by Matthew Syed
Harper Audio, 2010
Review by Christian Perring on Jun 8th 2010
Matthew Syed argues convincingly that achieving greatness in sports and other complex performance-based activities is largely a matter of intensive practice. Building on some of the same research that Malcolm Gladwell describes in Outliers, Syed shows how it takes about ten years or 10,000 hours of work to build one's skills to the level of the best in sports, musical performance, or even intellectual and artistic pursuits like chess and art. The main claim of the book is that talent is not innate but comes from hard work. He gives many examples of sports superstars who have often been described as having their skills in their DNA, such as Tiger Woods or Roger Federer, and he shows how they in fact practiced early in life and put long hours in, so by the time of their first notable successes, they had clocked up thousands of hours of practice.
The most interesting parts of the book spell out how people manage to learn skills, practicing so much that they conceptualize what they are doing in extremely different ways from beginners, making their actions largely automatic. They are often not able to explain their actions in any detail, because their control and thinking have moved from consciousness to other parts of the mind, and so becoming much faster. Syed is especially eloquent in his explanation of people 'chunking patterns' so that they are able to see things that others are not.
This means that expertise comes from experience, and we will be better off trusting people with a great deal of experience rather novices. We should value people with knowledge rather than bare talent, because it is people with deep experience and knowledge who are better able to cope with the combinatorial explosion that comes with the variations in games like chess and most complex sports. The idea that we should respect people with experience has taken a beating in recent years, with the trend being to prefer new talented people, and so it is great to see a defense of people with years of accumulated knowledge.
Syed also emphasizes why it is important in training to praise effort rather than talent: he cites several studies that show how students told that they are talented tend to want to avoid failure and maintain the image of themselves as successful. However, it is repeated error that leads to success, so you need students to keep on trying even when they fail. So training and teaching should focus on effort. Then students will persist with their training even when they experience failure. These claims may be somewhat controversial, since they overlap with long-standing debates in educational psychology, but they are worth attention, and those of us who are in the habit of dismissing effort and focus instead on success and talent may want to try rethinking our teaching techniques.
The book ends with a chapter on the connection between race and talent in sport: Syed manages to approach this difficult topic with sensitivity, arguing that while there may be some genetic influences on performance, it is far too simplistic to make generalizations about blacks or whites. Indeed, he points out that there is no good evidence linking broad categories of race to sports ability. If there is any genetic element in performance, it is to very specific populations normally limited to small geographical areas.
While Bounce is largely convincing, it does raise the question of what makes some people able to do practice so intensively that they accumulate 10,000 hours. He emphasizes that it has to be enjoyable, otherwise people would not make the effort. If parents force an unwilling child to practice at a musical instrument or a sport, it will probably not work. So what makes one child enjoy the practice when another does not? Is it purely a matter of how the practice is introduced, so that it is fun or rewarding to engage in it? That's part of it, but is there no room for a genetic component in the explanation of why some people take to an activity and others do not? Some people have the patience and dedication to devote themselves to thousands of hours of practice and some get bored or distracted quickly. Some people are driven in their pursuit of perfection and others give up easily. It is at least possible, and even plausible, that such character traits could be inherited. So while 10,000 hours of practice may be necessary for achieving great success at complex skills, it obviously is not sufficient. The factors that determine who is successful may include some genetic ones. Even if there is no such thing as a natural talent for a complex activity, they may be a natural enthusiasm for the component parts. One hears this especially in cases of musical prodigies who take to a musical instrument early in life, able to pick out melodies and reproduce them, when no one else in the family has such an ability. Indeed, maybe the enthusiasm for practice is still related to simple talents. There may be natural talents for relatively simple activities, and having such a talent could then predispose people to put in the practice necessary to become great at the corresponding complex activities. So it is far from clear that Syed's evidence completely settles the issue against talent altogether.
The unabridged audiobook is performed by James Clamp: he has a British accent, but the book is performed in American English. His enthusiastic demeanor makes the book enjoyable to listen to, and although there's a good deal of overlap of ideas from one chapter to another, one does not get bored with the performance.
Thanks to Josh Gidding for a stimulating conversation on this topic which helped in writing this review.
Link: Publisher Website for Audiobook
© 2010 Christian Perring
Christian Perring, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Dowling College, New York