The myth of talent and the power of practice

Screen Shot 2014-04-24 at 09.54.26Being a champion is all about talent, right? The likes of Tiger Woods and David Beckham were born with special gifts that set them apart. 

"No" is the answer in "Bounce", a brilliant book by Mathew Syed, a former table tennis champion who now writes in The Times. Mathew uses  science to show that the key to high performance is not talent, but rather "purposeful practice". The key ideas have implications not just for sport, but for business and life in general, especially parenting and teaching.

The power of practice

To debunk the myth of talent, Mathew tells how the street he lived on produced more table tennis champions in the 1908's than the rest of the UK put together. Clearly talent and genetics couldn't explain this anomaly. The explanation was an exceptional table tennis teacher, Peter Charters, and a local club open 24 hours a day that became a hotbed of intense and sustained practice.

Research suggests that a minimum of 10 years is needed to reach world-class status in a complex task. This was turned into 10,000 hours of practice by Mathew Gladwell in his book Outliers, with 1,000 hours a year of practice being about the most anyone can squeeze in.

Practice with purpose

A second key point about practice is that it needs to be purposeful. Most of us practice stuff we can already do, and when we hit something hard we try it, fail, and move on. However, the most effective practice is when you try, try and try again something which is beyond your current capability. This is how you establish new neural connections that allow you to execute more complex tasks.

Domain expertise

Mathew also shows how high achievement requires specialisation. In many companies there is a belief that talented people can be switched from job to job to job without the need for experience and expertise. However, research done by General Electric quoted in Bounce showed that the best-performing companies value "domain expertise" – extensive knowledge in a particular field. 

This has important implication for people development. Often, the main way to get promoted in a company is to move from a specialist function into general management. Yet how often have you heard the phrase "He/she was a great marketer/sales person/financier but a crap manager. Companies should be more flexible and allow specialists to keep honing and refining their expertise, with rewards for this taking this path.

Praise effort, not talent

The power of practice over talent has huge importance in parenting, teaching and training. Mathew quotes a fascinating bit of research with schoolkids. The kids were given a maths test to do. They were then split into two groups. The only difference between the two groups was six words of feedback:

Group 1: praised for intelligence "You must be smart at this!"

Group 2: praised for effort "You must have worked really hard!"

After this, the kids were given a choice of doing a hard or easy second test. Then, they actually did a much harder test. Third, they finshed off with an easy test, the same as the first one. Finally, they wrote a summary of how many questions they got right to share with other kids.

Here are the mind boggling results:

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It turns out that praising talent makes us worry about our performance, and whether we can repeat it. In contrest, praising effort reinforces the idea that the harder we work, the better our chances of success. 

The corrosiveness of talent

Mathew shows just how corrosive a focus on talent can be through the story of Enron, the company whose leadership acted illegally over many years, leading to bankruptcy and the imprisonment of CEO Jeffrey Skilling. One explanation for the rotten culture in the business is an obsession with talent. They hired top business school graduates, rotated them across functions and gave them excessive bonuses for short term profits. Looking and acting talented was worshiped, and the idea of practice, learning and development over the long term was dismissed. Enron is an extreme example of applying the principles from McKinsey's book called "The War for Talent". McKinsey conducted 20 separate projects for Enron, billed them $10million a year and the CEO was an ex-McKinsey partner, according to a Malcom Gladwell article in the New Yorker quoted by Mathew. 

In conclusion, in sport, business and life in general, we'd be better off focusing more on the power of practice, and less on praising talent. So, the next time your son/daughter/niece/nephew shows you a nice picture they've painted, try saying "You must have worked hard to make that so beautiful", rather then "What a little Picasso you are!".