The Magic of Making Mistakes: A Review of The Talent Code

October 20, 2009

Over the years, there’s a question that has been asked frequently: Are leaders born or can they learn the skills to become great leaders? Recently I read a very interesting book that argues, with scientific proof, that talents (whether they are leadership, playing a music instrument, public speaking skills or whatever) are developed and learned.

The book, called The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle, is good news for anyone looking to develop skills or get better at something.  Coyle describes a substance known as myelin, which wraps around nerve fibers in the brain and creates a sort of insulation which helps increase “strength, speed and accuracy.”  In addition, when it comes to learning, Coyle says, “the more we fire a particular circuit, the more myelin optimizes that circuit, and the stronger, faster, and more fluent our movement and thoughts become.”


“I am willing to guarantee that you will not read a more important and useful book in 2009, or any other year.”

– Tom Peters

In the book, Coyle writes a lot about “deep practice,” which consists of intense learning that includes making mistakes.  It is in making these mistakes and correcting them that we develop myelin and learn at a faster rate.  In other words, it is okay to make mistakes.

What I really like about The Talent Code is how Coyle enlightens us with some real-world examples of how numerous individuals found success through deep learning.  We learn that it was no coincidence that noted musicians including Yo-Yo Ma, Joshua Bell and Itzhak Perlman came from the same program at a music program in upstate New York.  One might think that this school was fortunate to have many famous alumni.  Closer examination reveals that the secret lies in how the school teaches its students how to engage in deep practice.

He shares the three rules of deep practice and tells us that energy, passion and commitment are all required in order to engage in it.  So if we’re trying to learn something we are not passionate about (e.g. a job we don’t like or an instrument we don’t enjoy playing), it is going to take us much longer to improve.

I also found “The Talent Whisperers” and “The Teaching Circuit” chapters very interesting as he revealed some of the secrets used by great coaches and teachers.  If you coach your child’s little league team, teach in an academic setting or teach a musical instrument, you will want to read this book.

In my heart, I’ve always believed that each of us can learn the skills to become great, but this book confirmed for me (with proof) that all of this is possible.

So, what have you put off learning? What have you been curious about?

For more information about this book, including longer videos and a profile of Daniel Coyle, check out his website.

1 Marissa October 20, 2009 at 10:29 am

Great review, Tim! I’m adding this to my list of books to read. The idea of deep practice including mistake-making is logical to me, but also scary to the part of me that is oh-so perfectionist. I think that’s why I didn’t stick with the piano lessons my mom started me on when I was younger–it wasn’t that I hated the instrument or even practicing, but I hated not being able to “do it right” immediately. Some part of that has stayed with me into adulthood.

I’ve heard that part of business success is being willing to fail fast and fail often, but I hadn’t connected that idea with talent-development. I’m intrigued, and I’m looking forward to reading the book.
.-= Marissa´s last post…Monday Mashup #4: Eight Tabs (that are often open in my browser) =-.

2 lori October 20, 2009 at 1:41 pm

Hey Tim, it’s great to read your review about the Talent Code! This is an incredibly important message to get out there, cheers to you!

As you know, I’m a scientist (molecular biologist) and I chose to take some neuroscience classes with the neurology residents when I was working toward my Ph.D.

Neuroplasticity – the ability to build new and stronger connections in the brain – has become more understood over recent years and it is really quite amazing. The thought that the brain can, indeed, regenerate itself (in many cases) is now supported with scientific evidence – and wow – what an amazing thought! (No pun intended!)

And, this applies to any activity, as you pointed out so well. It’s no accident that Tiger Woods is where he is today – he’s been practicing golf since he could hold a golf club!

I’m planning to pick up the book as I’m intrigued to read his three rules for deep practice, as well as the overall book’s message.

And, finally, Multiple Sclerosis is a disease where the myelin sheath is destroyed either in successive bouts or slowly over time. Personally (since I have MS), I’ve taken the approach to stimulate my brain as much as possible to form new connections around the damage. I’m using myself as an experiment, and hope that I’ll have good news to report over time, too!

Cheers and thanks for this awesome post!

3 Tim October 20, 2009 at 4:18 pm

Marissa: I know what you mean about having perfectionist tendencies. For a lot of us, it is in our nature not to look silly or make mistakes in front of others. From my experience, any new skills that are worth learning are going to involve making mistakes. I won’t even begin to talk about the first time I co-anchored a newscast when I was in college…I had the worst case of dry-mouth on the planet. I think you’ll enjoy the book and maybe it will help you to think differently about learning. Good luck and thank you for stopping by!

Lori: You might be familiar with some of the scientific aspects of the book, but I think there’s a lot of information that Dan Coyle throws in that connects all the dots. It really is fascinating. It is also great in that it re-frames how we think of failure. In the past, we might have thought of failure as a reason to give up an activity and the book makes me realize that failure is part of the process of learning. Wow, I am very impressed with your background and how you are experimenting with different ways of forming new connections. Since getting to know you in the past few weeks, I’ve learned (with amazement) about how you have accomplished some great things in your life and I have no doubt that you will have good news to report. I look forward to reading about these discoveries on future posts. Thanks again for the good words and for your support!

4 Nadia - Happy Lotus October 22, 2009 at 12:23 pm

Hi Tim,

I just got back from the book store with a short list of more books I need to read and I will add this one to the list that never seems to end.

The human brain is so much more powerful than we realize and it is always great to learn more about how it works. There are so such things as mistakes. Actually, a mistake is when you don’t learn from an experience. No one is born perfect.

Thank you so much for sharing with us all your discoveries whether it be books, music, movies or whatever else. You rock! 🙂

5 Tim October 22, 2009 at 8:40 pm

Nadia: Thank you for your good words! Thank you, also, for introducing me to a lot of books. My list is growing. You are right about mistakes…chances are if you’re not making mistakes, you’re not moving forward. I need to keep reminding myself this. Have a great one!

6 Walter October 23, 2009 at 1:08 am

I believe that greatness and leadership is developed as we grow up. Through experience and through honing of our preferred aspirations we can develop mastery over it.

The problem is with us people. We are blind of our true abilities. 🙂
.-= Walter´s last post…Self mastery: the feared path =-.

7 Tim October 23, 2009 at 3:39 pm

Walter: I agree with you…we need to become more aware and open to our own abilities…and perhaps a little more patient in the development of these abilities. The good news is that it is possible for those who want to develop. Thanks for stopping by.

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