something like 3-5hrs a day for 7-10years, to reach the 'magic' figure of 10,000 hours. Coyle does fall into the pop-science trap of fixating on one particular element of building neural skills patterns - myelin - and repeating that word as often as he can throughout the book. However, the neurological theory which explains the process of skill-building is explained clearly.
So far, so clear. But then the book moves on to talk about the second factor - ignition. It is fairly easy to explain and have your readers accept that huge amounts of hard-working-practice can develop great skills. It is much less easy to show the factors which enable people to develop and maintain the motivation and focus to keep working at that level for such a long time. Randomly disconnected facts are thrown at us: a disproportionate number of successful politicians and scientists lost a parent at a young age; 100m mens' sprint champions are nearly all younger sons; there is an ignition effect when 'someone like me' achieves, enabling me to believe that 'I can too'. There's a strange chapter in praise of a charter school system with a single-minded academic focus and high levels of discipline which seems at odds with Coyle's approval of a basketball coach's speech earlier that 'I'm not going to treat you all the same... because you're all different.' The whole thing doesn't take us much further than the current London 2012 Olympic slogan, imploring us to 'inspire a generation'. That's a wonderfully positive sentiment. But it pretty much begs the question of how we get (and more to the point, keep) people positively motivated.
Perhaps it's a little unfair to ask for a book this size to answer that question, but it is disappointing, after the clarity of the first part of his thesis, that the author doesn't advance a coherent theory of the second part.