on 26 January 2014
This is an excellent book that has reminded me why I became a teacher c.15 years ago. For many years I have believed that effort is the key to success, rather than talent - although, having read this I now question how much I really believed this, and whether or not I was actually just paying lip service to the belief instead of really following it. I also think that, during the last 15 years of my teaching career I have gradually taken on board the belief that natural ability is a key factor (rather than effort), having seen many of my pupils become successful, or not. I think that the arguments and evidence presented and referenced here are persuasive and I shall return to the classroom tomorrow with a different view. The discussion on a limiting, or empowering self-belief in ability is powerful - and I shall now read the referenced books/research that are discussed in this book. This book is a good investment and is well worth reading.
on 6 May 2010
Bounce is a very interesting and thought provoking book. It basically argues that for any significantly complex human activity (especially sports like tennis, football and golf, and games like chess) natural talent is of pretty low importance because the wiring of the brain required to succeed can only be achieved through a massive amount of "purposeful" practice. The end result of this practice is often mistaken for natural talent, but in fact the trait most high achievers have in common is a willingness to work harder than their peers and a belief that this hard work will drive greater improvement and success, not a belief in their fixed superiority. There are a number of compelling and inspiring examples in the book, the most amazing of which is a family of Hungarian chess players whose story has changed the way I look at what is possible for any person to achieve. Woven into this argument are snipets of the author's own story as an internationally ranked table tennis player and Olympian. Although some of the material draws on the same sources (and also directly quotes) other popularizers like Malcolm Gladwell, I must say that having read the latter's books "Outliers" and "What the Dog Saw", I felt many of the key themes in "Bounce" are expressed in a very different way, and are in many ways much more compellingly argued. There are also whole sections on additional factors behind sporting success such as confidence, faith, nerve and even race, so that the overall sweep of the book's arguments is truly unique, rigourously argued and highly thought provoking. Although anchored mostly in the world of sports, it is hard to define this as just a sports book, as the ideas apply to many other walks of life as well. Highly recommended.
This is a good book, but not a great one. It has many good ideas within it, and it also does a good job of demolishing some old icons. It is a work of synthesis and it is honest enough to acknowledge the influence of many other books including Talent is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Elseand Outliers: The Story of Success As I had already read these two books I found the ideas in Bounce familiar. Its main failing is the lack of a summary chapter at the end bringing the book to a conclusion. It just ends.
Bounce is superb at demolishing the ideas of "innate talents" and "genetic endowments and "racial characteristics." Syed points out the combinations of factors that come together to allow top performance to emerge. It is usually some combination of focused and genuine enthusiasm, opportunity, certain local quirks; disciplined practice and well trained experience. The initial enthusiasm for a task has to come from within- which allows the learner to put up with the knocks and setbacks on the way to becoming good at something. He explains very well why parents can try pushing their children into something...but probably won't get great results by so doing. The proverb about leading the horse to water, but not being able to get them to drink comes to mind. This leaves open an obvious niche for a book that helps parents to recognise and go with their child's talents and abilities.
The idea of disciplined practice being necessary to get good at something is stressed throughout the book. This applies in many fields both in sporting and other professions. The idea of perceptual compression, so that an expert apprehends and understands a situation so much more quickly and deeply than the non-expert is well described. The importance of domain specific knowledge is stressed. Syed makes a well aimed punch at the nonsense of "general management" and the idea that "the cognitive processes of learning, reasoning and problem solving" are sufficient for good decision making. He points out that the expert in a field does all these processes much more quickly, effectively, and powerfully than any non-expert, no matter how intelligent. The mechanism is that the expert is using is called "advanced pattern recognition."
"It is the rapid escalation in the number of variables in many real life situations-including sport- that makes it impossible to sift the evidence before making a decision: it would take too long. Good decision making is about compressing the informational load by decoding the meaning of patterns derived from experience. This cannot be taught in the classroom; it is not something you are born with; it must be lived and learned. To put it another way it emerges through practice."
Syed describes what happens in the brain as we progress from learning to performance. He also describes beautifully what happens when an expert "chokes." In this the expert stops using their unconscious competence, and tries to move back to doing the task consciously. But in so doing they disrupt their flow, and take too long analysing the situation, when normally they would just do what has to be done.
There are many good and useful ideas within this book about what helps towards and what hinders achievement. Syed mainly uses examples from sport, but he also uses examples from other fields with memorable examples of a fireman's sense that something was just a bit different so he got his crew out just before a building collapses, and of the differences between experienced and novice doctors.
If you want to achieve more in your chosen activity then this book has many ideas within it that will help you. I would recommend reading Talent is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else alongside it. The earlier in life you get hold of the ideas in these books and use them the better.
on 5 May 2010
Bounce is a remarkable book. Its central argument is that there is no such thing as natural talent and that top achievement is the consequence of huge amounts of a very particular kind of practice.
This may sound radical, but the evidence is compelling. The author shows how child prodigies are not quite what they seem and have actually clocked up quantities of practice that few of us achieve in our whole lives. He also shows how the extraordinary skills of elite athletes and other top performers in the arts and business can be explained by mental representations that all of us can acquire with practice.
When Roger Federer returns a fast serve he is not demonstrating faster reactions, but quicker anticipation. He is able to maker sharper and more accurate inferences about where the ball is going to go via the movement patterns of his opponent, so that he is in position almost before the ball has been hit. First class cricketers have figured out whether to play off the front or back foot 100 miliseconds before the ball has been bowled. The author demonstrates that these skills are not innate, but learned - and learnable by all of us.
Later chapters explore the importance of mindset and how parents and teachers can inculcate the "growth" mindset by praising effort rather than talent - this is of huge importance not merely to sport, but to education and life. There are also fascinating discussions of self belief, superstition, choking and drug taking. The final chapter provides a discussion of the reason for racial patterns of success and failure in sport and the wider economy.
It is absorbing, vividly readable and thought provoking throughout.
on 23 January 2016
After my Grade 5 practical piano exam last year I was OK but not happy. I had passed but not with Merit or Distinction. I did choke a bit in the exam and did not do myself justice. I heard soon after of this book and that it had a chapter on 'Choking' - so I bought it. As it happens the chapter on choking did not say much to me but the remainder of the book did. I learnt about the right type and amount of practice and.........well I don't want to spoil it! So now, instead of giving up, I am surging ahead - passed my G5 theory exam with distinction and, what is more, I am enjoying a great deal more of the right sort of practice for my Grade 6 practical. I believe every teacher, in particular one to one teachers, should read it. I am 66.
on 30 November 2010
Bounce by Matthew Syed is a chronicle of the growing realisation that excellence - in any complex field - is the result of many thousands of hours of purposeful practice. 'Talent' in essence, is not a consequence of birth.
Part 1 - The Talent Myth - starts with the baseline of success, his thoughts on the old ideas of 'talent', how we convince ourselves that the amazing 'talent' we see in the world owes itself to the hosts DNA. Then moves onto the child prodigy phenomena, describing what we see as a miraculous shining star of talent is infact the product of a mind bending ammount of focused practice and dedication from an even earlier age. The latter half of Part 1 explores the mental aspect of the path to excellence such as motivation, inspiration and overcoming doubt.
Part 2 - Paradoxes of the Mind - is a continuation of the latter part of part 1, delving deeper into the mental aspect of elite people. Looking into the placebo effect. What happens when someone 'chokes' - the disasterous mental block that inhibits top performers from playing at their best - and rituals and superstition, explaining why it is so common in sport.
Part 3 - Deep Reflections - goes into the more acedemic and moral aspects (of sports especially). Dealing with optical illusions, drugs in sport (the rights and wrongs). Ending with one of the more contensious issues/arguments of modern sport, are "blacks" superior runners? This final part of the book is worth the price alone.
A heartily recommended book. Fascinating.
I hadn't read anything by him previously, but Matthew Syed seems to appear in Private Eye's "Pseuds' Corner" on a semi-regular basis, so I had a vague fear about the style of this book. However it's a very readable and accessible work, but it feels a little like it's trying to stretch a single theme too far, namely that success in sport as well as in many other fields in life is purely down to practice and nothing whatsoever to do with inherent talent.
This is of course not entirely true, and even Syed himself is forced to concede in one tiny footnote that of course for example a short person is never going to become a basketball champion. Despite what he says, genetics does have something to do with it for some sports, for example the genetic propensity to develop a certain balance between type Ia, Ib and type II muscle fibres.
Much of the book is essentially devoted to giving examples to support the theme of practice over talent, and gets a little tedious after a while. Nevertheless it has far reaching implications in all areas of life. For example large companies everywhere think that parachuting in some supposedly talented executive with no actual knowledge of the business is going to turn things around, but there's simply no substitute for the experience built up over many years. We are tightly wedded to the idea of such success being down to natural talent alone, and if we aren't born with it we aren't going to get it, and certainly Syed is largely right to say the opposite. What we can all achieve with some application is amazing.
In the latter part of the book are a couple of slightly off-track chapters. Firstly on the use of drugs in sport; I find Syed's attitude a little distasteful here as he gives the impression of feeling that it's not necessarily so bad a thing.
Secondly, a chapter entitled "Are blacks superior runners?" Well you know what his answer is going to be without even reading it, as it would invalidate his entire thesis otherwise. Much of the chapter indulges in liberal hand-wringing and agonising about even considering such a thought. Syed wheels out the 1972 paper by Lewontin on genetics and race supposedly demonstrating that there is no such thing as race, something latched onto by liberal thinkers these days, but Syed would do well to look up "Lewontin's fallacy", as that argument is far from conclusive.
Despite this it's an interesting chapter. Syed at least successfully demonstrates that the situation as regards East African long distance runners is not as simple as it might at first seem; however he doesn't successfully persuade me that there isn't something genetic in relation to Afro-American/Caribbean sprinters, though neither do I believe that there necessarily is. There's probably a certain role model aspect to it in my view. Syed bewails the fact that blacks are not entering certain walks of life in British society, supposedly due to barriers of prejudice, but is it not perhaps much more down to the prominent visibility of successful black "role models" in sport and music continuing to draw many black youngsters in that direction?
on 2 May 2011
I like some of the ideas expressed in this book, although they are hardly original.
However, in an New York Times article about the book "Outliers" which is heavily referred to in Bounce , Steven Pinker wrote, "The reasoning in 'Outliers,' which consists of cherry-picked anecdotes, post-hoc sophistry and false dichotomies, had me gnawing on my Kindle."
I think the same observations could also be made about the reasoning in Bounce. The author only appears to quote examples which support his own reasoning and never really seems to give serious consideration or analysis to the many counter arguments that exist - surely a glaring omission in any thesis.
For that reason I found myself doubting the veracity of some of what was said. I think also some more up to date and relevant examples of how purposeful practice pays off could have been given one notable one being John Richardson's golf book "Dream On".
on 28 June 2012
This book seeks to argue that success is down to long and purposeful practice rather than talent. The author seeks to evidence this by showing that champions are those that practice the most rather rather than those that are necessarily more "talented". Although this would be a nice inspirational result (if it were true) I was unconvinced that the author sufficiently proved this point. In particular the author seems to ignore (or miss) the potential correlation/causality ambiguity.
There are several occasions this occurs. For example, the author uses the example of the orchestra musicians to show that the elite practiced longer than less able musicians. But its overly simplistic to simply say that it was practice that made them better than others. To see why note that an hour of practice has both a benefit and a cost: the benefit is the improvement in your playing skill; the cost is what you would have done instead e.g. watch tv, sleep, meet up with friends. If you were more "talented" (i.e. learnt more quickly) then you will get a greater benefit and, all things equal, are more likely to practice. Put another way, two people who practice the same amount will not be equally good; the more talented person will be better. The problem is that you cannot easily observe talent. But amount of time they devote to practice might be a proxy for talent for the very reason they choose to practice rather than do other things. The examples of champions that Mr Syed gives further muddies the water since they clearly all had able parents: Tiger Wood's father was a good baseball player; the father of the chess playing sisters was obviously clever enough to come up with the experiment; Mozart's father was a top musician... The talent myth argument would have far greater weight if these people become champions that was unrelated to what their parents did: Tiger Woods a piano player despite the father being a sports man; the sisters becoming golfers despite the father being an academic etc. Instead we are left with the impression that they did obtain some talent through their genes. A second example of the "correlation-causality" problem is when the author discusses positive thinking. The author argues that sports people with a strong belief they can win, are more likely to. Tiger Woods is again used as an example. However, it may be that top athletes are able to think that way, because having become used to winning through out their career. This makes the belief easy to sustain. It may be much more difficult to sustain a positive attitude if instead you lose all the time. That is, it may not be the belief they can win that causes them to win, but instead the winning that causes them to believe they can win.
To conclude, I don't agree with the author that "talent is a myth" (at least the author has failed to sufficiently argue the point). What is more plausible is that hard work vastly exaggerates differences in talent. Despite this, I do think the book has value. What is true is that through work hard you can achieve much more than you could ever think possible (even though you are 10% more talented than me, I can beat you if I work 20% harder). So I do think its worth the read.
on 28 June 2010
The first half of the book looks at how sports champions are made. Drawing on research as well as first-hand experience (he's a Commonwealth gold medal-winning table tennis player), he argues very convincingly that champions are made through hard work, the right opportunities, and training rather than being born (ie just having being gifted with innate talent). For me, this was a rather inspirational message in that we can all do well if we work hard and get feedback and practice rather than the fact that one has to be born with the right genes.
The second half of the book looks at the psyche of sports people. This second half is a little weaker in that Syed's writing (which was winningly strong in the first half) seems less coherent. The second half is, though, still very readable. Even if you only read the first half of the book, you will still benefit and feel not only more educated about sports success but also personally inspired to get out there yourself!