Mini-review: Bounce, by Matthew Syed

I just finished reading Bounce: Mozart, Federer, Picasso, Beckham, and the Science of Success, by Matthew Syed. Syed is a journalist and a several-time Olympic competitor in table tennis. In this book, he makes a great case that practice is what builds skill, with “talent” or “aptitude” often being mostly fiction. I recommend the book–the content is valuable, and it’s an enjoyable read.

Syed offers a number of interesting case studies. A few among them:

  • His own experience–in retrospect, he wasn’t exceptionally talented, but had the right opportunities for a lot of coaching and practice.
  • “Clusters” of elite runners–determined not by genetics, but by environment and experience.
  • An educational psychologist who set out to prove that training, not talent, determines chess skill. Before he was even married, he proposed to train his children to elite levels of skill. Two of his daughters held the top two rankings of female chess players in the world.

Syed also offers some other great nuggets. Among them, he looks into why high-level athletes “choke”, apparently losing all ability to play, and why athletic skill isn’t necessarily transferable across sports. In a great anecdote, he describes deploying his table-tennis reaction times against a tennis player’s famous high-speed serve. The results…well…didn’t convince him to switch sports.

Bounce echoes themes of psychologist Carol Dweck’s research, much of which is presented in her book Mindset. I highly recommend Dweck’s book as well (despite a fair amount of “fluff”), both for personal growth and parenting. I expect there’s also a fair amount of overlap with Geoff Colvin’s The Talent Code, but haven’t yet read Colvin’s book.

 

It’s all practice

On quizzes and big exams

When I was in college, most of my grades were based on some combination of assignments, quizzes, and–heavily weighted–the mid-term and final exams. If I bombed a quiz, I wasn’t happy about it, but it wasn’t a major disaster. If I’d completely failed a final exam, though, it would have been a Big Deal.

In the years after college, I sat for the three levels of the CFA exams. Multiple months of focused study, a cost of $600 for a given exam, a six-hour proctored exam given only once* a year, driving up to Kansas City the night before to stay in a hotel close to the test center…for me, passing these exams qualified as a Big Deal.

The thing is, I didn’t actually sit for three CFA exams–I took somewhere between six and a dozen exams, across the three levels. Fortunately for my sanity, my work, and my marriage, most of these exams were “practice” exams–exams that I “proctored” for myself, that I graded myself, and that I used to figure out what areas I still needed to work on for a given level. By the time I sat for the “real” exam, I at least had a good idea of the “shape” of my knowledge, and a very general idea of how I might fare on the officially administered exam.

When I finally sat for a given level of the exam, failing it would not have been fun–but, if I’d failed and re-enrolled for the same level the next year, the first try would have given me both resources and lessons to help in the second round.

You see, life is practice. Very rarely is a “test” really a final exam. Losing a job, failing in business, damaging a relationship, missing a big opportunity–each is unpleasant, but each is recoverable

Galton boards and conscious navigators

I find it easy to think of life as though it’s a Galton board. You’ve probably seen one, though, like me, you might not have known what it was called. It’s a triangle of steel pins, where a marble dropped into the top of the triangle falls in a random sequence of “lefts” and “rights” on its way to the bottom of the board. And once a ball falls on the left side of a pin, a part of the right side of the board is forever closed off…and another leftward fall closes off more of the right forever. And there’s some truth in this. If you let yourself get addicted to drugs or alcohol, it’s really, really hard to move out of that section of the board.

Galton board
A Galton board

As like a Galton board as life may be, though, we aren’t falling marbles under gravity’s control. We can–through our own volition, and sometimes through others’ interventions, take unexpected paths through the maze. We can backtrack, take unexpected paths, sometimes even jump across gaps in the maze. We might be falling through Galton’s maze, and gravity and randomness can predict a lot about where we’ll end up–but they don’t necessarily get the final word. If I start with a couple of rightward choices, I could still end up at the far left of the board. Choices matter, but they’re usually much closer to quizzes than to final exams.

a Galton board with the ball taking unexpected paths
A conscious path

Practice well

Of course, your life will ultimately end, and it will be somewhere between “wonderfully lived” and “wasted”. But until the grades are turned in, it’s all practice.

Interesting reads

Feedback

Please let me know your thoughts. If you want to affirm or elaborate on what I’ve written, to express disagreement with it, or to help sharpen my writing or thinking, I’d love to hear from you.

Footnotes

* Actually, Level 1 of the CFA exam is given twice a year, in June and December; the subsequent levels are only in June.

Make It Stick: What is learning, anyway?

This post is one of an (intended) collection interacting with the book Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning. All in the collection are linked from the Introduction post.

So, I’m thinking and writing about the book Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning. The title itself raises one question that’s worth thinking about: what is “learning”? What does it mean to “learn”?

Learning is most effective when it’s effortful, something we’ll examine more closely later. For the moment, though, that has one simple implication: this post will be most useful for you if you stop and think for a bit before continuing. What does it mean to learn? Why would you want to learn?

I thought of several kinds of learning:

  • The learning of a skill: welding, disease diagnosis, software design, coding in C++.
  • The learning of knowledge: the history of the USA, the mechanics of the immune system, the value of pi.

And a few things that don’t feel like they’re “really learning”:

  • Shallow memorization of facts. This is hard to pin down, but a story from my “physical sciences” class might help. In a section on electricity, the assignment was to wire up circuits in various configurations and record the relative brightness of a bulb tied into those circuits. Wanting to save some time (and, probably, being an arrogant kid at the time), I started writing in some of the results before we’d actually gotten around to doing the experiments, astonishing some of the others in my group. I’m guessing we all “knew” the facts about voltage, current, resistance, and brightness, but in that particular case, cocky-kid-Joel had that knowledge more available for use than the others in the group.
  • Extremely short-lived learning. This is the kind of thing you get when you’ve crammed for a test, did well, and lose almost all of it within days. Or, when you get to the end of an enjoyable lecture or sermon and think, “That was really good! But…um…what was it about again?”
  • Although it’s still learning of a sort, “misdirected learning” is another interesting category. Examples include learning how to read a word in another language when your top desire is to produce it (they’re connected, but different skills), or the ability to remember a fact when asked a question phrased “just right”, but not when you want to use it in real life.

Thinking of those examples, it’s interesting to note their interrelationships: skills usually depend on some sort of base of knowledge, and the ability to acquire knowledge is a skill. Shallow memorization, short-lived memory, and misdirected learning form their own constellation of interwoven cause and effect.

And so, here’s my tentative definition of learning. I…um…don’t remember whether the authors of Make It Stick actually define what they mean by “learning”, but I’m guessing their definition would at least be similar to mine.

Learning is the long-lasting acquisition of skills or knowledge, in a form accessible and useful when such skills or knowledge are relevant.

My first draft of this definition specified that the skills or knowledge should “affect the way one thinks or acts”–but that leaves a lot of ambiguity. For example, if you learn pi to a thousand digits, does that make a difference in the way you think or act? If you know that Laika was the first dog in orbit, does that make a difference? Like Scott Young, I actually like “useless” knowledge and believe that a lot of “useless” knowledge is useless only because one hasn’t yet found a use. Digits of pi can be wonderful if you need a quick proxy for random numbers. Laika’s story is one episode in the Space Race story, a part of what’s shaped Russia, America, and the world. The revised definition lets Laika hang out in the back of your mind most of the time, informing your understanding of Russo-American history and waiting to emerge when she’s needed for a Trivial Pursuit question. It lets the digits of pi wait around as static, “useless” but accessible knowledge that you’ve learned. But, if you’ve “learned” the math of voltage and current but can’t predict that a higher voltage will light a bulb more brightly, that knowledge isn’t in a useful form and thus doesn’t count as “learned”.

What do you think–what does it mean to “learn” something? What categories have I missed? Are there times when it’s worthwhile to “learn” something in a way that doesn’t meet my definition?

Synthesize, don’t harmonize.

It goes by many names–the false dichotomy, the either/or when you should be thinking both/and, first things and second things. We have a mental weakness–we’re fine with exposure to various ideas, but we want them to combine into perfectly harmonized chords.

Perhaps we should be trying to synthesize ideas rather than to harmonize them. To synthesize literally means to put together; we’ve added a connotation of putting things together in a way that makes sense. To harmonize ideas is to make them fit together. The problem is, ideas aren’t always mutually consistent in themselves; they may each be true within specific contexts or in specific ways. Sometimes, we simply need to hold several mutually inconsistent ideas. Don’t force them to premature consistency; don’t stop asking why they seem both true and inconsistent, or on what underlying framework they both might fit.

When two ideas are in conflict, consider that the “opponents” may actually be on the same team, but playing by rules you don’t yet know. You have a deep framework, a network of ideas that makes up who you are. Some ideas are easily wired into the structure; others require a lot of reorganization. As your framework gets more complex, you gain in ability to process ideas. Apparent conflicts are a gift, forcing you to increase your mental abilities in order to handle them. Embrace this chance to grow.

Immunity to Change

…fully titled Immunity to Change: How to Overcome It and Unlock the Potential in Yourself and Your Organization, by Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey.

Immunity to Change is like many of the “personal growth” books I’ve read: the big ideas of the book make it worth sorting through the fluff. Like a number of books of this kind, it spends a lot of time telling you about why the ideas are worthwhile. But, the many stories and examples do help to bridge from “head” to “heart”.

The big ideas of Immunity to Change are:

  • We have the ability to grow, increasing our ability to process complex situations, throughout our lives.
  • Our environment brings an increasing need to deal with complexity. The book looks at three levels of complexity, and intends to move its users to higher levels on the spectrum. The first is the socialized mind, who relies on others for direction. Next is the self-authoring mind, an independent person who  has a vision in mind, holds himself accountable to it, and recruits others to it. Finally comes the self-transforming mind, who uses the tools of the self-authoring mind but seeks to continually learn. He can hold competing ideas in his mind, and is aware that efficiently achieving the wrong vision is of no value. He learns from others, and is interdependent with them. He is able to look at some of the mindsets that he could previously only look through.
  • Some problems can’t be solved by technical learning, but must be approached adaptively. Most of us know how to lose weight (the technical solution): eat fewer calories and burn more of them. Many of us, though, need to adapt–to change who we are and how we think–in order to actually lose weight. We need different tools for adaptive solutions than for technical ones.
  • Most problems requiring adaptive solutions come from a mental “immune system”, which is protecting hidden goals. For example, you might sincerely want to lose weight, but your eating habits reflect that you just as sincerely want not to be perceived–by others or yourself–as “a health nut”.  Those commitments in turn are driven by assumptions, which you can test–and in so doing, possibly change the way you look at the world.
  • Part of the book’s value is in the processes it lays out–processes for engaging in adaptive change. It’s easy to say “yeah, I need to change the way I think about this”, but it’s hard to actually make such a change. Immunity to Change lays out a process for figuring out what your “competing commitments” and the assumptions beneath them are, and then for figuring out whether they’re valid.
  • Both individuals and groups can have “immunities to change”. The processes for figuring out immunities are similar, but looking at group immunities and assumptions does need its own process–which the authors describe separately.
Overall, I do recommend this book. It feels like it could be trimmed down quite a bit, but its core ideas of “immunity to change” and of developing mental complexity make it worth reading. The concrete steps for figuring out your own or your organization’s immunities to change, how they may be harming you, and how to change them if they are are invaluable. The book’s premises echo the ideas in Carol Dweck’s Mindset, and you’d likely find synergy in reading the two together. I also found A Sense of Urgency, by John Kotter, to be a synergistic read with this book (with a similar blend of “fluff” and substance). I hope to write about both books in the next while.
This post exceeds Godin’s minimal “paragraph a day” for the last few days. I really do want to write sustainably, so I’ll try to pace myself–i.e., it may be a few days before the next post.