Monday, February 17, 2014

The Myth of Talent

I've started reading Matthew Syed's book "Bounce: The Myth of Talent and the Power of Practice". It's a book I've been wanting to read for some time along with Malcolm Gladwell's "Tipping Point". Gladwell's book was first published in 2000, and Bounce in 2011, so I'm typically late to the party, but better late than never!

The premise of Bounce is that practice not talent is what produces excellence. Elite sports people might look super talented, but it's the hours of practice that make the difference. The first part of the book is all about debunking the myth that it's talent that distinguished the best from the rest, and that anyone can achieve things that seem beyond their abilities with sufficient application. Interesting.

Syed cites a number of researchers and research studies that support his thesis, and the data is compelling. It's quite heartening to know that, for example, I can become a consistently better tennis player given enough practice. But the practice must be purposeful rather than undirected. There's one great quote from Jack Nicklaus:

It isn't so much a lack of talent; it's a lack of being able to repeat good shots consistently that frustrates most players. And the only answer to that is practice.
 Okay, so here's the not so good news. It takes 10,000 hours of practice to achieve excellence! At 1,000 hours a year, that means it takes on average 10 years to achieve that level of performance. This apparently holds true across the board. Those youngsters who appear talented beyond their years and in comparison to their peers, on investigation have just compressed their practice into a shorter time frame and have had the advantage of superior coaching along the way.

How does that inform the rest of us? Well, take the example of church leadership, something I have some experience in! When someone is appointed to the leadership team of a church do we just assume they come with all the skills and gifts required of them to perform well as a leader? How do we give them the time to practice, to prepare for leadership? How do we develop their skills so they become excellent leaders?

We can't get them practicing four hours a day for the next ten years, and in truth they come to the leadership table with many gifts and skills already developed. That's why we appointed them, right? But a typical two terms as a deacon in many baptist churches might just not give someone the opportunity to truly develop their potential. Asking them to serve for 10+ years in a row would often wear out all but the most determined or simply belligerent of leaders!

I don't have an answer, but simply ask the question. As for me, I realise a couple of things. Firstly, if I'm going to improve my tennis I need to practice more and maybe play less. At the very least the balance of practice and play needs to be thought through. When it comes to my massage practice, there's a similar challenge around the amount of clinical practice I need to go from being a competent therapist and an excellent one. Sadly I probably don't have enough years left to fully achieve my potential in either of these disciplines, but that doesn't mean I don't have a target in mind and some goals to achieve.

The point here I guess is that you need a plan. Whatever your goals might be and no matter how realistic they appear, the key is in that phrase "purposeful practice". It might be a simple plan, for example to hit ten consecutive cross court forehands into a specific area of the court rather than just "over and in". It might be to sign up for a CPD course on sports injuries to further my knowledge base for therapy.

And for you? How are you going to apply the principle that it's not about how much talent you have but how much you are willing to invest in practice whatever that might mean?

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