What it takes to achieve excellence

Matthew Syed plays table tennis.


Tess Vigeland: Success can be a subjective term. A lot of it depends what your own personal measure of it is. But you can't argue against Warren Buffett's success, Bruce Springsteen's or Serena Williams'. But what drives them might not be so much about talent, as it is that old chestnut about how you get to Carnegie Hall: practice, practice, in-the-zone practice.

Matthew Syed is a sports commentator at the BBC in London. And his new book "Bounce" looks at what lies behind success in sport and other endeavors. It all started with his own achievement, as England's number one table tennis champ.

Matthew Syed: It's quite a big sport in the U.K. And yet when I looked around me the other great table tennis players in the country happened to come from my street in a very enormous suburb of a very normal town in southeast England. And I thought to myself hang on a second. I knew enough about Darwinian evolution to understand that there hadn't been a genetic mutation that had only affected our street and none of the others.

Vigeland: You weren't surrounded by geniuses on every block.

SYED: Exactly. It was to do with opportunity. And in particular, the opportunity to practice with a brilliant coach in the only 24-hour day club. So all of us, that cohort in that street started out as ordinary table tennis players, but we ended up as extraordinary players.

Vigeland: You cite all kinds of endeavors and famous people who excelled at them. Mozart clocking 3,500 of practice by his sixth birthday. You talk about David Beckham kicking a soccer ball from the same spot for hours on end. So does genius come in here anywhere, or is science telling us that really that is irrelevant?

SYED: I suspect that no matter how long we probe into the DNA of these master performers we won't find anything implicated in that sequencing. What we will find is extraordinary upbringings.

Vigeland: If excellence is all about practice, and the number of hours you're putting in, is it possible to say how many hours it's going to take to become the best of the best whether you're a musician, or an athlete, or even a CEO?

SYED: The earliest, really, paradigm experiment that took place in this field was by Herbert Simon and William Chase, two academics who looked at chess players. And they discovered that nobody had reached grandmaster quicker than 10 years. And Malcolm Gladwell in his wonderful book "Outliers," he says look 10,000 hours is the magic number in order to get to the top. However, it's not 10,000 hours of any kind of practice. If you don't approach it with a voracious appetite, if you don't clock up what Anders Ericsson, a very famous psychologist from Florida, calls deliberate practice, it's not going to get you anywhere.

Vigeland: I think one of the practical applications here, you say the talent myth is disempowering because it causes individuals to give up if they don't make early progress. And your answer to that is again, look, don't worry about it, just keep practicing.

SYED: Yeah, in fact a brilliant psychologist, Carol Dweck from Stanford, has done some terrific research in this area. She took 400 fifth graders and gave them some simple puzzles. And afterwards half of them were praised for intelligence, for talent -- you must be really smart at this. The other half were praised for effort. Gosh, you must have worked really hard. Then she gave them some more difficult tasks to complete. Those who were praised for talent, for intelligence, when they come across these really difficult challenges and started struggling, they thought, oh my goodness, I don't want to lose that smart label. And it actually zapped their ability to persevere on the task. Those who were praised for effort, when they came across this really difficult problem they thought great, I can demonstrate now how hardworking I am. And they really ratcheted up their enthusiasm, kept going. So what Dweck argues very convincingly is that we must praise young people in any educational scenario for their effort and not for their talent, and try to embed what she calls the growth mindset.

Vigeland: So this is really a message to parents everywhere to stop calling your kid a genius and instead say, hey, good job for studying.

SYED: That's absolutely right. And Dweck argues that this particular experiment she's done in all parts of the United States with different ethnic groups, and the result is always the same.

Vigeland: Matthew Syed is the author of "Bounce: Mozart, Federer, Picasso, Beckham, and the Science of Success." Thanks so much. It's been fun chatting.

SYED: Thank you.

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While this article makes a lot of valid points, it's overlooking something obvious: The difference between performance and creativity.

Practice will enable you to perform something very well. For example, I'm sure all of Motzart's practicing made him a better piano player, however, I think it was less important to his ability as a composer than his innate talent and creativity and his intellectual capacity to create new music.

The is true for a lot of other things. Practicing to be a great baseball hitter won't necessarily make you a great coach. Practicing to be a great marketer or engineer doesn't necessarily mean you'll create revolutionary new products.

This interview supports the interview with David Shenk last month on "All Things Conssidered."

I think that the hippocampus has been identified as the neurological site. See the study of London cab drivers.

I teach Pre K, 4 and 5 year olds. I tell my students that they are geniuses, individually, when they accomplish a task. What is a better phrase, or 12 I can keep in my pocket to promote this concept?

Fits the idea of start early. Most excellent pianists, violinists, guitarists, and banjo pickers started early. I didn't start playing banjo until 21 years of age. Never was any good. I prefer to blame it on lack of musical ability, since I can hardly blame laziness. Okay--back to the ball game.

Fascinating. I am wondering if there has been a neurological reason given for why this extended hard work actually works at building excellence? Also, is there an evolutionary reason why this is the case - or is it an artifact of evolution?

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