Best-selling author gives talk on talent, hard work

Chris Kirk

Excellence is grown, not born, a New York Times best-selling author told members of the Evanston school community on Friday.

“We’re taught in our culture to think of talent as a natural gift,” said Daniel Coyle, author of The Talent Code. He addressed about 20 teachers, parents and school administrators at the Joseph E. Hill Education Center, 1500 McDaniel Ave.

American culture presents an oversimplified version of the talent-making process, in which it is reduced to a vague combination of inborn gifts and hard work, he said.

“It’s sort of like saying you get Ferraris by combining steel and red paint and Italians,” Coyle said.

He said he spent two years visiting “talent hotbeds” – gyms, schools and other places of learning that, despite having few resources, produce an unusual number of high performers – to find out how, precisely, talent develops.

“There’s one thing that leapt out at me right away when I visited these places, which was all the kids had the same expression on their face, and it was Clint Eastwood,” he said. “This grimace, this kind of slight nostril flare, ‘make my day’ sort of thing.”

That’s because each student entered the “deep practice zone,” a state of profound concentration in which they operated on the edge of their ability and frequently made mistakes, Coyle said.

He said mistakes are the whole point, explaining that “good piano practices sound like hell.”

Parents, educators and students should recognize mistakes as valuable parts of the learning process instead of flags of incompetence, he said. He suggested that they compare learning to a muscle and explain to children that the best way to get stronger is through intense, painful, frustrating practice.

“If you don’t tell a kid that the weight room is supposed to hurt, they won’t get in good shape,” Coyle said.

Furthermore, when students achieve, he said, they will be more confident if praised for their effort, not their intelligence.

Northwestern Professor Seth Lichter, who attended the meeting, said he applies some of the same principles in his teaching style.

Coyle said teachers should actively engage students, not lecture them, or the information will “wash over” them without sinking in.

In this vein, Lichter said he assigns “overwhelming” projects to push students to the edge of their abilities and to encourage them to learn on their own.

“I try to give as much responsibility (as possible) for learning to the students,” he said.

Skokie/Evanston School District 65 board member Kim Weaver said Coyle’s research has influenced her parenting style.

“Personally, I know the next time that my daughter is struggling to get a math concept down, I’m going to tell her that’s fantastic,” she said. “I’m going to celebrate it.”

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