The myth of talent and what next…

This coming Friday, Rio will host the opening ceremony of the 2016 Olympic Games. When you marvel at sporting brilliance over the next few weeks consider the deep learning and practice that has gone on over years and thousands of hours. What happens when it’s all over?

I have spent a similar time frame achieving a part time degree with the Open University. There were times when I couldn’t wait to be in this position, all done and sitting back looking at my coveted 2:1. As journalist Sydney J Harris said “Happiness is a direction, not a place”. Like many athletes when they have achieved their goal at the Games, I am looking for the next challenge which will be a postgraduate path of some form or another. Watch this space. I can’t do anymore DIY around the house! Here we go again!

Happiness not being a place but a direction could easily fall into one of those motivational quotes that you see on social media. Over and above that quick boost to motivation as we scroll through social media timelines, there is as always more learning in the detail. Matthew Syed’s excellent book, Bounce explores (among lots of other great stuff) the idea of happiness being the direction, that strive for success. Syed describes many athletes who when they achieve their goal feel empty and even a little lost. He describes how Victoria Pendleton said that finishing second was almost a better feeling after the initial win. Second means that their is more to achieve – a clear direction to move towards. Winning means, where and what next? Pendleton is a great example of moving on to the next challenge – she now competes in horse racing. This feeling of anticlimax, Syed brilliantly links to an evolved behaviour in humans. Where would we be now if people stopped and admired what they had just done? We probably wouldn’t even be sitting in caves, we would be extinct. Feeling a bit empty after the initial euphoria of an achievement it could be said has got humanity and all its achievements where it is today. We just can’t help it!

I feel duty bound to talk a little more about Syed’s book,  Bounce. If I left it there it would be represented as a Darwinian naturalist view of the world. It is anything but that. Syed says that high performance is all about the environment, the opportunities and the practice that we put in that makes high performers. Over the coming weeks we will see some amazing sporting achievements at the Olympic games. Looking up occasionally from our iPads we will probably marvel at the ‘talent’ on show. How can these superhumans be so good? They are so talented. Syed dismisses all of this.

Syed uses work from Anders Ericsson, Geoff Colvin, Daniel Coyle and Malcolm Gladwell who all in one form or another talk of the 10,000 hours of practice to make an expert or high performer. Experts do think differently and their domain knowledge is all important. Now, just like the motivational quote above, this needs a little unpicking and I highly recommend reading the book. If you want to be a great golfer you can’t just spend 10,000 hours knocking a ball around your local course. The practice Syed says needs to be purposeful practice. This is focused and structured learning. Getting things wrong and using feedback loops to learn from those mistakes. Identifying what your goal is and working towards it. High performers practice so purposefully that what they do sits outside consciousness. The headline 10,000 hours then can be misleading. Much more important is how this is done.

This way of thinking is hard to comprehend in some ways. The message of talent is something we hear over and over again. In great achievers in sport, science, politics and every other field, all we see is the great achievement or catastrophic failure. We don’t see all of the practice, all of the learning and all of the falling over and getting back up again.

The evolved nature of moving onto the next journey when you have reached your destination is a concept which should be considered in my view more in society. Many of the arguments against a universal basic income are that ‘people are lazy’ and will not work or do anything useful if they do not have to. Much of western capitalism says that economic competition must be there for us to progress, to give us a monetary goal to achieve. Is it in our DNA to progress after achievment and have that empty feeling when we have achieved?



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