Book review: Bounce - or how champions are made
The myth of talent and the power of practice by Matthew Syed1

Matthew Syed, an international table-tennis champion wrote an optimistic book about the myth of talent and the power of practice – or how champions are made.  His main message is surprising whilst being old-fashioned: success is possible for all of us, but it comes with hard work and self-belief rather than innate ability.

hw_s12_5He gives a lot of examples from the sports world and within the cultural field, who all prove that top performers have devoted thousands of additional hours of training to become masters in their field.  But that’s not all, one of the studies he describes found that there is no exception to this pattern: nobody who had reached the elite group without copious practice, and nobody who had worked their socks off had failed to succeed.

‘Purposeful practice’ is the only factor distinguishing the best from the rest.  He claims that child prodigies like Mozart, Tiger Woods and the Williams sisters do not have unusual genes, but unusual upbringings.  They have compressed thousands of hours of practice into the short period between birth and adolescence.  And not just practice, but what he calls ‘purposeful practice’, which is about striving for what is just out of reach.

Syed argues that ‘excellence’ is about stepping outside the comfort zone, training with a spirit of endeavour and accepting the inevitability of trails and tribulations. Progress is built upon the foundation of necessary failure, which is the paradox of expert performance.

He quotes Michelangelo who said: ‘If people knew how hard I had to work to gain my mastery, it would not seem so wonderful at all.’

Key during the many hours of training is ‘feedback’, without it no amount of practice is going to get you there.

Syed also gives us another important take-away lesson. He gives the example of Shizuka Arakawa, who fell down more than twenty thousand times on her odyssey from wannabe schoolgirl to Olympic figure-skating champion. Her key advantage was that she did not interpret falling down as failure.

Samuel Beckett formulated it as following: ‘Ever tried. Ever failed. No Matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.’
This book also argues that we should be very careful when we praise children’s intelligence and that it is better to praise effort.  Several experiments show that praising children’s intelligence harms their motivation and harms their performance.  He states that only people with a fixed mindset (I am smart, I do not have to proof that) do not admit and correct their deficiencies.

He uses the Enron-case to describe to what this can lead. Enron had this culture which worshipped talent, thereby forcing its employees to look and act extraordinarily talented. When times get tough and their self-image is threatened, this ‘innate’ talent has difficulties with the consequences and will not admit that they were wrong, they prefer to lie and to conceal reality.

Syed interviewed Mr. Bolletieri, the founder of the Bolletieri Academy, a tennis school in Florida, who produced illustrious champions as Agassi, Hingis, Sharapova, Kournikova and many others.

Mr. Bolletieri’s creed, which must be signed by all residents is: ‘Every endeavour pursued with passion produces a successful outcome regardless of the result. For it is not about winning or losing – rather, the effort put forth in producing the outcome. The best way to predict the future is by creating it – therefore, we believe we have the best training methods to help each athlete achieve their dreams and goals and ultimately reach their ability level in the arena of sports and life.’

It goes without saying that some of these lessons also play in the business world and it is too simple to do a copy-paste, though we are convinced that the recipe for success in the sports arena, also works in corporate life.

1Bounce: The Myth of Talent and the Power of Practice by Matthew Syed, published by Fourth Estate, 28 April 2011