June 2010

It’s true: practice makes perfect

By Matthew Syed
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Who knows what accolades you’d garner if, like Beethoven, you’d been perched on a piano bench for hours on end at age three or, like Tiger Woods, you swung a club when barely out of diapers? In Bounce, Matthew Syed challenges the conventional wisdom that says some people are just born prodigies. Instead, he argues convincingly that it’s practice, practice, practice that begets talent: “You can only purchase access to this prime neural real estate by building up a bank deposit of thousands of hours of purposeful practice.”

Syed bolsters his premise with examples of the early influence of parents and practice on those we exalt as “naturals.” Beethoven, Picasso, the Williams sisters and others were all handed the tools of their trade in toddlerhood, and all put in well above the threshold of 10,000 hours of concerted practice that research shows is the crossover point to “world-class status” in a complex task (a premise also explored in Malcolm Gladwell’s 2008 bestseller Outliers). Syed, the British number-one table tennis champion in 1995 and an Olympic athlete, provides information from studies and statistics, but also speaks from experience. He’s the first to tell you that his impressive athletic attributes were not granted at birth, but were honed over time.

While his book addresses well-known names in sports, chess and the arts, Syed also connects his premise to occupations such as piloting airplanes and fighting fires, in which years on the job develop “the kind of knowledge built through deep experience . . . encoded in the brain and central nervous system” that beginners do not have: the instinct, for example, that tells a seasoned fire chief to pull his men from a building seconds before it collapses in flames.

Syed gives a nod to Gladwell’s “marvelous book” while he bounces in a different direction, focusing on the science of competition and tackling questions like why even the greats sometimes “choke” under pressure. With commentary on topics ranging from meaningful practice to the moral and ethical implications of performance-enhancing drugs, Bounce is a philosophical and thought-provoking book.

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By Matthew Syed
ISBN 9780061723759

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