Bounce – The myth of talent and the power of practice
Matthew Syed: Journalist, broadcaster and author of Bounce.
Matthew open by talking about his experiences playing table tennis (he played in two Olympics and was Commonwealth games singles champion three times) and how we might be lured into watching table tennis and thinking that top players are naturally gifted with super-fast reactions. Matthew shared an experience of facing Michael Stich on the tennis court, and asking Michael to serve to him at full speed, with Matthew fully expecting that his natural fast reactions would help him to return the serve. The reality was that the ball went whistling past his ear, without him having time to react. This experience was later recreated in lab conditions, where it became clear why Matthew couldn’t return the serve; he was carefully watching the ball as it was tossed in the air and came flying towards him. Top tennis players don’t do that; they watch the upper body of their opponent (and their postural orientation) and then use this information to predict where the ball is going to go. Matthew then tried to do this on a simulator but it didn’t work at first. However, if he continued to practice then he would build up a body of learning that would help him improve. It isn’t some magical talent that helps tennis players excel, it is experience, practice, knowledge, learning, and feedback.
Success isn’t just something that comes to a group of people who are naturally talented and believing the myth of talent can be very disempowering. There are two distinct mindsets that we see in people:
Fixed: A belief that to be really good at something, you have to have a lot of natural talent and aptitude. Unfortunately, this can make us complacent (e.g. when young footballers make it to a premier league football academy and start to coast because they believe that their success is simply a result of their natural talent). People with a fixed mindset are often impressed by effortless talent, and admire people who seem to succeed without trying. Sadly, this mindset can be used as a great excuse by people, who can then use their ‘lack of natural talent’ as an excuse for not putting in the work to succeed. If you have fixed mindset, failure can be seen as an absolute disaster (rather than a learning opportunity) as you can perceive failure as fundamentally questioning your talent. People who have a fixed mindset are often reluctant to admit to any weaknesses.
Growth: A belief that you get out what you put in, and that you can succeed with plenty of practice and with feedback that supports the learning experience. People with a growth mindset don’t look for excuses, they look for how to achieve. We all have massive potential to succeed, to grow and expand if the environment is right. People with a growth mindset are much more open to acknowledging their weaknesses and accepting feedback.
Matthew believes that shifting from a fixed to a growth mindset is one of the hottest topics in corporate culture, and he shared two contrasting organisational illustrations of the mindsets at work:
Aviation has seen massive improvement in safety over the years, and Matthew believes that the deepest explanation for this is a deep-rooted cultural one; a willingness to learn. Pilots and air traffic controllers see the world as complex, meaning that they have to learn from every opportunity (from accidents and other events).
Healthcare is, Matthew suggested, somewhat different. If you die in surgery, the surgeon might say ‘we did everything we could’ and ‘there were complications’. People are dying because of the lack of a sufficient learning culture in healthcare.
The growth mindset is so important for leaders. If leaders have a fixed mindset, the that can be lured into a false belief in their own infallibility which can be dangerous (e.g. if a leader creates a strategy and then ignores evidence that the strategy is wrong).
Matthew closed with the story of how lots of table tennis players came from one road in the UK. This wasn’t due to some freak accident of geography or genetics; it was down to the availability of a table tennis club which was open 24 hours a day.
Talent is not unimportant, but it is one ingredient is a vast recipe that leads to success. Too much reliance on the myth of talent can lead people and organisations into a fixed mindset with all of the problems that causes. A growth mindset is key.
(This was live-blogged during a session at the European HR Directors Business Summit 2015 in Barcelona – I’ve tried to capture a faithful summary of the highlights for me but my own bias, views – and the odd typo – might well creep in.)