The Myth of Talent and The Power of Practice

Matthew Syed played table tennis at several Olympics for Great Britain.  He also achieved a first class pass at Oxford.  He is therefore well qualified to write about what it takes to perform at the highest level.

Bounce –  The Myth of Talent and The Power of Practice,  is his book and as per usual, I share the parts that I think are worth exploring.

 1.  You need to know your stuff.  There is a myth that good thinking skills are enough.  This thinking suggests that you can take an expert in one field, place them in a different one and they will perform well.  Syed cites the example of General Electric that conducted a study on success and found that a lot of it came down to “domain expertise”.  This is effectively saying that you need to know your stuff, not just know how to think about stuff.  Here is a fascinating example about how years of researching materials has made GE a lot of money.

2.  He introduced me to the concept of “combinatorial explosion”.  Which explains why in some disciplines, deliberate practice is so vital for becoming talented.  What is combinatorial explosion?

Combinatorial explosion 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 a classroom; it is not something you are born with; it must be lived and learned.  To put it another way, it emerges through practice.

3.  The harder the challenge, the better the recall.  You have heard it said, “If it doesnt kill you, it makes you stronger.” Studies have shown this to be the case.  For instance, when solving an anagram, the harder the challenge, the better the participants would remember the problem at a later point.  Ericsson (father of the 10 000 rule made popular in the Malcolm Gladwell bestseller Outliers) is quoted:

“When most people practice, they focus on the things they can do effortlessly.  Expert practice is different.  It entails considerable, specific and sustained efforts to do something you can’t do well – or even at all.  Research across domains shows that it is only by working at what you can’t do that you turn into the expert you want to become.”

Syed tells the story of the coach who took his table tennis skills to the next level.  He did it by always getting him to practice at the margin of his ability, rather than replaying the skills he had already developed.  He also told the story of John Amaechi, an NBA star, who had as a student had a coach who always made sure that he was double marked at every practice.  That extra challenge pushed his game to the NBA level.  It reminded me of a top UCT student who used to start studying with the material she struggling with the most, “Don’t shine your diamonds!”, was her advice.

4.  Practicing on the margin of your ability means that you have to fail often.  I have written about the crucial role our attitude to failure plays here, and it was mainly based on Syed’s other book called Black Box Thinking.  All I add here is a great quote and video link:

“Ever tried.  Ever failed.  No matter.  Try again.  Fail again.  Fail better” Samuel Beckett (US Open winner Stan Wawrinka has this quote tattooed on his arm)


Michael Jordan Nike advert –  “I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”

5. The power of motivation by association.  It turns out that when we feel like we can relate to someone, our motivation goes to the next level.  He cites the example of Se Ri Pak who sparked many more world class female South Korean golfers.  A really interesting study showed how students, who were made to believe that they shared a birthday with a maths genius, performed better on a subsequent maths problem.

6.  Winning is not the point.  Developing grit is.  Building your character is.  Living life to the full is.  Nick Bollettieri, whose academy has produced tennis stars like Agassi, Courier, Hingis, Sharapova, Kournikova and Jankovic, has the following creed that all players must sign:

“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 to create 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.”

As pastor Tim Keller likes to say, “Don’t let success go to your head.  Don’t let failure go to your heart.”

7.  Sometimes you become your own worst enemy.  Too much pressure can diminish performance.  That is true of a professional golfer trying to sink a short putt or a CA(SA) student writing the Board Exam.  Syed references the book, The Inner Game of Golf , which is apparently widely used by professional sportspeople across disciplines.  It contains many mental exercises to calm nerves.  The danger is that our doubts can become self-fulfilling when writing an exam.  A trick from golf? Associate a tricky putt with an easy to complete task (like picking the ball out of the hole), this relaxes the mind.

It is possible to be too desperate for results, as Tom Dawson-Squibb, the UCT rugby mental coach points out in his blog.  Our best performances can paradoxically be achieved when we get the bigger picture and care less about the outcome.  It is a long read, but Brendon McCullum, recently gave a speech entitled “Cricket was meant to be a game, not a life or death struggle”.  He writes movingly about the death of Aussie cricketer Phil Hughes and how that impacted the New Zealand team, that was in the middle of a test match against Pakistan at the time.  The team adopted a “no consequences” mantra and went on to perform brilliantly, hitting the most 6’s ever in an innings:

“The big thing I took away from this Test is the way Phil’s death affected our mind-set and the way we played in the rest of the match. It was so strange, and yet it felt so right, that after Phil’s death we didn’t really care any more about the result. Because nothing we could or couldn’t do on the field really mattered in comparison to what had happened to Phil. Our perspective changed completely for the rest of my time playing Test cricket for New Zealand, and we were a much better side as a result.”

What stood out for you?  What one change will you make having read this far?  Let me know!




Paul Maughan

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *