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.
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'.
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
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
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.