dethroning talent?

I’VE JUST STARTED reading Matthew Syed’s Bounce: the myth of talent and the power of practice.  Some time ago I read an article  he had written on the subject, and been so fascinated that I had fished out my pink polka dot notepad and made a note of 1) his name and 2) the title of his book – Bounce itself, no less.

I’m still only on chapter one, because I keep pausing to think.  Do you know the kind of book I mean?  The sort where you tip your head, exhale, put it down on your lap with a thump while you stare into thin air.

Since I  have not progressed even to chapter two, it seems a little odd to comment  on it yet, but…

We live in a culture which glamorizes talent, recognises ‘natural’ gifting, praises those with such obvious potential.  But with convincing and persuasive argument, backed up by examples and intriguing experiments, Syed suggests that talent is overrated.  It is practice that makes us good at things.  If someone seems to have a real ‘talent’ for something, it is likely that they have in fact simply been given more opportunity for practice – a headstart, a fast forward at a point in their lives which leads more opportunities, more headstarts, more practice.

This may initially feel discomfiting.  As if our natural ‘talents’ are being dismissed.  But you can look at it the other way.  So often we dismiss our ability to achieve in certain areas, but Syed’s contention is that with enough practice, we can all excel at whatever that activity may be.    If we think talent is what counts, we tend to give up earlier and more easily.  We never give ourselves the chance to find out if we could be better – if we could get better.  And even if we seem to have a natural ‘talent’ for something, we will never really excel unless we practise at it.

I’m not explaining it very well, but the book is fascinating and detailed in its proposal.  My initial reading, so far, has made me consider the nature of potential, and how we often give up on ourselves. Syed says that

the tragedy is that most of us are still living with flawed assumptions: in particular we are labouring under the illusion that expertise is reserved for special people with special talents, inaccessible to the rest of us. – Matthew Syed, Bounce

But if you’re thinking it sounds like a self-help book, it isn’t – at least it doesn’t seem to be. It’s an observation on how we perceive ourselves and our abilities, and a challenge to that perception.

I will continue reading with interest…


6 thoughts on “dethroning talent?

  1. Perpetua says:

    A very interesting premise, Lucy, with a lot of truth in it. Yes, there is inborn talent, like my eldest grandson who could sing in tune almost before he could talk and who has perfect pitch, but it’s sheer hard work and constant practice which has him preparing for grade 6 exams in two instruments at the age of 12. Our want-it-now (preferableywithout too much hard work) society is doing us no favours.


  2. angalmond says:

    I am really bothered about children I know who think that they do not have to work hard or practise at things, because they expect become successful overnight through winning the X-factor or something. 150 years ago, the ‘Protestant work ethic’ encouraged industry and effort, and people didn’t expect something-for-nothing.
    As Perpetua says, society is doing us no favours.

    great post – blessinsg x


  3. Joe Lenton says:

    To really reach the top of your game in most spheres I’d say that you need a fair bit of both. In my experience of teaching especially it is a combination of the two that produces the best results. Some people can work as hard as they like at certain things and never get beyond the most basic level. Simply put, they have no gifting for that thing – although they will naturally be gifted or talented in other areas. Likewise, sometimes you come across someone with incredible talent but lacking the discipline and perseverance to excel. Hard work can achieve a great deal, even if there isn’t much natural talent there in the first place. Often, less talented people do better because they work harder. But, I’d still say that we all have a ceiling of some kind and talent helps to raise that ceiling a bit higher. This is also important if we bring this into the realm of Christian “gifting” – we mustn’t all assume that we can only ever preach, pray or whatever if we have loads of natural talent for it. But, we should not assume that anyone can be a regular preacher, etc. simply by working hard. We all have areas we are better at – let’s not risk making us feel like failures for not trying hard enough (although I totally take the cultural points about “reality” shows, etc going too far the other way).


  4. red says:

    interesting… a friend recommended this to me: M Gladwell ‘Outliers’ – the story of success, which basically sounds very similar to ‘bounce’, he believes that anyone can be a genius by doing 10,000 hours of practice at anything. He tries to debunk the theory that people have a ‘natural’ talent for anything. Personally I go for the latter, I think people CAN have an inbuilt talent that makes something easier for them, but I also recognise that anyone can improve by practising… (I havent read the book yet, its on my Christmas list!!)


  5. Lucy Mills says:

    Will have to post some more thoughts on this soon…slight glitch as had to take back to library, but was interested enough to buy my own copy. The practice he talks about is not just any practice – it’s purposeful, motivated practice. I shall have to try and encapsulate what he says about this at some point!


Comments welcome!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.