The Myth of Talent and the Power of Practice

Book - Bounce by Matthew Syed Bounce - by Matthew Syed

I bought this book after being in the audience of a Q&A interview with Matthew Syed and Michael Johnson run by Sunday Times. I bought both of the promoted books but admittedly I was unaware of Matthew Syed previously, either through his table tennis accomplishments or writing and subsequently have only just read it.

Straight away the books’ comforting premise is that anyone can be good if they practice, be it sport, public speaking or maths. It does continue in this vein for a fair while using world champions from the worlds of tennis, chess, athletics and a little football.

A third of the way through, just as I start to think the whole book is going to about sporting champions who practice a lot from an early age like Tiger Woods and the Williams tennis sisters, it starts to get intriguing.  Interestingly enough, parents of the aforementioned state that had their off-spring not loved practicing golf/tennis, they wouldn’t have been able to make world champions out of them. They had to love it first and foremost.

[quote style="boxed"]If you don’t know what you are doing wrong, you can never know what you are doing right.[/quote]

‘If you don’t know what you are doing wrong, you can never know what you are doing right’ says Chen Xinhua from the table tennis world. A great lesson for business owners as we need to constantly evaluate what works and just concentrate on that.

As a trainer, over the years when people have said ‘what if we train our staff and they leave?’ I reply ‘what if you don’t train your staff and they stay?’

It turns out it’s similar to something that the brilliant actor Martin Sheen heard that made him ‘revaluate everything about’ himself and the active political and social stand he has since taken. It was the Vietnam War and Daniel Berrigan, a Jesuit priest who organised non-violent protests was asked, ‘What’s going to happen to our children if we go to prison?’ His response? “What’s going to have happen to them if you don’t?”

Praise effort, never talent

I do love all the examples that prove that it’s effort that gets results, not talent. It’s hard work, practice and if you don’t quite make it, you know there’s room for improvement. Everyone can make it.

Enron, the collapsed financial giant, unfortunately recruited people with talent rather than knowledge. So if they all had the belief they were super talented, their mind-set would surely be they can do no wrong. Even a leading footballer, who is told he is talented at every turn, knows that he is only as good as his last game. In Bounce, we learn of Darius Knight who is plucked for table tennis stardom because of his hours of daily practice made him good. The minute he joins a high performance centre, all he hears is how talented he is with no mention made of all of his effort. He stops trying.

The best way to predict the future is to create it

Another area tackled by the book is the removal of self-doubt. Or to put it another way, you will have heard me talk about many times; having a positive attitude.

No sportsman has played to his potential without the ability to remove doubt from his mind’ according to one of the longest-serving and successful Premiership managers of recent times, Arsenal’s Arsѐne Wenger.

Finally, ‘choking’ is another term used a lot in sport that applies equally in business. In sport, it refers to that time when despite knowing you can achieve something, with all the years of practice behind you, on this occasion you flop. Perhaps you’ve researched a speech and remember it word for word but on the day, you choke and forget your words. Steve Davis sums up how he has overcome this, by learning the art of ‘playing as if it means nothing, when it means everything’.

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