This is the latest addition to the talent myth pop-science literature. The ones that have already been published are Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, Daniel Coyle’s Talent Code and Geoff Colvin’s Talent is overrated. Well, the academic research behind all these books is Dr.Ericsson’s revolutionary research on deliberate practice.
Bounce is written by Matthew Syed , a columnist for the Times of London and a BBC Commentator. More importantly, he is a three time commonwealth table tennis champion , a two-time Olympian. Stuff from a sportsman is something one can always read as it is a story told by someone who actually was in the trenches and can tell a better story I think , than a mere spectator. Its debatable point though whether narrative is better from a sportsman or a bystander. I tend to think the former is better.Anyways, coming back to this book, it has three parts.
Talent Myth :
Mathew Syed starts off the book with “iceberg-illusion” , where we see an outstanding display of talent in a person and appreciate the end product as innate talent but fail to appreciate that one is witnessing an end product of a process measured in years. His main argument like the previous literature is that , QUANTITY of practice matters. He cites examples from the lives of Federer, Agassi, Polgar sisters, Williams Sisters, Tiger Woods, etc to drive home the point that it is quantity and quality of practice that separates really successful players.
I liked a few examples from a chapter titled – “Power and Impotence of Practice”. Practice with out involvement is actually impotent, says the author. Whenever you do a task in an auto-pilot mode, there is nothing to be learnt in the task. Only when we try to consciously come out of auto pilot mode and deep practice the task, one can gain mastery over stuff. There are so many people who would have spent hours and hours doing a specific task but the sad thing i guess is, it makes them move to auto-pilot mode quickly and they do not get out of that mode from time to time to master the skill.
Another example from this book which was appealing to me, was an anagram puzzle. It goes something like this.
Here is a list of anagrams , crack them quickly
Now Here is another list of anagrams, crack them quickly
If you actually solved anagrams from both the lists, you will have notices that they actually refer to precisely the same words. Here is the curious thing : When researchers had participants work on first list and later questioned, they were not good at remembering words. However the participants who worked on second list had a good recall rate .WHY ? In the second list, you are forced out of auto pilot and hence the word is imprinted on your memory.
Simple example but proves the point that , it is better to solve hard and challenging problems than easy ones. Hence practice in whatever field it might be should not be effortless.. If it is so , then there is a great chance of getting in to auto-pilot mode
The first part of the book ends with citing the research of Carol Dweck of Stanford University who champions for the cultivation of growth mind set than fixed mindset.
Overall, the first part of the book can be called as a nice commentary on three books that have already been published on talent myth.
Paradoxes of the Mind :
The second part of the book starts with Placebo effect. Syed gives several examples of athletes around the world who completely believe in themselves before taking a shot, irrespective of the level of the competition or the competency/ranking of the opponent. This is termed as Placebo effect in the book as it helps the player play well and have a positive attitude towards the game. “Double think”, the act of deliberating before making a choice in a game, and subsequently having complete belief in oneself that he/she is going to make it, are two opposing thoughts that outstanding players regularly have. In fact, the capacity to have this kind of a mindset, is probably cultivated through thousands of hours of deep practice.
Syed talks about choking, times when highly accomplished successful players play like novices. As per his research, this typically happens when a player gives extreme importance to the event. It results from too much focus. One of the remedies for choking is to have a mindset – “outcome doesn’t matter”. Easier said/written than done. Basically it means, “Playing as if it means nothing when it means everything”
The author ends the second part of the book by talking about superstitions that some of the successful players believe in. Well, as long as they help them in maintaining their calm and having a clear mindset for the game, there is no harm in it I guess. Then , there is the aspect of ,”What drives a player once they reach No 1 ?” For many , it is a void and then they quickly lose their No 1 spot. For only a precious view, it is something that they were not expecting .The joy of playing a game & improving their game is far more important than medals and ranking.
Deep Reflections :
The third part of the book starts off with discussing extraordinary sense of perception amongst top players and says that it is the quantity and quality of practice that allows extra bandwidth of attention. Top players thus use this bandwidth to perceive faster, smarter and deeper. The argument is the same as made in a book title Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. As one keeps doing tasks over long periods, one can perform certain kind of tasks in auto-pilot mode and hence can free up their mind space to perceive other matters of the game.
There is a random chapter on the use of Drugs , ethical issues etc , which I felt was unnecessary in the book as it did not gel with the flow of the book.
The last chapter of the book tries to answer the most popular question , “Are Blacks Superior Runners ?”. As easy it is to give a race based answer, the author cites interesting sources which goes to show that , it is not that the entire East African nation has good distance runners or West African nation has good sprinters. There are few talent hot beds which produce amazing players year after year. Analysis of these hot beds reveals that it has nothing to do with genes but very specific talent hot bed characteristics. For example, one small district Nandi, with only 1.8% of Kenya’s population produced half of world class distance running athletes. Why ? reason, is similar to Gladwell a.ka. Outlier reasoning… Kenya’s top runners have to run an excess of 20 km per day to attend to school because there is no other means to reaching school and that too , running on an altitude. Hence by the time they reach their 16th birthday, each would have clocked 6000 hours of running that too altitude running. This as per a few analysis and author’s argument is the reason for the success of Kenyan runners.
Here are some audio and video links for those who are time strapped and don’t have the time to read the book.
Audio Link : Life Matters
Video Link :
The first part of the book is mashup of “Outliers”, “The Talent Code” and “Talent is Overrated”, with Mathew Syed’s commentary. Second part of the book is a little bit interesting and Third part of the book is a drag.
Overall, the message of the book is pretty clear , Deep Practice + Adequate & Appropriate Feedback + Growth Mindset are the factors behind the success of outstanding players.