In my post “Are affirmations useless?” I discussed one of the founders of personal development, Samuel Smiles. In the 19th century his “Self Help” was only out sold by the bible! The underlying message from Smiles was that success came through dedication and hard work.
He didn’t appear to believe in the concept of “genius”, all those he portrayed in his case studies got there by hard graft and application.
In that post I made a reference to Malcom Gladwell, who has published 3 excellent books. His “Outliers” makes reference to and develops the “10,000” hours theory; successful people – such as The Beatles – get there through many hours of toil rather than innate ability.
Bounce – How Champions are Made
This is carried to another level by Matthew Syed in his book “Bounce” His argument is that for any significantly complex human activity natural talent is not particularly important. Top achievement is the consequence of huge amounts of what he calls “purposeful” or “disciplined” practice.
The desire to work hard is what most high achievers have in common. This is usually sparked by an early enthusiasm (although this may be brought on by parental enthusiasm as well!) and opportunity.
In Syed’s case his parents happened to buy a full size table tennis (ping-pong) table, he had an older brother to practice with and there happened to be both a local club and an inspiring coach available. On these latter two points he lists numerous other players who emerged from his club to become international players:-
“for a period in the 1980’s, this one street, and the surrounding vicinity, produced more outstanding table tennis players than the rest of the nation combined.”
There are a number of compelling and inspiring case studies in the book, some of the most interesting away from the sporting arena. This includes a fireman of many years experience instinctively knowing something “was not quite right” when evacuating his men minutes before a building collapses.
But its in sports like tennis and cricket (which you don’t have to know about to enjoy the book!) that Syed is best at demonstrating that the skills of champions are not innate, but learned. This includes the ideas of perceptual compression and domain specific knowledge, where a top player apprehends and understands a situation so much more quickly.
Whilst a fireman interprets patterns to indicate danger in a building, Roger Federer anticipates where the ball is going to go from accurate inferences via the movement patterns of his opponent. This is not something he was born with, but learnt through hours of practice.
Syed uses his own expedience at the Sydney Olympics to illustrate how choking occurs. The hours of practice leads to a competitor using their “unconscious competence” to win their matches. But in the pressure of a big event they may try to move back to doing the task more consciously. However, this disrupts their flow, and they start analysing, rather than letting their body react “automatically”.
Self Confidence and the Power of Belief
As well as hard work, Bounce takes in other factors such as motivation..
“..clocking up thousands of hours of purposeful practice ultimately determines how far we make it along the path to excellence: but its only those who care about the destination, whose motivation is “internalised” who are ever going to get there.”
And the book also takes in the effect of coaches in harnessing effort. Of tennis coach Nick Bollettieri…
“he praises effort, never talent; he eulogizes about the transformational power of practice at every opportunity; he preaches the vital importance of hard work during every interruption in play.”
But I must mention discussions he has on the power of belief – as often performers go into events with irrational beliefs they will win (for example when there is clear evidence their opponents can run faster, etc.). This “performance placebo” has been tested to work…
“the ‘positive thinking‘ group completed their task significantly more quickly than the ‘negative thinking‘ group, even though there was no difference in ability between the two groups…. irrational beliefs can boost performance, provided they are held with sufficient conviction.”
So positive thinking, believing we can, does help us if we hold that belief with conviction. Which I think we all would see as making sense and an essential component of self confidence.
But as my last post was “self confidence in 15 minutes” its important to reflect that becoming good at something does take effort. And if you want self confidence, being good, having ability, certainly help!