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A good message but fails to sufficiently evidence the point
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.