11 February 2011

Bounce: How Champions Are Made

By Rachel Fanshawe

I was slightly disappointed that there wasn't a single book for me under the tree this Christmas, especially as I'd been relying on it for my holiday reading.  Luckily my husband had packed several, and top of the pile was Bounce : How Champions are Made by Matthew Syed.  It proved to be both enjoyable and stimulating, and a book that I would highly recommend.

BouncePractise, practise

In Bounce, Syed makes a compelling argument that success at the highest levels is not a result of talent but of many hours of purposeful practice combined with the right mindset.  He dispels the 'talent myth' with high profile examples across music, sport and business and challenges the widely held view that natural talent is the determinant of success and failure.

Syed's own story makes a fascinating start to the argument.  He reached the top of British table tennis, winning several Commonwealth medals.  From an ordinary family in England, Syed's success in table tennis was often described as 'an inspired triumph over the odds.'  However, what Syed reveals is in fact an astonishing combination of circumstances that logically lead to his exceptional results. His parents randomly purchased a table tennis table when he was 8 and had it permanently installed in their garage, he had an older brother who loved to play with him, at school the table tennis mad sports teacher invited the brothers to join the local club… the list goes on.  As Syed describes

'I had powerful advantages not made available to hundreds of thousands of other youngsters... I was the best of a very big bunch, only a tiny fraction of whom had my opportunities'.

10,000 hours

An incredible 10,000 hours of practice is now widely acknowledged in sporting circles as being a pre-requisite for elite performance.  Syed illustrates this with numerous examples, one of which is of violinists at the Music Academy in West Berlin.  'By the age of twenty the best violinists (destined to be top soloists) had practised an average of 10,000 hours, more than 2,000 hours more than the good violinists (destined for top orchestras), and more than 6,000 more than the violinists hoping to be music teachers'.

Syed also address the question of the child prodigies.  Mozart, the Williams sisters, Tiger Woods, Syed reveals that behind all of their successes is this same winning combination of factors.  It is purposeful practice over many thousands of hours combined with a growth mindset that leads to their greatness. For the child prodigy their hours of practice just start earlier than others.

Truly fascinating is the story of Laszlo Polgar, an educational psychologist, who ardently advocates the 'practice theory of expertise'.  He believed so strongly in his convictions that he decided to make an experiment of his own family.  Before his children were born he declared they would be world class chess players.  As a result of years of practice, all three of his daughters reached the top of the game (and you'll be pleased to know they were all willing participants in the experiment).

The 'growth mindset'

I have been enthusiastically sharing jewels of wisdom from Bounce over the last couple of weeks with friends and family.  The greatest take away message for me is one of mindset.  I don't have ambitions to hot house my own children to reach sporting, musical or academic pinnacles, but I hope they will put real effort into those things they choose to pursue and not be deterred by setbacks.  Syed describes the kind of mindset that will be an asset to them as they navigate their life journey, and what we can do to nuture it.

In Syed's words the idea of talent 'is a rather corrosive idea, robbing individuals of the incentive to transform themselves through effort: why spend time and energy seeking to improve if success is only available to people with the right genes?'  He relates a set of revealing experiments with young people by Carol Dweck.  People who believe that intelligence is a result of genetics are labelled as having a fixed mindset.  Those that believe intelligence is the result of effort are described as having a growth mindset.  In the experiments a performance gap emerged:

Those who held the belief that abilities are transformable through effort not only persevered but improved in the teeth of difficulties; those labouring under the talent myth…regressed into a state of psychological enfeeblement.

In further experiments Dweck found that praising children's intelligence harms their motivation:

'intelligence-based praise orients its receivers towards the fixed mindset… it teaches them to pursue easy challenges at the expense of real learning'

We should instead be praising effort and promoting challenges as opportunites, and in this way we can guide ourselves, our children, and our teams to a growth mindset.

Bounce is full of great ideas to apply to personal and professional life, Syed's ideas are illustrated with captivating examples and the book is written in an engaging style.  It is on my highly recommended list for 2011 and Carol Dweck's book Mindset is now top of my reading pile.

Comments (3)

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  • Monday, 14 February 2011, 02:53p.m. by Sarah

    “Rachel, I find I'm conflicted by this book's premise of effort and mindset being able to match or surpass talent. One the one hand it's challenging because it flies in the face of what I had always thought to be the case. On the other hand it's empowering to think I could still, at the half way point of my life, become a champion or expert in something new!

    Are there limits though? Even if I practised and kept learning surely I could no longer be a ballerina? (Yikes, try not to picture that). And doesn't talent help, by delivering better results, faster - provided it's allied to the right mindset?”

  • Wednesday, 02 March 2011, 08:24p.m. by Rachel

    “Hi Sarah, I don't think it's about effort and mindset matching or surpassing talent, it's saying show me someone you think is truly talented and I'll show you that they have spent a lot of time developing their skills in that area.

    We are constrained by our physical limitations and probably more so by our natural inclinations to certain tasks.

    I'm convinced that, if you really wanted to, you could master the skills of a ballerina. But are you willing to spend 20 hours a week for the next ten years to reach the pinnacle of this field, and would you fit the mould when you got there? Personally I'd be investing my time in something more conducive to old(er) age - golf?? ”

  • Monday, 28 March 2011, 01:04p.m. by Sally Wyatt

    “Great review Rachel (and, hello cuz!). I'm always scared of reading books like this because they remind me that my own mediocrity is my own fault for not practising enough! I could've been a great pianist if I wasn't so lazy with the practise.

    We shouldn't underestimate natural talent though. It's clear looking at my nephews which one would make the best gymnast, for example; he's far more agile and bendy than the rest of them. Still, I think the concept of the growth mindset is a good one, as long as we supplement it with an understanding of our own natural talents and inclinations. You need to know when to put 'growth' on hold and just enjoy ourselves as we are. After all, we can't be experts in everything.”

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