Book Report: “Bounce”

Bounce - cover“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.  Even if we can’t bring ourselves to embrace the idea that expertise is ultimately about the quality and quantity of practice, can’t we accept that practice is far more significant than previously thought?  That talent is a largely defunct concept?  That each and every one of us has the potential to tread the path to excellence?” (Bounce – p112)

Title: Bounce

Author: Matthew Syed

Publisher: Harper

Publication Date: 2010

Origin: I scooped up Bounce from the bargain books section at my local Chapters store.  The fact that it was in the bargain section upsets me, because it indicates that the book wasn’t selling sufficiently, which is really too bad since it raises some important issues and makes many incredibly valuable points.

Summary: Bounce explores what it takes to achieve expertise in any complex task/field, using examples from both the athletic and non-athletic worlds, challenging long-held beliefs, and introducing powerful ideas that could change the world if embraced and applied.

My Take: If you read Bounce (it’s written in a fluid manner and progresses quickly) and really take it to heart, then it could very well change your life.  Incidentally, I don’t really “get” the title (it doesn’t give you any idea what’s inside, and perhaps equally significantly doesn’t entice you in any meaningful way).  Read on below to get a more detailed idea of what’s inside; I’ve captured the main ideas, but there are so many more great examples that I didn’t reproduce.


[Part I – The Talent Myth]

Chapter 1: The Hidden Logic of Success

Syed begins Bounce by recounting his own against-the-odds success story, in which from humble beginnings he rose to become Britain’s top-ranked table tennis player, a two-time Olympian, and three-time winner of the Commonwealth Games.  He then retells this story with a slightly less romantic view, one that highlights the circumstantial good fortunes (a table at home, a skilled older brother, a fantastic local coach, and a top-notch local club) that were responsible for his success.  After setting this stage, he dismantles the idea of sports as being a perfect meritocracy, and positions sporting success as a product of opportunity and practice.  Syed asks, what is talent, and introduces the reader to Anders Ericsson, a psychologist at Florida State University who has extensively studied the causes of outstanding performance.  As reported by Syed, in his studies Ericsson has found that “Purposeful practice is the only factor distinguishing the best from the rest” (p13).  That is, any complex task requires a minimum of 10 years of purposeful practice; at about 1,000 hours per year on average, that works out to 10,000 hours (popularized in the mainstream by Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers).  Why is this discovery so profoundly important?

“If we believe that attaining excellence hinges on talent, we are likely to give up if we show insufficient early promise.  And this will be perfectly rational, given the premise.  If, on the other hand, we believe that talent is not (or is only marginally) implicated in our future achievements, we are likely to persevere.  Moreover, we will be inclined to move heaven and earth to get the right opportunities for ourselves and our families: the right teacher, access to decent facilities; the entire coalition of factors that leads to the top.  And, if we are right, we will eventually excel.  What we decide about the nature of talent, then, could scarcely be more important.” (Bounce – p17)

But what about those athletes (and experts in other areas) who experience overnight success?  This is what Ericsson refers to as the ‘iceberg illusion’, “When we witness extraordinary feats of memory (or of sporting or artistic prowess), we are witnessing the end product of a process measured in years.  What is invisible to us – the submerged evidence, as it were – is the countless hours of practice that have gone into the making of a virtuoso performance.” (p22)  In his research, Ericsson sees the incredible potential of ordinary people, and the great tragedy is that most of us still believe that talent is innate.

Next, Syed tells us the story of Desmond Douglas, described as the greatest ever UK table tennis player.  Syed uses the story to illustrate how Douglas’ success is owed not (as originally suspected) to superhuman reaction time, but to the specialized development of a ‘visual chunking’ capability that experts develop only after the requisite thousands of hours of practice.  This chunking will appear throughout the book and be explained in wonderful detail.  Syed shifts sports and focuses for a bit on Roger Federer, and introduces the reader to the concepts of implicit memory (otherwise known as expert-induced amnesia) and explicit memory: “Great shot-making, then, is not about developing ‘muscle memory’; rather, the memory is encoded in the brain and central nervous system”.  Very neat stuff indeed!

Chapter 1 closes with the introduction of what is called “combinatorial explosion”, and a definition of what a ‘complex’ task is.  Syed again shifts sports, this time to ice hockey and Wayne Gretzky in particular.  Syed quotes The Great One, “The highest compliment that you can pay me is to say that I worked hard every day…That’s how I came to know where the puck was going before it even got there.”

Chapter 2: Miraculous Children

We’ve all seen stories about child prodigies – children who display remarkable innate talent in a particular field.  Well, prepare to change how you think about these stories.  Using one of the most famous child prodigies in history, Mozart, as a subject, Syed shows how stories of child prodigies are actually fanciful marketing and in fact add further support to the 10,000 hour rule.  To provide more evidence, Syed runs through other examples, including Tiger Woods, Venus and Serena Williams, and David Beckham, illustrating in every case how the remarkable success was based on nothing more remarkable than accumulating the requisite hours of purposeful practice.

For those still not sold on the claim that there is no such thing as a child prodigy, Syed presents the positively mind-blowingly amazing (seriously!) example of Laszlo Polgar and his three daughters: Susan, Sofia, and Judit.  I won’t spoil the whole story, but suffice to say that Polgar is a proponent of the purposeful-practice theory of expertise, and proved it in a unique and outrageous manner (I will never forget this story as long as I live).  Quoting Polgar, and not entirely spoiling the surprise: “People tell me the success of my daughters was pure luck.  they say it was a coincidence that a man who set about proving the practice theory of excellence in _____ just happened to beget the three most talented female _____ players in history.  Maybe some people just do not want to believe in the power of practice.” (p75)

[Update 2014-07-09: you can find the Polgar sisters on this wonderful xkcd, “Dominant Players”]

Chapter 3: The Path to Excellence

I’ve mentioned a few times the term ‘purposeful practice’, but what does it mean?  In simple terms, it means practice that is constantly pushing (and developing) your own ability, as opposed to just repeating things you can already do.  Syed returns to his personal example of training for table tennis, and his discovery of how China can produce table tennis players of incredible quality, “…they were not training longer; they were training smarter.  They were training more purposefully.” (p82)  He concludes the section by saying, “World-class performance comes by striving for a target just out of reach, but with a vivid awareness of how the gap might be breached.  Over time, through constant repetition and deep concentration, the gap will disappear, only for a new target to be created, just out of reach once again.” (p82-83)

Continuing his tour of sports, Syed switches to figure skating, to further illustrate the importance of purposeful practice:

“Purposeful practice is about striving for what is just out of reach and not quite making it; it is about grappling with tasks beyond current limitations and falling short again and again.  Excellence is about stepping outside the comfort zone, training with a spirit of endeavor, and accepting the inevitability of trials and tribulations. Progress is built, in effect, upon the foundation of necessary failure.  That is the essential paradox of expert performance.” (Bounce, p85)

Moving onto one of my personal favourite sports, Syed explains how futsal is a foundation of Brazil’s national expertise in futsal’s cousin, soccer.  From here, he shifts to basketball to illustrate some effective training techniques before stating, “It’s easy when traveling across the terrain of elite sports to be overwhelmed by the seemingly endless diversity of training methods.  But scratch beneath the surface, and you will find that all the successful systems have one thing in common: they institutionalize the principles of purposeful practice.” (p90-91)  For anyone to become a true expert in any field, they need a combination of circumstance, the right training system, appropriate facilities, and great coaching.  Note that “natural born talent” is absent from that list.

The next sub-section, tantalizingly called “Brain Transformation”, explains the actual neurological and physiological changes that result from hours of purposeful practice.  I won’t repeat the details, but they’re really very neat.  As Syed says, “The very process of building knowledge transforms the hardware in which the knowledge is stored and operated.” (p94)

Next, Syed uses a range of examples to illustrate the importance of feedback loops in training and the requirement for good training to provide the right conditions for noiseless feedback: “Feedback is, in effect, the rocket fuel that propels the acquisition of knowledge, and without it no amount of practice is going to get you there.” (p103)

To close out Chapter 3, Syed gets philosophical, first stating that “It is only in sports that the benefits of purposeful practice are accrued by individuals at the expense of the other individuals, and never by society as a whole.  But this is precisely the area in which purposeful practice is pursued with a vengeance, while it is all but neglected in the areas where we all stand to benefit.” (p110-11)  He closes the chapter with one of the more profound statements it has ever been my privilege to read:

“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.  Even if we can’t bring ourselves to embrace the idea that expertise is ultimately about the quality and quantity of practice, can’t we accept that practice is far more significant than previously thought?  That talent is a largely defunct concept?  That each and every one of us has the potential to tread the path to excellence?” (Bounce – p112)

Chapter 4: Mysterious Sparks and Life-Changing Mind-Sets

Syed begins this chapter by telling us the stories of the sparks that changed the lives of Shaquille O’Neal, Martin Sheen, Venus Williams, and Mia Hamm – the moments that caused them to internally focus on achieving greatness.  This internal motivation is a necessary condition of attaining expertise: “Sure, clocking up thousands of hours of purposeful practice ultimately determines how far we make it along the path to excellence: but it is only those who care about the destination, whose motivation is ‘internalized’, who are ever going to get there.” (p116)

But how is motivation maintained over all those hours of practice?  Carol Dweck, a professor at Stanford University and one of the most influential psychologists of modern times has the answer…and it turns out it’s all in the mind-set.  I cannot more strongly recommend that people who take my advice to read this book spend some time on pages 123-127, particularly if you are in any position of leadership (e.g. teacher, parent, coach, etc.).  As Dweck concludes, “In the growth mind-set…the hand you’re dealt is just the starting point…Although people may differ in every which way – in their initial talents and aptitudes, interests, or temperaments – everyone can change and grow through application and experience.” (p127)

Syed closes the sub-section by repeating some important points:

“The paradox of excellence is that it is built upon the foundations of necessary failure…a growth mind-set is perfectly suited to the achievement of excellence; a fixed mind-set, to the achievement of mediocrity.” (Bounce – p129)

“OK”, some readers might be thinking, “I get that mind-set is important, but can your mind-set be changed?”  The positive news is yes!  Again citing Dweck’s studies (absolutely fascinating and just mind-blowing, by the way), Syed shows just how easily one’s mind-set can be changed (but beware, because it works both ways).  In short, praising effort is good, and praising intelligence is bad.

[Part II – Paradoxes of the Mind]

Chapter 5: The Placebo Effect

Just how potent is belief in achieving success?  Very, as it happens.  Using a variety of examples, Syed arrives at the “…paradoxical conclusion that the thing that often separates the best from the rest is a capacity to believe things that are not true but which are incredibly effective.” (p154) As the great Arsenal coach Arsène Wenger says, “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.” (p169)

But how do you retain your beliefs when confronted with cold, harsh realities (such as losing a match in sports)?  It turns out that top performers learn to filter input, to focus on the good despite the presence of the bad.  The great golfer Nick Faldo puts it this way, describing what sounds very much like doublethink: “You have to be very calculating in selecting the right shot.  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.” (p177)

Chapter 6: The Curse of Choking and How to Avoid It

The annals of sports are full of unfortunate stories of athletes who have had the misfortune to choke under pressure.  Syed shares his own experience, a humiliating performance at the Sydney Olympic games, then tells the story of Greg Norman‘s epic collapse at the 1996 Masters tournament.  Why are experts sometimes reduced to performing no better than an amateur?  I’ve seen several books dedicated to the subject of choking, but I likely won’t read them because Syed describes the causes of the phenomenon in sufficient detail.  Earlier, I mentioned the concepts of implicit memory and explicit memory.  Each of these is executed in a different brain system, in literally a different part of the brain.  Syed describes that, “This migration from the explicit to the implicit system of the brain has two crucial advantages.  First, it enables the expert player to integrate the various parts of a complex skill into one fluent whole…something that would be impossible at a conscious level because there are too many interconnecting variables for the conscious mind to handle.  And second, it frees up attention to focus on higher-level aspects of the skill such as tactics and strategy.” (p191)  Personally, I’ve always been amazed at post-match interviews that have an athlete casually describe their exact thoughts and strategy during a crucial point, as I wonder how on Earth they had the time and awareness to be thinking rather than just executing.  Well, mystery explained!

In brain terms, choking occurs when the explicit memory takes over, temporarily erasing all those years of practice.  Why might this happen?  Well, the athlete might simply be thinking too much about the technique required, and this focuses the conscious mind on all the parts that will be used.  Says Sian Beilock, a psychologist at the University of Chicago, “Once [a motor skill] is de-chunked, each unit must be activated and run separately.  Not only does this process slow performance, but it also creates an opportunity for error at each transition between units that was not present in the integrated control structure.” (p195)  Again, very neat stuff.  Paradoxically, caring too much is a prime way to cause your motor skills to de-chunk at the crucial time, and to switch your brain from implicit to explicit mode.  To avoid choking, in the words of six-time World Snooker Champion Steve Davis, you have to play “as if it means nothing when it means everything”. (p200)

Chapter 7: Baseball Rituals, Pigeons, and Why Great Sportsmen Feel Miserable After Winning

This chapter begins with an examination of the preponderance of superstition in sports, listing a number of famous and funny examples (and I’m sure you can think of your own).  As an avid and active soccer player, I’m particularly repulsed by the example of goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer, who apparently has worn the same pair of shin pads since he was sixteen.

It turns out that athletes are very similar to pigeons in that “they both (witness) a random connection between a particular kind of behavior and a desired outcome, and (wrongly) inferred that the relationship was causal”. (p204)  In other words, an athlete did something once and had a good day, so kept doing that thing in perpetuity.  Syed explores the evolutionary roots of this behavior, showing how it probably kept many of our ancestors alive in more dangerous times.  But why might superstitions actually prove effective?  That’s right, our good friend the placebo.

Not that I expect you to pity our (usually) well-compensated athletic heroes, but it turns out that winning often feels like the worst thing that has ever happened to an athlete.  In fact, these anticlimactic feelings of depression might be part of the constitution that allows or drives our most successful athletes to reach new heights.

[Part III – Deep Reflections]

Chapter 8: Optical Illusions and X-Ray Vision

By now, Syed has mentioned “perceptual chunking” a few times without explaining it; well, that’s about to change.  Syed quickly reviews how we humans perceive the world, and asks what it is that makes top athletes seem to perceive faster, smarter and deeper than the rest of us?  Syed explains, using more scientific studies, that knowledge is embedded in perception, so experts in any field (e.g., firefighters, tennis players, etc.) literally see and hear the world (in their area of expertise) differently than non-experts.  Again, we’re touching on implicit changes in the brain that are the result of 10,000 of purposeful practice.  This phenomenon is why experts are able to apply the conscious mind to other tasks, like thinking about strategy, while the rest of us would be struggling to perform.

Syed closes this chapter by discussing the phenomenon of inattentional blindness, which is blindness to everything except the single thing on which you’re focused.  Inattentional blindness occurs because our attention has a fixed capacity.  He brings up some powerful examples, including the famous basketball video (an attention test) and the tragic case of Eastern Airlines Flight 401.

Chapter 9: Drugs in Sport, Schwarzenegger Mice, and the Future of Mankind

Shifting gears a bit, Syed tells us the tale of Heidi Krieger, including unsettling details of her unwitting participation in a massive athletic doping program carried out by East German authorities during the 1980s.  Using this story as a springboard, Syed wades into moral territory, beyond sports, and into the general area of human enhancement.  He asks, “Do these arguments demonstrate that all performance-enhancing technologies are suspect?  Do enhancements compromise the ‘dignity’ and ‘humanity’ of those who use them?  Before answering these questions, consider this one instead: What if performance-enhancing technologies were available, not merely to athletes, but to you and me?  What if they offered the prospect not merely of greater strength and speed but of increased intelligence and longer life?  Would you still be opposed? Would you refuse to take them on moral grounds?  Would you want them to be banned by the state in the same way that performance-enhancing drugs are banned by sporting authorities?” (p244-245)

Syed moves beyond drugs and into gene-technologies including gene therapy and anti-aging techniques.  If this sounds far-fetched or out of place in Bounce, consider that some authorities believe that there are already athletes who have undergone gene-enhancement (p247).  Near the end of the chapter, Syed announces that, “The human race stands at the dawn of a new era of evolution, which, instead of being driven by the forces of natural selection, is directed by biotechnical intervention.” (p250)

Chapter 10: Are Blacks Superior Runners?

Syed uses this chapter to address some questions that readers might have raised, and to address some long-held and utterly offensive stereotypes.  First, he obliterates the notion that that “blacks”, as a broad racial group, share genetic characteristics that make them predisposed to athletic success and states: “For decades scientists and laypeople believed that racial groups possessed unique genetic traits not shared by other groupings, but this has been proved to be entirely without foundation.” (p265) Anticipating objections from readers, he shows how there are some conclusions that can be drawn about particular groups being disproportionately high-achievers, but that this achievement is localized to very precise geographic origins and is actually the result of (you guessed it) countless hours of purposeful practice.

Syed then details a sordid history of racial bias, using many examples, and shows how many legendary black athletes were famous (or infamous, at the time) not for challenging society’s biases about athletic supremacy, but instead by challenging society’s intellectual prejudices.  Syed successfully shows that “the notion of black athletic superiority can be seen, not as a harmless scientific error, but as an idea with a powerful and pernicious history.” (p282)

Next, Syed shows how powerfully stereotypes influence our view of the world, and closes the book by saying, “It is all too easy to assume that racial patterns of success and failure are grounded in genetics, but the point of this chapter is to suggest that subtler and more elusive forces are at work.  The tendency to see black and white as genetic types (which, to a large extent, underpins racial stereotyping) has long been contradicted by the findings of population genetics.  If we could only ditch our race-tinted spectacles, the world would not only look very different, it would soon become very different, too.” (p286)

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Posted in Books, Everything, Leadership, Sports
10 comments on “Book Report: “Bounce”
  1. […] For the most part, people see the value in these initiatives (or at least can’t be bothered to disagree), but every so often I get challenged to explain the benefits. On one recent occasion, in mid-explanation, I recalled a useful example from one of my favourite books. […]

  2. […] Bounce: Mozart, Federer, Picasso, Beckham, and the Science of Success (Matthew Syed) […]

  3. […] love it when the talent theory of expertise gets kicked in the face, like it does on p275-276: “It’s less about the selection […]

  4. […] failure is just a necessary part of growth; as we learned in Bounce, “The paradox of excellence is that it is built upon the foundations of necessary […]

  5. […] are entire books on the subject of choking, and it was addressed quite thoroughly in Bounce. Here’s my write-up on the relevant […]

  6. […] subconscious performance training and physiological expertise you’ve developed. Recall that Bounce describes how “Great shot-making…is encoded in the brain and central nervous […]

  7. […] of games like chess, but also in sports”. If this sounds familiar, it’s because it is: Bounce definitely talks about it (at length), and I assume Outliers does but (gasp!) I haven’t read […]

  8. […] your tone…there are so many things you can do to increase your effectiveness: learn them, and practice them, and apply them at every […]

  9. […] me, #7 and #9 really stood out.  Bounce really drove home the importance of feedback and purposeful practice, and practice obviously plays […]

  10. […] recent years, however, and thanks to books like Outliers, Talent is Overrated, and (especially) Bounce, I’ve come to understand how expertise is truly attained.  I’ve also developed a deep […]

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