Editorial Reviews

Syed, sportswriter and columnist for the London Times, takes a hard look at performance psychology, heavily influenced by his own ego-damaging but fruitful epiphany. At the age of 24, Syed became the #1 British table tennis player, an achievement he initially attributed to his superior speed and agility. But in retrospect, he realizes that a combination of advantages—a mentor, good facilities nearby, and lots of time to hone his skills—set him up perfectly to become a star performer. He admits his argument owes a debt to Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, but he aims to move one step beyond it, drawing on cognitive neuroscience research to explain how the body and mind are transformed by specialized practice. He takes on the myth of the child prodigy, emphasizing that Mozart, the Williams sisters, Tiger Woods, and Susan Polgar, the first female grandmaster, all had live-in coaches in the form of supportive parents who put them through a ton of early practice. Cogent discussions of the neuroscience of competition, including the placebo effect of irrational optimism, self-doubt, and superstitions, all lend credence to a compelling narrative; readers who gobbled up Freakonomics and Predictably Irrational will flock to this one. (May)

https://chessdailynews.com/nature-vs-nurture-is-there-such-a-thing-as-natural-talent/

September 8, 2010, 12:45 pm — Updated: 12:45 pm –>
Sweating Your Way to Success
By PETER ORSZAG

The most important book I’ve read over the past six months is Matthew Syed’s “Bounce.” Teddy Roosevelt once said that “in this life we get nothing save by effort.” Syed shows how trenchant Roosevelt was.

Syed is a two-time Olympian in table tennis. His book is impressive for two reasons. First, he takes empirical evidence on the science of success seriously (and in the areas where I know the literature to some degree, his depiction is quite accurate). Second, he shows how that evidence shatters widespread myths about what leads to better performance in any complex undertaking (including, for example, chess, tennis and math).

Basically, we’ve bought into several misconceptions about excellence, which are not only wrong but affirmatively counterproductive.

Let me focus today on the core one. Too many of us believe in the “talent” myth — that top performers are born, rather than built. But Syed shows that in almost every arena in which tasks are complex, top performers excel not because of innate ability but because of dedicated practice.In effect, the stars among us have practiced so much that they are better at what psychologists call “chunking.”

Imagine trying to remember 41 letters or numbers. Most of us couldn’t come close to doing that. Now imagine trying to remember a sentence with 47 letters or numbers, like: “Imagine trying to remember 41 letters or numbers.” Most of us can do that with little difficulty, because we are chunking the letters and numbers. We remember the words, and we know the letters in each word.

Syed shows that most better performers have practiced so intensely that they chunk better at their tasks than normal people. So we see impressive performance and think someone is naturally skilled, whereas the reality is that person has simply practiced for longer and more intensely than others.

Perhaps the most dramatic example is from chess. A 1973 study took one group of chess masters and another group of novices. When presented with chess pieces as they would be arranged in a chess game, the masters were stunningly better than the novices at recalling each piece’s position.

But here’s the catch: when the pieces were set up randomly, in a manner that would never occur in a real game of chess, the masters were no better than novices at remembering where the pieces were. So much for chess masters being born with special powers of memory or concentration. Instead, the explanation is that they’ve played so many games of chess that they are more adept at recognizing patterns on the chess board (at least, when those patterns could arise in a game of chess).

Source: NY Times

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