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The hard way

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Bounce – Matthew Syed

“In January 1995, I became the British number-one table tennis player for the very first time which, I am sure you will agree, is a heck of an achievement.”

Despite what is almost certainly the worst first sentence ever written, the rest of Bounce does not quite follow its opening line into literary oblivion.  This is mostly because it is held together by an extremely compelling central idea: that there is no such thing as innate talent, and that all success in any arena that involves complex skill (e.g. sport, music, chess etc.) is predicated entirely on practice.  The author recognises early on that he has essentially stolen this from Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers and its much-vaunted “10,000-Hour Rule” – the rule that claims that the key to success in any field lies in amassing 10,000 hours of practice in that field – but he tweaks it slightly so that the focus is on the debunking of the ‘talent myth’, emphasising the ability of most humans to learn anything given enough time.

As with all interesting non-fiction, it relies on a series of anecdotal case studies that should probably be far more widely known than they are.  Here, Syed’s crown jewel is the story of Laszlo Polgar, a Hungarian pedagogue besotted with the idea that all education should be built around an emphasis on hard work as opposed to natural ability or genius.

“Children have extraordinary potential, and it is up to society to unlock it.  The problem is that people, for some reason, do not want to believe it.  They seem to think that excellence is only open to others, not themselves.”

In order to prove his point Polgar embarked on a career-defining experiment to create a “child prodigy”, and unbelievably managed to find a willing wife to cooperate in this enterprise.  Having completed the more mundane step of fathering a daughter, Susan, Polgar decided that he would turn his first-born into a chess genius by subjecting her to thousands of hours of tuition and practice, thereby showing that hard work trumps ability.  At age fourteen, Susan became the top-rated female player in the world, and later the first woman player to reach the status of grandmaster, winning four world championships and five chess Olympiads in the process, all this at a time when the chess world was plagued with an extreme prejudice against women.  But in case this wasn’t enough, Polgar’s second and third daughters, Sofia and Judit, followed their elder sister into chess apprenticeship from an early age.  Sofia is credited with one of the greatest chess performances of all time, the ‘Miracle in Rome’, when she won eight straight games against some of the best chess players at the time.  Judit, at the age of fifteen, became the youngest grandmaster, male or female, in the history of the game, and is now universally considered to be the greatest female player of all time.

Whether or not this story in and of itself proves Syed’s/Gladwell’s/Polgar’s point about the fallacy of innate talent, it is surely one of the most powerful examples of the value of practice, or at the very least of the ability of hard work to unlock underlying potential.  Either way, the ‘practice theory of excellence’ is an inherently positive idea, and, like Polgar’s tale, should probably receive far more attention than it currently does.  There is, of course, a more negative side to the theory, particularly where it involves intense training from a young age, and it is not hard to imagine that it may have been put into practice a little too forcefully in the gyms of East Berlin or the swimming pools of Hangzhou.  However, putting tiger mothers to one side, there is clearly a lot to be said for refuting the notion of innate talent, and Syed’s whole-hearted belief in this, as well as his ability to tell a story, is what makes the book readable.

The Editors

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