The Books

Book #10

Bounce, Matthew Syed

Recommended by Christian Saenger. I almost chose this book for Christian – he had recommended it so vociferously in the past, and I hadn’t read it, so suggested to him that it should be his choice and he wholeheartedly agreed. Christian is the Deputy Head (Academic) at York House, who arrived there a year after me, initially as Director of Studies. It was immediately clear that he is a passionate believer in helping every child to maximise his potential, and many of the conversations, meetings and INSETs involving him included references to the messages within this book.

Coincidentally, this is the second successive book on my list to have been nominated for the William Hill Sports Book of the Year!

Syed is a former English and Commonwealth table tennis champion, who has turned his hand to commentating, journalism and writing. Very well he has turned it too, on the basis of this book, whose central message is embodied in the surtitle: “The myth of talent and the power of practice”.

I have always agreed with his basic supposition – one cannot reach the top of any game without practice – and lots of it. Syed draws heavily on other’s writings, notably Anders Ericsson, Geoff Colvin, Daniel Coyle, Malcolm Gladwell, Richard Gregory, John Harris and Jon Entine and weaves their thoughts together with his own to put forward this argument in a rational and well-supported way. The main thrust of the argument is aimed at complex tasks, rather than simple ones – for instance there will always be those whose genetic code predisposes them to be better 100m sprinters than others. The game of tennis, or chess, or the craft of drawing or playing a musical instrument however are very different affairs. Numerous examples and studies are referenced, all highlighting the one key fact – the best performers, the most accomplished artists, all put in a huge amount of hard work to reach the top. The magical figure of 10000 hours to make an expert is toted pretty frequently these days, and there are a number of examples showing how this was achieved by a large and disparate group of renowned experts.

Perhaps I was predisposed to enjoy and agree with the ideas put forward in the book – maybe listening to Christian’s explanation of Growth Mindsets set of ways of thinking, but I feel that my own opinions on that are deeper rooted. I know that I have achieved moderate success in music in my life, but I don’t believe that it was any deep-rooted “talent” that got me there. I started playing the cello aged 4, and worked incredibly hard at it, with excellent guidance (and indeed Syed makes clear the need for the quality of the practice) for the next 10 years. By the time I was 13/14 and away at boarding school (where I admit practice slacked off a bit), I was thousands of hours of work ahead of most of my peers – I don’t think I was any more “talented” than them. Admittedly my career was in singing, rather than the cello, and I never really worked particularly hard at singing. However, the countless hours of cello (and piano, and recorder, and, ahem, bagpipes) all add up, and I was therefore in a position to maximise the fact that genetics had made me a tenor rather than a baritone. Being a tenor with a solid sense of pitch and an highly-developed sight-reading ability made me easily marketable in the peculiar world that is British choral singing, where rehearsal time is minimal. Equivalently, I am a hopeless artist, but I don’t think that this is because I am just disposed to being terrible at it – I just know that I have spent extremely little time learning how to do it. When other children were colouring in or drawing for fun, I was playing the cello.

It is interesting to debate this idea with others. I have had several conversations with people, and in fact have found myself picking others up on their use of the word talent recently. Maybe they are right, perhaps some people simply are “more talented” than others. Personally, I

a) like the weight of evidence presented in Syed’s book (although I am sure that a book written from a different point of view could draw on opposing evidence, or critique the sources used in Bounce). I have a heavily mathematical and scientific background, so evidence speaks volumes to me!

b) would just prefer that the world really is this way. I like the idea that any person can better themselves with the application of practice and hard work. Syed is not claiming that anyone can put in 10000 hours of practice and become the next Federer, or Gary Kasparov, or Yo-Yo Ma. I’m pretty certain however that 10000 hours of practice at almost anything would make you really rather excellent at it. In the first 7 months of 2016 I ran approximately 10 times the distance I had run in any previous whole year – over 1000 miles, which probably took me in total about 150-170 hours. In that short time period I established life-time personal bests at every distance from 1 mile to a marathon, and that was whilst training to run a 24 hour endurance race, so wasn’t considering speed as a factor at all. I can only begin to imagine what would happen to my times if I put in 10, 20, 50 times the hours! And running, is of course, as I said earlier, not even the sort of thing Syed is talking about, being, in his words “a simple sport, testing a single dimension: speed or, in the case of distance running, endurance.”

An excellent read, affirming, positive and highly motivational – definitely recommended. (And no, it didn’t take me 20 days to read it, the evenings have just been colossally busier as the end of term has approached!).

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