Mon, 2011-12-05 09:11
I’ve just read a very interesting book.
It’s titled ‘Bounce: The Myth of Talent” by Matthew Syed, and was picked up almost entirely on a whim while scrabbling around for something to read on the train. It deals with a number of theories and predominantly with the idea of natural born talent – or rather, the absence of it. Instead, it claims that ‘gifts’ are actually the result of incredible hard work and fortuitous chains of events in the lives of those we regard as ‘talented’.
(A classic example from the book is that of Mozart. A child prodigy, sure – but did you know his father was an accomplished musician himself? And not only that, but a musician with a specific interest in methods used to teach music to children? I certainly didn’t. Mozart had thousands of hours of practise under his belt by the time he hit eight years old – not a gift from nowhere).
Anyway, I’m not here to recycle the contents of the book to you in this post – as easy as that would be – but there were a couple of positive things I took away from my reading of it that I thought I might share.
Work hard to achieve
Wow, I hear you say. Work hard. Tell us something new, James. Well, yes, okay, this is generally accepted doctrine, especially in parkour. It’s the limits that you believe working hard can get you to that might be causing you trouble though.
The idea that someone is ‘gifted’ in a certain field is incredibly widespread and perfectly believable. We all know someone who excels seemingly without effort or without failure. But, apparently, this is nearly always masking an underlying dedication to their training bordering on the fanatical, endless hours of hard work, and countless more spent thinking about and looking forward to further training and practise.
Now, I’ve fallen victim to this myself. I’ve seen those who I have defined as ‘naturally gifted’ and just shrugged my shoulders, thinking “well, I’ll never be as good as that, obviously, so I’ll just accept that and be as good as I can be”. But there is NO REASON why I shouldn’t get as good as anyone else on the planet with the right dedication and application. If the myth of talent is correct, then the reason these people appear ‘naturally gifted’ is because they have had so much more effective practise (more on that later) than I have. I am, in effect, just seeing the tip of the iceberg. The performance, but not the preparation. Sadly, I have then used this as an excuse for my failings; I'm not naturally suited for this, so I will accept a certain level of failure or shortcoming in myself. I'm starting to realise how silly this view is and, upon catching myself doing it, trying to change these attitudes to something more positive.
Now, it is worth noting that a counterpoint to this is that circumstances do differ between people, not talent. As a basic example, I have a full time job (sadly). I cannot train for six hours a day every day of the week as can, say, a student on break from term. The difference in our ability will no doubt be affected by such a variable. There are many variables like this that will affect your performance against somebody else.
The point is to not think you cannot do it. There is no ‘upper limit’ of your ‘natural ability’. Work hard and you can get there.
There is no failure, only feedback
Apparently, the best ice skaters are the ones that fall over the most.
Here’s a scenario for you: you’re balancing along a railing. You go for seven steps, then lose your balance and come down from the railing on the eighth step. How do you respond?
“Gah! Fell off again and I only made it seven steps along. I am obviously rubbish at balancing. I must not be built for it. I’ll never get better at this rate.”
“Okay. I went seven steps but fell off on the eighth. What was the difference between those seven steps and the eighth? What changed? What can I do to prevent it happening in the future?”
Be honest, now.
This is the idea of purposeful practise. You can repeat something endlessly, but if you’re not consciously looking at changing the mistakes you’re making and purposefully improving yourself, all you’re going to do is repeat the same actions over and over. Basically, analyse everything! Especially when you’re first learning it. Over time, movements will become ingrained in your muscle memory and feel instinctive, but until that point, be aware of the mistakes you might be making.
Think of it like learning to drive, but in your own body!
Also, push yourself. The reason I said the best ice skaters fall over the most is because they are constantly trying harder and harder techniques. They don’t rest in their comfort zone. As soon as they successfully land a double spin (I don’t know much about ice skating terminology!) they think “Great, time to try that triple spin” and instantly start falling over again attempting it. You can’t fail if you don’t try.
This is another variable that can affect ability, as mentioned in the point above. If we are both applying the same amount of time to training, but you are focusing on purposeful practise and I'm not, you will improve faster and further than I will.
Coach for effort, not talent
This one I found particularly interesting. Consider the two following statements of praise:
1. “Well done! You must be really smart to have achieved this!”
2. “Well done! You must have worked really hard to achieve this!”
While both are perfectly nice and pleasant things to hear, the subtle implications in the first statement are that your level of result was directly caused by your intellectual ability, something that we seem to regard as a fixed point. You are either smart, or dumb, or somewhere in the middle, naturally. Therefore your result is also a fixed point – you are ‘X’ smart, so you received ‘Y’ result.
The second statement, though, implies that the result you received is as a direct result of the level of effort applied to the task, and therefore it stands to reason that if you had worked even harder, you would have gotten an even better result. Or vice versa, obviously.
Can you see how the two statements could steer the attitudes of those who receive them over time? This is referred to as a ‘fixed mindset’ versus a ‘growth mindset’. Those consistently praised with statements similar to the first example end up in a fixed mindset, while those praised with the second result in a growth mindset.
There are many examples throughout the book of how this affects students that I won’t repeat, but it ultimately seems to boil down to this: a fixed mindset limits your attitude to challenge while a growth mindset encourages it. Those in a fixed mindset believe they are set as they are; this is their ability and it will not change. As a result, they shy away from harder challenges for fear of failure. Those in a growth mindset believe they can achieve anything with the appropriate level of work, and are therefore not afraid to try new challenges and, even if they still fail, will spend more time on their attempts.
I found this fascinating, and I believe it may be why parkour resonates so much with people and is often credited with widening their horizons outside the sport as well as in. I’m constantly hearing coaches praising classes for working really hard, putting in a lot of effort, and encouraging students to embrace new things and go beyond what they believe they can do. There is also the direct causal link between the work you put in and the result that comes out physically. It actively encourages a growth mindset.
I will certainly be trying to incorporate this kind of thinking it to any future coaching I do!
Read everything you can get your hands on
Seriously. An impulse buy might be one of the most fascinating things you’ve ever read. As ever though, take it in, consider it, and apply your own criteria of judgement to it. The contents of this post resonated with me because I related to the concepts discussed. If you consider it baloney, then each to their own ;)
I hope this has been as interesting to you as it was to me.
All the best,