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.
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.
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.
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.