Friday, March 9, 2012

Bounce: Mozart, Federer, Picasso, Beckham, and the Science of Success by Matthew Syed

In Bounce: Mozart, Federer, Picasso, Beckham, and the Science of Success, author and table tennis Olympian Matthew Syed explores the role of innate ability (talent) vs. practice, and strongly promotes a practice-based approach to mastery. Although largely based on his experience in athletics, as well as research in athletics, art and music, the core principles of a "growth mindset" have many applications outside of these fields.

The key idea of Bounce is that effort and directed, challenging practice matter far more than natural ability in most pursuits, and that behind the story of many of child prodigies is a reality of hard work and dedication to practice far greater than others of a similar age. Mastery in a subject is usually not achieved without roughly 10,000 hours of directed practice (the 10,000 hour "rule"). This is often around 10 years of effort, given that it is difficult to consistently do more than 20 hours of really focused practice per week, 1000 per year. Many young stars in various fields, from Mozart to Picasso and the Williams sisters, also took approximately 10 years of training to begin to reach their peak performance despite being significantly ahead of their peers at a young age. Of particular note is that merely doing something for 10,000 hours doesn't result in mastery (for example, driving for 10,000 hours doesn't make you an expert driver), but instead mastery comes from targeted practice that stretches your limits. Top performers find techniques that continuously push them beyond their comfort zone, challenging themselves more relative to their own abilities than their less successful competitors. For example, top figure skaters don't only try harder jumps, but consistently try jumps that are farther beyond their current capabilities, and as a direct result, they also fall more during practice. MMA legend Fedor Emelianenko expressed this idea well after a significant loss: "The one who doesn't fall, doesn't stand up"

Starting with his own story as a child table tennis prodigy, Syed explains how his success could be seen as a natural result of his innate ability revealed at a young age and leading to his rise to the pinnacle of British table tennis. However, he then points out the multiple environmental factors that truly contributed, including having a full-sized table as a child, an older brother who was a motivated training partner which resulted in hours of practice against a strong opponent, which led in turn to early successes against his peergroup, and then to better coaching, including early work with a star coach in the local school district, and how these opportunities built in a reinforcing cycle. He then notes that a hugely disproportionate number of England's table tennis stars came from one single street, his street.

Effort-based praise and rewards (instead of talent-based recognition) lead to a culture of achievement, and increased resilience to setbacks: They teach that success shouldn't come easily because of your talent, but rather is obtained through consistent effort and a willingness to try, learn, refine, practice and improve. Organizational cultures that reward talent can even be destructive: Because innate ability can't be earned or improved, there is a much greater temptation to cheat when talent is the measure of success. Syed points to Enron as an extremely talent-oriented culture (talent was valued far more than knowledge), and points to the need to appear smart as one of the key reasons why people felt compelled to hide their failures at ever-greater scales. Embracing failure, taking on difficult challenges and insisting on hard work are key ingredients to a "growth" culture.

I found two of the studies cited in Bounce to be particularly worthwhile. The first is somewhat common in the "growth mindset" literature, about children who were praised on for their effort on a test versus children who were praised for their intelligence (talent). The children praised for effort were more willing to take additional, harder tests, and in fact did better, while the "talent praise" children attempted to retain their intelligent label by avoiding more difficult opportunities. In the other study, it was demonstrated that there is a transference effect to success. Students who read an article about a successful mathematician immediately before taking a test did better when the article was modified so that the mathematician was born on the same day as the test-taker. This placebo effect is discussed in several other examples, but I found it quite surprising.

Bounce also describes the experiences of László Polgár, the father of three chess superstars who set out on a publicized, real-world experiment to demonstrate that he could raise children to become chess champions despite having no chess aptitude himself, and literally recruited a wife to help him. His quest to prove  that "geniuses are made, not born" is fascinating. Although the success of his experiment was astonishing (Judit Polgar is considered to be the best female chess player ever, another is a grand master, and the third is an international master), the very fact that all three sisters were so good has given his critics an opportunity to point to a genetic basis for their success.

Syed also writes about the importance of making some part of what you are doing consistent enough so that you have an adequate mechanism for identifying problems and isolating changes. This is a  common idea for trouble-shooting:  isolate one factor and see how changes to that factor impact the rest of the system, but I had not given it too much thought in the context of a tennis swing. In his example, his coach changed his swing so that it was uniform for all types of strokes. Although this was a difficult adjustment, once completed he could easily diagnose problems and make changes and improvements, leading to much more rapid progress.

One of the most unique concepts in the book is the idea of "doublethink". Doublethink (as coined by George Orwell) is keeping two incompatible ideas in mind at once. Top performers need to be able to make realistic assessments to choose a course of action, accurately predicting  the risk of failure from available options, but, once the decision as been made, to execute the action with the confidence that failure is impossible. Similarly, after a loss, top competitors typically go through a cycle of selective focus or even denial during which they deal with the failure by seeing only the good parts. Later, however, during practice, they need to fully analyze and understand the root problems in order to correct them. Finally, at the next competition, they need to once again banish all thoughts of failure and perform with confidence.

Related to this idea of performance doublethink was an exploration of the athletic "choke" phenomenon, when all training breaks down and the performer completely falls apart. Syed explains that through extended practice, many parts of an activity become unconscious-- muscle memory that allows the athlete to focus on a completely different set of problems. For example, a tennis player can think about what his opponent is doing rather than how he needs to move his feet and swing his arm to connect with the ball. However, when "choking", his concentration becomes so disrupted that the athlete begins to focus on the unconscious actions and attempts to perform them consciously. Unfortunately this is literally like attempting to re-learn the techniques in the middle of the match, analyzing and breaking a complicated motion into the hundreds of small pieces that make up the whole. Pressure and loss of confidence can bring on the choke, and a partial remedy is to try to focus on other things and re-establish the unconscious rhythm. Top athletes need to play "the most important game of their life as if it didn't matter".

Bounce also mentions situational blindness: We focus only on a tiny fraction of the available information that our senses present. This topic is discussed in much greater detail in The Invisible Gorilla: And Other Ways Our Intuitions Deceive Us,  a great book which he also mentions.  The famous invisible-gorilla experiment demonstrates how we can ignore something obvious right in front of us while focused on something else. In a much more chilling account of an airplane crash, repeated, cockpit recordings demonstrated that clearly audible altitude warnings were ignored while the pilot and crew focused on troubleshooting a warning light until it was too late to avert the crash.

Near the end of the book, Bounce challenges one of the most prevalent athletic stereotypes: black sprinters and distance runners are better than white ones. Only black sprinters have run sub-10 second 100 meters, the vast majority of recent Olympic 100m finalists are black, and Kenyans have done spectacularly well in the distance events. However, digging deeper, he points out that, for sprinters, American and Jamaican sprinters are disproportionately represented, and that the majority of top Kenyan runners come from a tiny region, roughly within a 60 mile radius in Kenya. So rather than being general racial characteristics, the successes are highly specific to a tiny subset of the population. A brief exploration of genetic diversity ensues, the highlight of which is that all ethnicities contain a very large percentage of the total genetic variation, far more within a group than across groups. For more information on this topic, see the wikipedia article:

In summary, Bounce is an inspiring look at the benefits of the growth mindset versus the talent mindset, with a good mix of personal anecdotes and scientific research. I recommend it with 4 stars, and enjoyed the unabridged audiobook version from

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