This review should start with a confession. In the spirit of the one of the ‘Mottos to work by’ at Bully OnLine’s Bad boss jokes page – “Plagiarism saves time”, one of the messages from Bounce has already appears in this blog. When light-heartedly identifying Five Signs You Might Need A Coach, we included “You lack bottom (especially for landing on)”. The inspiration was an example in Syed’s book of the counter-intuitive importance of failure in achieving success, namely Shizuka Arakawa, Japanese figure skater, 2004 World Champion and 2006 Olympic Champion. The point – one of many that Syed makes through the example of sport, but making compelling and interesting challenges to the notion that talent is somehow ‘innate’ – is that effective purposeful practice must embrace failure. To extend our abilities, we must try things we’re not currently capable of, and accept that we may not necessarily succeed at first. Or, to quote the book:

Author Geoff Colvin has estimated that Shizuka Arakawa {…} tumbled over more than twenty thousand times in her progression from five-year old wannabe to 2006 Olympic champion. ‘Arakawa’s story is invaluable as a metaphor,’ Colvin has written. ‘Landing on your butt twenty thousand times is where great performance comes from.’”

The central argument of Bounce is that ‘talent’ is made, not born. At one level, it would be easy to dismiss it as another of those one-word title, biz-lite numbers we’ve had a go at before, which would – in this case – be a shame. We should judge books not by their covers but by reading them, and the first two-thirds of this one (I’ll come back to the final section) rewards the effort. While we glamorise and mystify the ‘talented’, I’d say that Syed’s alternative message is an optimistic one in that it should give hope to those of us who think of ourselves as ‘mere mortals’. As I often read books in parallel, I was powerfully struck by a passage in Christopher Hitchin’s Letters to a Young Contrarian (an excellent piece of writing for blog readers who venture ‘off piste’ from the mainstream of business literature), where he reflects on the fact that Martin Luther King ‘plagiarised his doctoral thesis and spent his last night on earth in some pretty rough fornication’ and comes to an optimistic conclusion:

I like the fact that he had feet of clay and a digestive tract and reproductive organs: all human achievement must also be accomplished by mammals and this realisation (interestingly negated by sexless plaster saints and representations of angels) puts us on a useful spot. It strongly suggests that anyone could do what the heroes have done.”

Given the inherent positivity of that message, it’s interesting – Syed has the grace to find it amusing – that his parents disagreed when they read a draft of the book. But it’s surely depressing that an online poll by HRmagazine posing the question “Is truly authentic and effective leadership something CEOs are born with as opposed to something they can be taught?” found that a staggering 98% of respondents selected the ‘born with’ option.  The implication that only 2% of HR Magazine readers – not a group you’d think of as devoid of interest in maximizing workplace performance potential – think leadership skills can be developed is surely scandalous, scary or both.

Bounce has received largely favourable reviews (one notable dissenter seemed to be The Spectator, who commented that it was “undermined by a clunking style, and an eagerness to find profundity where none exists”, an interesting comment from a reviewer who appeared to prefer Quentin Letts), although originality is not its strongest qualities. The first section of the book draws on arguments from Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers (see our review) as well as Geoff Colvin’s Talent is Overrated and Daniel Coyle’s The Talent Code, but gains from the telling.

For the unfamiliar, Syed is a former gold-medal winning table tennis player. Sport, with its insistent emphasis on improving performance, provides a compelling setting for his argument, but his own life-story also means that we reading the arguments of a man at the centre of them, rather than a bystander or commentator. (He is also a journalist with a first from Oxford – just some of the additional background that can be gleaned from an interesting and illuminating interview with The Independent conducted back in 2002). He also recognizes the value of picking examples that are harder for others to contest, quoting in one case the words of Laszlo Polgar who deliberately set out to raise three girls to be international chess legends (and succeeded):

If my child had been trained as an artist or novelist, people could have argued about whether she was genuinely world-class or not. But chess has an objective rating based on performance, so there is no possibility of argument.”

[Actually, those of us who’ve read Leonard Mlodinow’s The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives might pick a few nits, but they are more to do with our illusions and perceptions of success and performance than with Polgar’s methods in raising three chess champions. Readers interested in performance measurement and evluation might gain from both books.]

In his telling, the ingredients for producing the best possible performance include opportunities and circumstance (the point that came through strongest in Gladwell’s book) – hence the preponderance of top-flight table tennis players in one small area of Reading – but do not stop there. Dedication and practice – and, more importantly, purposeful practice that stretches – must be added. There are two points here: firstly that purposeful practice that builds mastery achieves, in Syed’s words, “what psychologists call expert-induced amnesia” – the ability to perform skills that are critical without the need to focus heavily on their execution, leaving the individual more able to concentrate on analysing the situation and determining the appropriate course of action. The second is that there must be a need and a purpose to improve performance, otherwise a plateau-effect will take hold. Syed illustrates this by writing about his mother’s typing skills:

After a few months of training she reached seventy words a minute, but then hit a plateau that lasted for the rest of her career. The reason is simple: this was the level required to gain employment, and once she had started work, it hardly seemed important to get any better.”

Any managers reading should ask themselves what compelling reasons to ‘get any better’ they’ve voiced – and then coached, mentored and encouraged – recently.

The importance of skilful delivery of feedback and the role of the coach – able to give feedback from an external viewpoint and to provide another perspective – are further ingredients in Syed’s recipe, and everyday examples from outside sport provide accessible arguments. These are vital elements in sustaining the momentum towards improved performance: motivation may be triggered by a ‘spark’ – something this is by definition not destined to burn for long without something more to sustain the flame. As Syed says, ‘the attainment of excellence is a long-term process’.

Though Syed writes explicitly about business only sparingly, but his tone about those that enshrine the idea of talent as something innate or that can be bought full-fledged can be scathing. Examining the reasons behind the collapse of Enron, he is bluntly critical:

Enron’s strategy was flawed for two independent reasons. The first is that it was based on the false premise so vigorously promoted by McKinsey: that talent matters more than knowledge. This is nonsense: […]  successful decision-making in any situation characterized by complexity – whether in sport, business or wherever – is propelled not by innate ability but by the kind of knowledge that can only be builtup through deep experience.

But Enron’s strategy was also flawed for a different, more insidious reason. Itrs core philosophy not only undermined productivity; it also served to create a very specific type of culture. A culture that exalted talent above the possibilities of personal development. A culture that mocked the idea that learning can transform ability.”

There’s an interesting further point in the book that Syed doesn’t directly link to views of talent, centred as they logically are on the individual. In discussing triple-jumper Jonathan Edwards’ abandonment of his devout religious faith, he quotes Edwards in an interview conducted for the book:

Believing in something beyond the self can have a hugely beneficial psychological impact, even if the belief is fallacious.”

Not just an interesting remark for an atheist, but an interesting conundrum for managers and developers – not just because it argues that believing strongly in something (and, by implication, ‘anything’ – which must surely be worrying) improves performance, but because it locates the critical factor ‘beyond the self’. A striking remark in an era where it is something hard to credit that some of those around us recognise anything as fully existing beyond themselves, let alone seeing it as being in any way important.

The final sectiona of the book make better sense having read that earlier Independent interview, as Syed writes about racism in sport (he is the child of a mixed-race marriage), and explores optical illusions and the thorny issue of drug-enhanced performance. While well written, they should be appendices or a separate book, as they divert the mind away from the arguments that have preceded them.

Bounce may lack originality, but it certainly doesn’t lack character or conviction: it is evident that Syed’s 11 years in journalism have included a few thousand hours of purposeful practice, as he carries the reader along with vigour. Interestingly, he has – perhaps inadvertently – written a highly accessible book about learning transfer and application where the importance of inspiration, motivation, opportunities for practice, purposeful practice, focus, challenge, coaching and feedback are all explored in ways that are easy to grasp without a previous in-depth grounding in pedagogy or educational psychology. And, as he points out, work and the economy are not sport: if the people of the company do better, the rewards are broader than just personal.

As a book to provoke thinking, Bounce is a winner. In looking at other reviewer’s responses to the book, I was struck by the pull quote that accompanied Mick Hume’s review at Spiked Online:

Asked if he was lucky, golfer Gary Player said: ‘Yes, and the funny thing is, the harder I practice, the luckier I get’”

If you’re involved in improving performance – yours or other people’s – you might improve your luck by sparing a few hours to read it.

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