My quest to uncover the meaning and question the validity of talent continues!
I’ve been reading an excellent book by a two-time Olympic table tennis champion, BBC commentator and journalist, Matthew Syed. The book is called Bounce: Mozart, Federer, Picasso, Beckham, and the Science of Success.
Here are a few key points from the book:
- Physical skills such as reaction time, which would be seemingly transferable if inborn, in fact do not transfer to other areas. For example, the author explains that his lightning-quick reaction impulses in table tennis do not carry over when he plays “regular” tennis.
- Physical equipment such as “amazing hands” in tennis are not, in fact, inborn, but rather are the result of amazing coordination between the brain and the nervous system, created and honed through hours of intense practice.
- Expert performers step outside of their comfort zones continually, in order to make progress. Even given their extraordinary ability, they constantly attempt new challenges that are just outside their ranges. I.e., expert skaters fall more often than average skaters do.
- 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.
Notwithstanding the amazing benefits of deliberate practice, Syed cautions against the so-called “Tiger Moms” (and dads). He writes, “It is only possible to clock up meaningful practice if an individual has made an independent decision [author’s emphasis] to devote himself to whatever field of expertise. He has to care about what he is doing, not because a parent or a teacher says so, but for its own sake. Psychologists call this ‘internal motivation,’ and it is often lacking in children who start too young and are pushed too hard. They are, therefore, on the road not to excellence but to burnout.”
Sports scientist Peter Keen concurs, “Starting kids off too young carries high risk…The only circumstances in which very early development seems to work is where the children themselves are motivated to clock up the hours, rather than doing so because of parents or a coach. The key is to be sensitive to the way the child is thinking and feeling, encouraging training without exerting undue pressure.”
The findings shared in this book are exciting, hopeful news for anyone who has ever considered attempting a new activity, but was afraid that they “didn’t have the talent for it!” As it turns out, a strong desire to learn, coupled with good practice, may outweigh the importance of talent after all.