There are a lot of truths in this world, relayed to us at varying volume levels and frequencies. Some of the most interesting or illuminating, however, are uttered so rarely or so quietly that they almost go unnoticed. In business, one of the great taboos is losing. We regularly hear that it is not an option, unthinkable, a sign of deplorable weakness and so on. Much less often do we hear that it is a natural occurrence: despite the parable of The Midas Touch (and King Midas seems to have had more than one problem with being unable to control either his wishes or his mouth), our desire for invincibility and endless glory shouts louder than our counselling wisdom. And that quietness conceals something else: that losing can be a great teacher, but you have to learn how to be a good loser to make the most of the opportunity.

If you’re not suffering terminal Apprentice fatigue (and I may be in mortal danger, after reviewing the whole series), the final delivered one interesting lesson: that the contender who loses best can be the winner. Having been on the losing team many times, we can perhaps argue that Ricky Martin was a man who had had plenty of practice. But then again, practice makes perfect: Mr Martin may not have racked up 10,000 hours of losing – if we accept Malcolm Gladwell’s recipe for mastery – but he’d grasped the ideas of learning from mistakes, reviewing personal expectations and managing those of others, and something close to the idea of purposeful practice in honing efforts on specific areas to improve performance.

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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.’”

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The quote is from Bill Hicks, deceased US comedian, but it swam back into my memory as I alternated between flicking through the pile of unread broadsheet newspapers by the sofa and watching University Challenge. (OK I’m middle-aged and a little sad, but on the basis of Monday’s episode I know more than a whole Oxford college. Allow me some cardigan-clad pride.) The contestants were young, bright and youthful in their anxious optimism. Being Oxbridge students, no doubt they will prosper, but in a year of record numbers of university applicants being turned away (280,000 according to the Independent on Sunday) and high unemployment in the under 25s, Hicks’ question – I’ll replay the joke later – has a new resonance.

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Britain’s Got Talent would make a nifty patriotic slogan, for what is – in ‘reality’ (quotes intentional) – the name of a competitive game show that pitches individual ‘talents’ against each other. “England’s Got Talent” might have made a good tabloid headline about a month ago, but would now have the appeal – at least to the footie minded – of stale lager. Which illustrates one central conundrum of modern culture: the ‘star system’. Evolved in Hollywood, it might be perfectly adapted to the entertainment industry, but most occupations are not actually about the luminous performance of individuals. Organisational development is no less a team game than football, and in neither case is the display of either striking talent or overbearing celebrity the real point: the real point is to achieve goals.

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After the runaway success of his previous two offerings, Tipping Point and Blink, it is easy to predict a similar trajectory for Gladwell’s most recent book. Nearly four months after publication in hardback, it is still – at time of writing – number 108 in the chart of best-selling books at Amazon.co.uk: in America, it’s still in the top ten.

For a book that draws on academic social research to explore the factors behind human success stories, that’s a success story in itself: after all, this is not a book that will be serialised on a satellite channel featuring two pop-stars and an actor anytime soon. But does it explain its own success? (more…)