Mathew Syed was the UK No 1 Table Tennis Champion for 10
years. But here’s the killer fact: his one suburban street in Reading produced
more Table Tennis Champions than the whole of the rest of the UK combined. Why?
Matthew was always being told that he had innate talent, fast reactions, blessed
in some way, a gift. This, he explained was nonsense, “at best misleading at worst destructive in schools and learning… it was
years of high quality purposeful practice”.
Any teacher, trainer, lecturer, coach, mentor, parent,
sports person would find his book 'Bounce' a profitable read. It’s much deeper
than the usual sports' biographies as he builds his case on the psychology of
learning. He is not one of those sports names who sprint round the conference circuit
and give rather superficial, motivational speeches, a biographical tale peppered
with a few well worn rugger-type jokes. He’s a thoughtful man who has reflected
deeply on why talent is not born but made through ‘deliberate practice’ How do
you get to Carnegie hall? Practice, practice, practice; relentless,
deliberative practice. He's well versed in the psychology and causal effects of
practice and his message is that education and employment in the UK has a deep
and disastrous weasel word at its core – talent
Talent Management is
He was saying that so-called ‘Talent Management’ is a crock
of s**t, as
talent, in the sense of a gift, is misleading – it’s simply the
wrong word. Our beliefs in where talent comes from affects performance. Born
not bred, a gift, you need talent – this is the dominant view in western
culture. In fact, it’s about effort, practice and tenacity.
This is a catastrophic problem, as when young people believe
that ‘talent’ is the key criterion for success, the ones who feel they lack
talent (most of us) fail as we simply stop. Kids who fail largely behave
rationally. They are taught that talent matters and signs of failure are
punished. This denigrates the idea that effort, application and persistence are
what matters. Too many simply give up. This is most apparent in maths, where
one tricky problem, one misguided comment by a teacher, will simply stop a child
in their tracks and instil the idea that they have no ‘talent for numbers’. People
disparage effort, pretend they don’t study hard for exams, but it matters. This
is an ingrained feature of our schooling. And of course, this doesn’t arise
from a vacuum – our culture promotes this and it is viciously self-destructive.
So what are the features of a good learning environment?
A good start is the work of Carol Dweck who relates motivation
and subsequent success to mindsets on abilities. Those with a fixed mindset,
often reinforced by educators, see their abilities as fixed and lose the
ability to improve and pout in te effort to succeed. Those who retain a
flexible mindset around effort, not ability, remain motivated and have a higher
chance of success. She scotches the old myths around the ‘gifted and talented’.
I’ve never yet found a middle-class parent who doesn’t think their child is one
of the ‘gifted and talented’.
Acceptable failure, Syed claims, is the key to good
practice. Failure is an opportunity to adapt and grow. High quality learning
experiences focus on deliberate improvement. This means encouraging a culture
of deliberate failure and environments where it’s acceptable and safe to fail.
Aviation is a good example. With 3 billion flights last year
and a tiny number of accidents and deaths (around 300), an extraordinary
success. Why – they take feedback and continuous improvement seriously. Doctors
and radiologists get patient data on outcomes – this matters. These professions
embed rich, usable feedback at all levels. Elsewhere there’s often a lack of
willingness to learn from mistakes and failure. We need learning experiences
that avoid talking at people, preaching masquerading as teaching. We need
detailed, frequent and constructive feedback.
The education and training world, the learning game, is
obsessed by one-off courses. This goes against everything Syed said in this
presentation. We ignore what the psychology of learning has been telling us for
the last 150 years, certainly since Ebbinghaus laid bare the ‘forgetting curve’
and explained that it is through practice and reinforcement that anything is
learnt. Improved performance not only needs repeated practice but also
deliberative practice, (see Anders Ericsson). This, Syed kept stressing, is the
only way to succeed in acquiring skills.
I have seen this myself in my own son. He has trained several times a
week in TaeKwon-Do since he was 8 years old. That’s over 12 years, on average
training 4 times a week, at 2 hours a session. He’s fitter than a whippet, as
flexible as a yoga teacher and can knock you out with one targeted kick or
punch. Years and years of practice make you an athlete, not courses.
Paul Flowers, the catastrophic leader Chair of the Co-op
Bank, was hired on the back of his Myers Briggs scores but was hopelessly
inept, had few skills, other than deception but promoted way beyond his
abilities by an inept HR department, who thought they were hiring ‘talent’.
This is just one feature of amateurish and misleading HR. I’d like to ban two words in education,
training and personnel – TALENT and LEADERSHIP. Talent is the weasel word that
secretly imports a destructive false belief, that talent is what we’re after
and not a meritocratic world where effort is rewarded. It encourages shortcuts. Leadership is in
many ways worse as it’s become a plague in training. Leadership training is
often just management training iced over with a thin layer of superficial,
non-nutritious nonsense about ‘being a leader’. It’s really just another word that promotes
the idea that ‘talent’ matters.