The myth of talent

Dear colleagues,

Matthew Syed won the Commonwealth table-tennis championship three times, among other high-level accomplishments as a table-tennis player. Does this mean he is naturally talented? As told in his book Bounce, Syed eventually decided that his success was due to hard work and a series of valuable opportunities.

He had the good fortune of living in the catchment for a primary school in England where there was a teacher who was the country's top table-tennis coach. At one time, half the top table-tennis players in England were from one street and its vicinity - which alone goes against the idea that natural talent is the basis for success in a sport.

Syed had an extra advantage even before this. His parents, who did not play the game, bought a table-tennis table, and Syed played endless hours with his older brother. When he began learning under the coach, he had a big head start over other players. Then later, Syed was able to be coached by a top Chinese player who had moved to England. This top-level coaching, combined with lots of practice, propelled Syed to the top of his sport.

But maybe he has some natural advantages? Does he have faster reflexes, for example? Syed tells about Desmond Davis, the greatest ever British table-tennis player, who stands close to the table and is known for his lightning reactions. However, in tests of reflexes, Davis came out the slowest on the English team, slower even than juniors. How could he play so well? It turned out he had learned the game on tables in a cramped room in which he had no option but stand close to the table.

What makes a table-tennis player able to respond quickly is "reading" the opponent's body position and movement to anticipate where and how they will play a shot. Players learn to intuitively pick up this information and to respond accordingly even before the opponent has hit the ball. Syed could do this for table tennis - but not for other sports.

In 2004, as part of a promotional event, he had the opportunity to play tennis against German tennis star Michael Stich, and asked Stich to give him a "real" serve rather than the soft serves normal for these sorts of events. Syed describes how the tennis ball flashed by before he had even started to respond - it took less than half a second to go from Stich's racket to the other end of the court. Syed could read his opponents in table tennis, in which the response time is even shorter, just a quarter of a second, but hadn't developed the skills to do this in regular tennis.

Anyone who is highly skilled has the mental ability to "chunk", namely to grasp a pattern of elements, make sense of it and immediately act on it. Sportspeople can do it when anticipating their opponents' actions. Champion chess players can look at a chess position and immediately understand the strategic possibilities in a way that beginners cannot imagine. But the skill of chunking is highly specific to training. Syed could not chunk Stich's serve. Champion chess players cannot remember the positions of chess pieces randomly placed on the board any better than beginners.

Syed describes the pioneering work on expert performance by Anders Ericsson, who with colleagues has shown that practice is essential for anyone to reach world-class standards in any field. Very large amounts of practice are required, with 10,000 hours being the standard figure. That's 3 hours per day for a decade, or less per day over a longer period. Furthermore, not just any sort of practice will do: it has to be what Ericsson calls "deliberate practice", which means you are concentrating on what you're doing and constantly striving to improve.

Syed's book Bounce is an accessible treatment of these issues that covers some of the same ground as other popularisations of research on expert performance (see links below). Syed's treatment is special in the way he so clearly highlights the key insights in a powerful way - and in its orientation to sport, with its extra dimension of zero-sum competition.

All this applies readily to academic work. Marking essays, for example, is challenging and time-consuming for a new teacher. But after marking thousands of essays - assuming one works at improving - it becomes possible to immediately grasp the quality of an essay, seeing its strengths and weaknesses almost at a glance. This is chunking for markers. Similarly, experienced researchers can read a body of data - whether archives, novels or survey data - in a way impossible for beginners.

The implications are far-reaching. If we want to help students become much better at reading, understanding, solving problems, writing or whatever, the key is ongoing practice under the guidance of a competent teacher. Yet how many students practise skills regularly, including keeping practising when classes are over? Just doing a bit when you have to is the equivalent of an athlete only training just before events. Imagine a basketball player practising free throws in an all-nighter before a game. It's silly to imagine this could be the basis for top performance. Yet many students use this sort of "training" in their assignments, doing little or nothing for weeks and then putting in bursts of effort just before exams and due dates.

This approach only makes sense if practice makes no difference, and performance relies mostly on natural talent. Laszlo Polgar, an educational psychologist, set out to demonstrate that this belief is wrong, by using his three daughters as exemplars. He chose chess as a field in which excellence can be clearly demonstrated, and set his daughters on a course of intensive training from a young age. The result was spectacular: they became the leading female chess players in the world.

Syed remarks on an irony in the pursuit of expert performance. The area in which deliberate practice has been accepted and adopted as the fundamental training principle is competitive sport, in which the benefits from improved performance go to the winner. This is a zero-sum operation, because when one athlete wins, another loses. In contrast, in other areas, such as business, engineering and teaching, the benefits are collective. If all teachers in the world became 10% better through deliberate practice, all students benefit.

Syed says:

"This was the point Laszlo Polgar was making in the days before he conducted his great experiment. He urged his colleagues at school and in local government to adopt his ideas, arguing that they could transform performance across society. He could see the ways in which the wider benefits would accumulate, how they could be magnified over time, and yet he spent years frustrated by an inability to get anyone to take him seriously. ... He was suggesting that everyone has the capacity for excellence, with the right opportunities and training. His problem was that nobody believed him - and, to a very large extent, they still don't. Almost twenty years after his eldest daughter became the first female grandmaster in chess, Polgar's insights are repudiated by most academics and ignored by society, despite a growing avalanche of evidence in support. To put it simply: the talent theory of expertise continues to reign supreme." (pp. 103-104)

The talent theory is certainly dominant in schools and universities, where reference is made to gifted children and to top students, with the assumption that excellence is a reflection of innate capacity rather than hard work. Yet, if we take seriously the research on deliberate practice and expert performance, the implications are profound. In our own teaching and research, rather than spending nearly all our time doing tasks, we would spend much more time practising them. Yet how many academics spend much time practising giving their lectures and running tutorials, obtaining regular feedback on their performance, compared to the time they spend running their classes?

Then there is the question of what skills students are learning. How many are learning the capacity to engage in deliberate practice to build their skills and their ability to learn? Very few students understand that consistent practice is the key to long-term improvement: their learning is sporadic at best. Any athlete or chess player who trained the way a typical student studies would not have a chance of reaching the highest ranks.

This points to the opportunity for a far-sighted university administrator: set up a programme for sustained deliberate practice in one or more units. Some years down the track, the returns in terms of improved performance would be outstanding. Other universities and units, subscribing to the myth of talent, would be left behind.

Instead, university managers continue to search for talent, trying to pick winners in student recruitment, staff appointments, allocation of research grants, setting up of research concentrations and much else. Instead, it would be much more promising to recruit on the basis of a demonstrated capacity to maintain effort in training for improvement.

Syed reports the eye-opening research by Carol Dweck on mindsets: those with a growth mindset, who believe that excellence comes from hard work, are much more likely to keep going after failure, whereas those who believe in natural talent are, when confronted with failure, more likely to give up or not try at all.

Syed: "Excellence is about striving for what is just out of reach and not quite making it; it is about grappling with tasks beyond current limitations and falling short again and again. The paradox of excellence is that it is built upon the foundation of necessary failure. The implication hardly needs spelling out. A growth mindset is perfectly suited to the achievement of excellence; a fixed mindset, to the achievement of mediocrity." (p. 120)

For those with interests in sport, there is much more in Bounce that is fascinating. Athletes need to psych themselves up for competition by believing they will win, even though the odds are against them. To take advantage of the placebo effect, they need to be able to switch psychologically from unrealistic to realistic thinking. Syed also tells about how to deal with choking, when an athlete melts down due to consciously thinking about what they are doing rather than relying on their intuitive reflexes, recounting his own horrible experience at the Sydney Olympics. He tells about the ubiquity of drug use in sport and, in a chapter titled "Are blacks superior runners?", delves into genetic explanations for sporting success. Bounce is highly engaging. Not so easy, though, is applying the ideas about the power of practice when most others believe in the myth of talent.

Most people, after learning a basic skill, coast along at a basic level. They use their skills without consciously trying to improve them. Most new drivers build up to a basic level of competence and then just drive at that level, without striving to improve as drivers. The same applies to much teaching, research work and management. People go through a training period and then operate at the level they've achieved, without continually pushing to improve. It is the continual push to do better that is behind top-level performance in every domain.

In the absence of an organised training programme, individuals need to rely on their own initiative, something that requires both knowledge and willpower. You can ask yourself, "Do I want to continually improve?" If not, end of story. If so, you can ask, "Am I consciously working on my skills nearly every day?" and "Am I receiving regular feedback on my efforts from a knowledgeable practitioner?" Remember Syed and the concentration of top British table-tennis players in one small locality, due to the presence of an outstanding coach. Unless you're lucky, you won't be in such a situation without making ongoing efforts to create a personal environment for maximal learning.

This applies at all levels of performance from neophyte to expert. Nearly all top sportspeople have coaches - they don't try to excel on their own. So why should it be any different in a university?


Brian Martin
17 June 2012


Matthew Syed, Bounce: the myth of talent and the power of practice (London: Fourth Estate, 2010)

See also

David Shenk, The genius in all of us: why everything you've been told about genetics, talent, and IQ is wrong (Doubleday, 2010). Brian's comment

Geoff Colvin, Talent is overrated: what really separates world-class performers from everybody else (Penguin, 2010). Brian's comment

Daniel Coyle, The talent code. Greatness isn't born. It's grown. Here's how (Bantam, 2009)

Carol S Dweck, Mindset: the new psychology of success (Ballantine, 2006). Brian's comment

K. Anders Ericsson, Neil Charness, Paul J. Feltovich and Robert R. Hoffman (eds.), The Cambridge handbook of expertise and expert performance (Cambridge University Press, 2006). Brian's comment

Acknowledgements Thanks to Scott Burrows, Jessica Mantei and especially Lisa Slater for valuable feedback on a draft.

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