Book Summary: “Bounce”, Matthew Syed

Bounce, Matthew Syed
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Bounce, Matthew Syed

“Bounce: The Myth of Talent and the Power of Practice”, Matthew Syed
Also available as: “Bounce: Mozart, Federer, Picasso, Beckham, and the Science of Success”
410 pages – Paperback | eBook (U.K.) | Audiobook

Perfect for you if:

  • You believe “I am not a Language/Athletic/Math/etc… person”.
  • You, or someone you know, wants to become the best, or even just better at anything.
  • You’re fascinated by the psychology of learning; be you learner, teacher or parent.

“Bounce” is a book for anyone who believes they are “not a Language / Athletic / Math / etc… person” and never will be.

Matthew Syed, a top ranked table tennis champion and journalist, has two clear messages:

  1. There is no such thing as “Natural Born Talent”; and
  2. Becoming an expert at anything is primarily a question of:
    • Mindset;
    • Motive;
    • Practice; and
    • Opportunity.

To be clear, Syed doesn’t discount the role of genetics entirely. Instead, he argues that:

  1. It is simply not as important as we often believe; and
  2. This slight shift in perspective makes all the difference.

Syed’s athletic career adds depth and colour to his conclusions. His evidence base is full of cutting edge research, interviews, and historical fact. His suggestions are immediate and practical.

In short, if you like what you read in this crunch:

  • Whether learner, expert or teacher;
  • Be you academic, athlete or professional;
  • Whatever your age, size, gender or nationality;

then “Bounce” is be a compulsory addition to your already bursting bookshelf.

Its insights will surprise, entertain and inform you. They may even change your life.

Overview

  • In learning, people tend to adopt either a “Fixed” or “Growth” mindset.
  • The “Growth Mindset” more accurately reflects what we know about learning today.
  • And yet we still use the comfortable “Myth of Talent” to make sense of the world around us.
  • Even though it is based on partial and inaccurate information.
  • And grossly distorted by our cognitive biases.
  • This is important because our expectations have great consequences for ourselves and those around us.
  • In fact, there are four main ingredients to learning:
    • Mindset: a “Growth Mindset” gives us a love of learning and a resilience to failure.
    • Motive: an “Internal Motive”, once sparked, sets intention and sustains drive and motivation.
    • Practice: “Purposeful Practice” with enough quantity, quality and feedback, is the bedrock of ability.
    • Opportunity: “Good Luck” in Where, When, What, Who and How separates the top 10% from the top 10.
  • Managing “Belief” is a final “X Factor” in balancing conflicting demands of “Learning” and “Performance”.
  • In conclusion: Your most basic abilities can be developed to extraordinary levels through dedication and hard work.
  • Do not let the “Myth of Talent” hold you and the people around you back.

Detail

In learning, people tend to adopt either a “Fixed” or “Growth” mindset.

  • In a Fixed Mindset:
    • People believe their basic qualities, like their intelligence or talent, are simply fixed traits.
    • They spend their time documenting their intelligence or talent instead of developing them.
    • They believe that talent alone – without effort – creates success.
  • In a Growth Mindset:
    • People believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work.
    • They understand that brains and talent are just the starting point.
    • This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment.
  • It’s interesting to note that this mindset can and does change:

The “Growth Mindset” more accurately reflects what we know about learning today.

  • Learning relies on chunking and habit formation; a basic physiological process.
    This is true in all individuals and across all skills and learning types (e.g., perceptual, cognitive and motor)
  • Ability/intelligence is actually highly domain specific.
    Chess masters are good at chess but novices at general memorisation tasks.
    Reaction times in one sport (e.g., table tennis) do not generalise to other sports (e.g., tennis).
  • The main differentiating factor in performance is practice.
    I.e., the 10 year / 10 thousand hour rule.

And yet we often use the comfortable “Myth of Talent” to make sense of the world.

  • e.g., Experts and “Child Prodigies”
    Child Prodigies “Do not have unusual genes, they have unusual upbringings.”
    e.g., Polgár Sisters, Mozart, Williams Sisters, Tiger Woods, Bobby Fischer, David Beckham  etc…
  • e.g., “Black Athletes”
    There is no evidence for meaningful genetic differences at a racial level.
    In fact >90% of genetic variation occurs between individuals/small populations.
    Instead mostly a combo of environmental, social, political and momentum factors.

Even though the “Myth of Talent” is based on partial, inaccurate information due to e.g.,:

  • Iceberg Illusion.
    We can only see/consciously understand a fraction of the work it took to become an expert.
    We fail to spot the accumulated impact of many small factors or one small factor over time.
    See “Combinatorial Explosion” below.
  • Expert Amnesia.
    The subconscious nature of expertise means we can only describe and report a fraction of it.
    See “Combinatorial Explosion” below.
  • Expert Delusion
    Sometimes to boost performance (e.g., in deliberately eliminating doubt to improve performance)
    Sometimes to mislead (e.g., lying about performance and effort to others)
    Sometimes unintentionally (see Expert Amnesia)
  • Linear vs. System Dynamics.
    We assume linear relationships where complex systems and feedback mechanisms are at play.
    We miss the compounding impact of many small factors or one small factor over a long time.

And grossly distorted by our cognitive biases:

  • Combinatorial Explosion
    We are terrible at visualising exponential functions.
    E.g., How thick is a piece of paper after 103 folds? 93 billion light years (as thick as the Universe). 
  • Confirmation Bias
    We give more weight to information that confirms existing stories.
    This makes it hard to shake pre-existing biases.
  • Attribution Error
    We misattribute or find causation where there is only correlation.
    We mistake the direction of causation (which can lead to self-fulfilling prophecies)
  • Availability Bias
    We are better at remembering surprising or extreme examples.
    We tend to confuse how easily memorable something is with how likely it is.
    As a result, we weight extreme examples over “normal” ones in our mental models.
  • Halo Effect
    We extrapolate results from small to large populations without regard to sample size.
    We extrapolate performance between one or many domains (e.g., chess >> general memory).

This is important because our expectations have great consequences for ourselves and those around us.

  • Mindset: “Natural talent” based praise induces a fixed mindset in others. “Effort” based praise induces a growth mindset.
  • Motive: The “Myth of Talent” denies us/others the opportunity for self-improvement: “Why bother if I have no ‘natural gift’?”
  • Practice: In a “Fixed Mindset” we seek confirmation of our innate gift through easy tasks and risk avoidance. So we do not learn.
  • Opportunity: Our biases create self-fulfilling prophecies through both positive and negative discrimination (e.g., black athletes).

In fact, there are four main ingredients to learning:

Mindset:
A “Growth Mindset” gives us a love of learning and a resilience to failure.

  • In a Fixed Mindset:
    • People believe their basic qualities, like their intelligence or talent, are simply fixed traits.
    • They spend their time documenting their intelligence or talent instead of developing them.
    • They believe that talent alone – without effort – creates success.
  • In a Growth Mindset:
    • People believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work.
    • They understand that brains and talent are just the starting point.
    • This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment.

Motive:
An “Internal Motive”, once sparked, sets intention and sustains drive and motivation.

  • Motive must be independent and internal: “You can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make it drink.”
  • Anything can spark it but “Motivation by Association” (e.g., through a shared local or national identity) is a powerful example.
  • Once sparked, motive must be “sustained” either internally or by virtue of its own momentum (see Learned Industriousness).

Practice:
“Purposeful Practice” with enough quantity, quality and feedback, is the bedrock of ability.

  • Quantity: “10 year / thousand hour rule”. Consistently proven as biggest single differentiator of ability across all domains.
  • Quality: Practice must be constantly challenging. If something feels easy or subconscious, it is not improving (e.g., driving to work).
  • Feedback: “If you don’t know what you are doing wrong, you can never know what you are doing right”.
    • Must be timely (quick to follow the action), objective and attributable (See “Kaizen“).
    • Try to look for or design feedback loops in your practice (e.g., by standardising procedure).

Opportunity:
“Good Luck” in Where, When, What, Who and How separates the top 10% from the top 10.

  • Where: In the right place. Determines Who and How. E.g., “Reading” for UK Table Tennis; Eldoret for distance running.
  • When: At the right time. Timing, at the start of an up-cycle, is everything. E.g., Hockey players born early in season cut off. Reading in the early 80s for Table Tennis.
  • What: Genetics, injury. Some genetic factors make a difference sometimes. Injury/burnout can unravel even the most promising career.
  • Who: With the right people. Ourselves, peers, parents, teachers, mentors, coaches, judges – all influence the course of our journey.
  • How: And the right facilities. Tightly linked with Where and When. E.g., It’s hard to be a tennis champion with no tennis court.

Managing “Belief” is a final “X Factor” in balancing conflicting demands of “Learning” and “Performance”.  

  • Our beliefs have a profound and physical impact on our experience and actions (see the Placebo Effect).
  • And it turns out it doesn’t matter what they are (e.g., divine, scientific) so long as our beliefs are sincere.
  • But “Learning” and “Performance” place conflicting demands on belief:
    • Learning: Openness to criticism, understanding of our own flaws.
    • Performance: Unwavering self-confidence and belief.
  • And believing the wrong thing at the wrong time can greatly disrupt both.
  • So, the ability to believe in and appropriately manage two conflicting realities is critical to optimising growth.

In conclusion: Your most basic abilities can be developed to extraordinary levels through dedication and hard work. 

  • Our ability to improve our intelligence and abilities is more in control than we ever imagined.
  • Luck and genetics do play a role but this is much less significant than we assume.

Don’t let the “Myth of Talent” hold you and the people around you back.

  • Get out there and take more responsibility for your own destiny!
  • Don’t let a few weeks of half hearted effort at some skill confirm your false beliefs.
  • Purposeful practice is not easy, it is hard, but it is also mostly available to everyone.
  • Understanding this will not only change you, it will also change those around you.

Related Reading

“Outliers: The Story of Success”, Malcolm Gladwell: Heavily referenced by Syed and for good reason. Gladwell’s pursuit of the truth is relentless. His book deeply debunks “The Myth of Talent”, including many deep and widely held biases, across a wide range of domains. Incidentaly, his new podcast “Revisionist History” is also fascinating.

“Mindset: How You Can Fulfil Your Potential”, Carol Dweck: Another primary source for Syed. Dweck’s decades of experiments and insights into the psychology of learning have deeply influenced today’s thinking on the topic. The idea and evidence behind “Growth” and “Fixed” mindsets began and come from here. A fascinating read.

“The Art of Learning: An Inner Journey to Optimal Performance”, Joshua Waitzkin: Waitzkin’s book tells the story of his rise to both International Master at Chess and a World Champion in Taichi Push Hands. His first hand insights of mastering not one but two domains to a World Class level make for fascinating reading. A wonderful and insightful book.

“Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World”, Cal Newport: In this fascinating book, Cal Newport guides us into the requirements, benefits and importance of “Deep Work”. His concept overlaps almost perfectly with the idea of “Purposeful Practice”. For anyone looking for more practical tips on single minded progress, this is a must read. See the WWH Book Crunch here.

“The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business”, Charles Duhigg: If you’re looking for more on the power of the subconscious then try this book for size. An amazing insight into the importance of habit in every aspect of learning. Also full of practical tips. See the WWH Book Crunch here.

“A Mind For Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science”, Barbara Oakley: My final reading suggestion is another fascinating journey into the physiology and psychology of learning. Barbara’s book is as deeply practical as it is informative. If you’re looking for more on Chunking, Discipline and Creativity then look no further. See the WWH Book Crunch here.

TANQ entries for 'Bounce'

TANQ is Faster To Master’s growing central library of thoughts, anecdotes, notes, and quotes.

“Child prodigies may look as if they have reached the top in double-quick time, but the reality is that they have compressed astronomical quantities of practice into the short period between birth and adolescence.”

— Matthew Syed, Bounce

“If we believe that attaining excellence hinges on talent, we are likely to give up if we show insufficient promise.”

— Matthew Syed, Bounce

“If we believe that attaining excellence hinges on talent, we are likely to give up if we show insufficient promise.”

— Matthew Syed, Bounce

“Once the opportunity for practice is in place, the prospects of high achievement take off. And if practice is denied or diminished, no amount of talent is going to get you there.”

— Matthew Syed, Bounce

“The memory span of most adults extends to around seven items… when we witness extraordinary feats of memory (or of sporting or artistic prowess) we are witnessing the end of a process measured in years.”

— Matthew Syed, Bounce

On the constancy of working memory at 6 – 7 items. E.g., SF who learned to remember up to 87 numbers with practice but was unable to recall more than 6 – 7 random consonants (i.e., he was using mnemonics and chunking for the numbers). Same again with Chess Grand Masters – they are no better than novices at remembering board configurations that do not appear in natural game settings.

— Bounce

“Top performers are not born with sharper instincts (in the same way chess masters do not possess superior memories); instead, they possess enhanced awareness and anticipation… speed in sport is not based on innate reaction speed, but derived from highly specific practice.”

— Matthew Syed, Bounce

“Federer’s motor programmes are so deeply ingrained that if you were to ask him how he is able to play an immaculately timed forehand, he wouldn’t be able to tell you… [he has] practised for so long that the movement has been encoded in implicit rather than explicit memory. This is what psychologists call expert-induced amnesia.”

— Matthew Syed, Bounce

On Combinatorial Explosion: “Imagine folding a piece of paper in two… now repeat the process a hundred times. How thick is the paper now? … the thickness would stretch eight hundred thousand billion times the distance from Earth to the Sun.”

— Matthew Syed, Bounce

“Child prodigies amaze us because we compare them not with other performers who have practised for the same length of time, but with children of the same age who have not dedicated their lives in the same way.”

— Matthew Syed, Bounce

“It is only possible to clock up meaningful practice if an individual has made an independent decision to devote himself to whatever field of expertise.”

— Matthew Syed, Bounce

“Child prodigies do not have unusual genes; they have unusual upbringings.” e.g., Music (Mozart), Sports (Beckham, Woods, Agassi, Williams Sisters), Chess (Polgar Sisters), Maths (Devi, Gamm, Ramanujam, Flannery)

— Matthew Syed, Bounce

“The ten-thousand-hour rule, then, is inadequate as a predictor of excellence. What is required is ten thousand hours of purposeful practice.”

— Matthew Syed, Bounce

“A key aspect of brain transformation is myelin, a substance that wraps around the nerve fibres and that can dramatically increase the speed with which signals pass through the brain. A 2005 experiment that scanned the brains of concert pianists found a direct relationship between the number of hours practised and the quantity of myelin… the very process of building knowledge transforms the hardware in which the knowledge is stored and operated.”

— Matthew Syed, Bounce

“A key aspect of brain transformation is myelin, a substance that wraps around the nerve fibres and that can dramatically increase the speed with which signals pass through the brain. A 2005 experiment that scanned the brains of concert pianists found a direct relationship between the number of hours practised and the quantity of myelin… the very process of building knowledge transforms the hardware in which the knowledge is stored and operated.”

— Matthew Syed, Bounce

“Eureka moments are not lightning bolts from the blue, but tidal waves that erupt following deep immersion in an area of expertise.”

— Matthew Syed, Bounce

“If you don’t know what you are doing wrong, you can never know what you are doing right.”

— Chen Xinhua, Bounce

“The defects of a theory are revealed through testing, which, in turn, paves the way for a new theory. A theory that is not testable (i.e., a theory immune from feedback) can never be improved upon.”

— Matthew Syed, Bounce

“Feedback is… the rocket fuel that propels the acquisition of knowledge, and without it no amount of practice is going to get you there.”

— Matthew Syed, Bounce

“It is easy to see why aspiring sportsmen are so keen to work with top coaches. It is not just that they receive expert advice during the training sessions; far more important is that great coaches are able to design practice so that feedback is embedded in the drill, leading to automatic readjustment.”

— Matthew Syed, Bounce

“The talent theory of expertise is not merely flawed in theory; it is insidious in practice, robbing individuals and institutions of the motivation to change themselves and society.”

— Matthew Syed, Bounce

On Carol Dweck’s Mindset: “Those who held the belief that abilities are transformable through effort, not only persevered but actually improved in the teeth of difficulties; those labouring under the talent myth, on the other hand, regressed into a state of psychological enfeeblement.”

— Matthew Syed, Bounce

“The path to excellence could not be more difficult. It is steep, gruelling, and arduous. It is inordinately lengthy, requiring a minimum of ten thousand hours of lung-busting effort to get to the summit. And, most importantly of all, it forces voyagers to stumble and fall on every single stretch of the journey.”

— Matthew Syed, Bounce

“Praising children’s intelligence harms their motivation, and it harms their performance [because] intelligence-based praise orientates its receivers towards the fixed mindset; it suggests to them that intelligence is of primary importance rather than the effort through which intelligence can be transformed; and it teaches them to pursue easy challenges at the expense of real learning.”

— Matthew Syed, Bounce

“Nobody has got anywhere in life without working hard, by showing tremendous discipline, and by taking responsibility for their actions. That is what ultimately separates the best from the rest.”

— Nick Bollettieri, Bounce

“The power of the mind is exercised through the medium of belief, and it doesn’t matter whether the belief is true or false of how the delusion is created – so long as it is created successfully.”

— Matthew Syed, Bounce

“Religion, in and of itself, confers real and tangible health benefits [and] religious belief bolsters [athletic] performance… the impact of religious belief has been found to transcend denominational boundaries… it does not matter which god you are praying to, so long as the belief is sincere… what [Christian] scriptures (see Mark 9 and Matthew) seem to be saying is that God does not act in proportion to the worthiness of the intercessor, but in proportion to the intercessor’s belief that God will so act. Substitute ‘sugar pill’ for ‘God’ in the previous sentence, and you have just defined the placebo effect.”

— Matthew Syed, Bounce

On performance: “To perform to your maximum you have to teach yourself to believe with an intensity that goes way beyond logical justification. No top performer has lacked this capacity for irrational optimism; no sportsman has played to his potential without the ability to remove doubt from his mind.”

On doublethink (combining unwavering self-belief with openness to correction and training): “Unless you have the ability to manipulate your beliefs over the performance cycle, it is difficult to perform well at anything, sport or otherwise.”

— Arsène Wenger, Bounce

On doublethink: “You have to make a decision based upon a realistic assessment of your own weaknesses and the scope for failure. But once you have committed to your decision, you have to flick the mental switch and execute the shot as if there was never any doubt that you would nail it.”

— Nick Faldo, Bounce

“Choking… is a kind of neural glitch that occurs when the brain switches to a system of explicit monitoring in circumstances when it ought to stick to the implicit system.”

— Matthew Syed, Bounce

“People think it is hard when you lose. But it’s almost easier to come second because you have something to aim for when you finish. When you win, you suddenly feel lost.”

— Victoria Pendleton, Bounce

“To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive.”

— Robert Louis Stevenson, Bounce

On practice-built knowledge the very fabric of our perceptions: “Perception is thoroughly permeated by our concepts.”

— Sir Peter Strawson, Bounce

“The problem for the racial scientist is his yearning to generalize. It would seem that the notion of race is so deeply embedded within the human psyche that there is a collective blind spot when it comes to its use and meaning. We automatically put people of dark skin in a box marked ‘black’, and assume that any trait shared by some (even a tiny minority) is shared by all.”

— Matthew Syed, Bounce

“The overrepresentation of African-Americans in professional sport is almost precisely mirrored by an under-representation in positions of economic power…

In 2003… Marianne Bertrand and Sendhil Mullainathan… drafted five thousand CVs and placed archetypal black names such as Tyrone or Latoya on half of them, and white names such as Brendan and Alison on the other half. They then divided the ‘white’ CVs into high and low quality and did the same with the ‘black’ CVs. A few weeks later the offers came rolling in from employers… The ‘black’ candidates were 50% less likely to be invited for an interview [and] although high-quality ‘whites’ were preferred to low-quality ‘whites’, the relative quality of ‘black’ CVs made no difference whatsoever. It was as if employers saw three categories: high-quality whites, low-quality whites, and blacks.”

— Matthew Syed, Bounce
Arthur
Arthur is a learning-freak, slow-thinker, and writer who loves helping curious, busy people digest chewy topics fast. One of his passions is language learning. Send yourself his Free Ultimate Language Learning Guide today to save you or a friend thousands of dollars and hours on your journey to fluency.

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Awesome post! I’m from Brazil and also a fanatic of learning techniques! Thank you for sharing your thoughts and contributing to the making of a better world!
Cheers!