Book review: Bounce: The Myth of Talent and the Power of Practise

I met a friend for drinks a while ago and she strongly recommended this book by Matthew Syed. She made me promise to read it.

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Matthew Syed is an Olympic athlete. His sport is table tennis. He writes about how he’s realised that his prowess at the sport has nothing whatsoever to do with any innate talent or any quirk of genetics but is entirely due to careful, purposeful practise.

Syed is clearly a fan of Malcolm Gladwell and references Gladwell’s book Outliers several times. Having read Gladwell’s David and Goliath, but not Outliers, I’m tempted to assume that most of Gladwell’s books are pretty same-y. There’s definitely a certain amount of overlap between Bounce and David and Goliath.

Not necessarily a bad thing. Syed is trying to make a point that many others have made in the past. In spite of being backed by strong evidence, it’s a point that continues to be ignored. The point is that talent is a bit of a myth, that experts are good at what they do because they’ve worked hard at it.

It makes sense. There’s no evidence for a gene that encodes for being good at running, or good at playing piano, or good at acting, or anything. Whereas there are countless examples of people being surprisingly good at something, only for it to turn out not to be so surprising after all, when you discover that they’ve been working at it for years.

Having come across this before I didn’t find the book to be revelatory. However, it is one I strongly recommend, whether to people who have already accepted this idea, or to people who have never heard it before. I recommend it because the idea that practise is the only way to guarantee excellence is as important as it is motivating. Syed manages to make it uplifting as well.

It’s uplifting because if you’re good at something it’s because you earned it. If you’re not good at something yet it’s because you haven’t yet practised enough but you know that you can be one day if you keep trying. That’s great for motivation. It’s great for reminding you that you might not be perfect, but you’re better than you were six months ago. It stops you from wanting to give up when things get tough.

So yeah, read it. It’s very readable non-fiction that made me want to go out and get good at things.

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