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Bounce: Mozart, Federer, Picasso, Beckham, and the Science of Success

1 rating: 5.0
A book by Matthew Syed

Syed, sportswriter and columnist for the LondonTimes, takes a hard look at performance psychology, heavily influenced by his own ego-damaging but fruitful epiphany. At the age of 24, Syed became the #1 British table tennis player, an achievement he initially … see full wiki

Tags: Books, Nonfiction, Sociology, Pop Culture, Econometics
Author: Matthew Syed
Genre: Business & Investing, Entertainment, Nonfiction
Publisher: Harper
1 review about Bounce: Mozart, Federer, Picasso, Beckham,...


  • Jul 13, 2010
This book is a fascinating look into the ingredients that make a top performer. The author, himself an Olympian in table tennis, concentrates on sports, and how athletes get to be the best. I had recently read Malcolm Gladwell's book, Outliers: The Story of Success, and wondered if this was just another presentation of the same ideas of hidden advantages, having to do with more opportunities for extended practice. Gladwell gave us the "10,000 hour rule" that says you must practice your skill for 10,000 hours before your skill level will exceed that of others in your field. In Bounce, this translates into the "10 year rule" that says you must practice for ten years (about 1000 hours per year) to excel. Same idea.

But Matthew Syed provides some new insights and stories about success. He discusses "the myth of talent" in which people believe that "talent" is something inbred, in the genes, and you are either born with it or not. He says that this belief is corrosive to motivation. Once someone internalizes "I'm not good at hockey (or tennis, or playing the guitar, or whatever)" they will quit trying. He generalizes this over to the world of business with a story about Enron, the company he says believed most passionately in talent, and hired only people identified as "talented." But glorifying the idea that someone is "talented" has unintended consequences. It destroys the concept of personal development. Why try to improve if your lack of "talent" means you'll never get any better? People identified as "talented" become obsessed with maintaining that image, to the extent that they cover up and deny anything that goes against the idea that their actions are always right; they will not put themselves in any position that makes them look like failures. After all, they are the most "talented" of people. Enron officials endlessly obscured the company's true financial position, unwilling to admit that all those "talented" people could have made mistakes. The author calls this "the fixed mindset" as opposed to a "growth mindset" that says "I can excel at anything if I work hard and put in the hours of practice."

Studies have showed that people with the fixed mindset tend to blame their own lack of intelligence or ability when they don't succeed at something while those with a growth mindset do not attach any blame to failures; they just look for new strategies that lead to improvement.

The author tells us about the Hungarian Laszlo Polgar, who trained his three daughters from birth to be chess champions. He did this, not because he was a fanatic chess fan, but to prove a point. He believed anyone could excel at anything if they come from an educational system that emphasizes hard work instead of talent. His daughters all went on to win honors in chess, but even this has not convinced the public that "talent" is nothing more than a myth.

If I have a problem with this analysis, it is only in the world of business where actually defining success can be elusive. The author says Laszlo, who proved he could train his kids to be chess champs, felt these ideas could be used in more important areas, such as success in the world of work and business. But employees and their bosses often have different definitions of success. Anyone who has ever been supervised by someone whose work is completely different from their own knows they can expect no meaningful feedback or fair evaluation. I have also personally encountered a conflict with a co-worker over a totally different understanding of our work priorities. Was our job to "do whatever the boss asks" or was our priority to the do the highest quality work that would please our ultimate customer? In sports, you either win or lose, but the world of work is a lot more complicated.

The author gives us plenty of insight into the techniques professional athletes use to psych themselves into feeling they can win the game (hit the home run, make the basket, beat their best time and set a new record, etc.) including their superstitions. In my own home town of Detroit, I've seen how our hockey Red Wings all grow beards into the playoffs, and our baseball Tigers recently all got Mohawk hair cuts. Do these practices help their play? They do if everyone thinks they do.

In his final chapter, the author asks the question "Are Blacks Superior Runners?" This was utterly fascinating, as he follows experts tracing black athletes' genetic background and finding one village in Kenya producing the best runners. A case of genetic isolation creating genes for superior running? No! Instead the answer turns out to be simpler. This town is at a high altitude and children have to go a great distance to school, with no means of transportation except their own feet. This vindicates the 10 year rule.

But this final chapter also provides some deep insights into cultural bias. Because all the best runners for many decades have been black, we generalize that "Blacks are good at running." But that isn't true. As a group, they are no more "good at running" than whites, Asians or any other identified group. As a matter of fact, the whole idea of "race" is pretty meaningless, as each so-called race turns out to have great genetic diversity, according to DNA studies.

This discussion reminded me of another wonderful book called "Railroads in the African American Experience: A Photographic Journey". This book tells about the black Pullman porters on passenger trains in the early 20th century. The job of "porter" was filled exclusively with blacks because at that time whites believed that blacks are best suited to working in service occupations. They were convinced that only a black man could provide top-notch service and when one railroad hired some Chinese as porters, their customers rebelled and demanded the return of black porters. While this worked to the benefit of blacks who got these jobs (and the often very generous tips of their white patrons), it was all based on a racial stereotype, and the author feels the same way about the idea that sports has given blacks a way to excel. True, but the reason many blacks turned to sports was their lack of opportunity in other areas, not because "blacks are good at sports".

What is the price of success? The author presents some dark tales of athletes using illegal substances to enhance performance, including a shocking revelation of secret doping of young athletes in the former Communist East Germany. He raises the question of using genetic manipulation to create better athletes, as well as enhancing other capabilities to produce a deliberately evolved human, and asks the intruiging question: Is this already being done? The author takes a controversial position on use of enhancing substances and says the real problem is the inequality of the situation, when some have used enhancing drugs and others haven't, and there is no disclosure. This is a huge topic only touched upon in this book.

I liked this book a lot, and find the implications of debunking the "myth of talent" to be good news for all of us. We do not have to fall back on "I'm no good at that" but can keep on keeping on at whatever it is we are determined to learn. We can admire the abilities of our favorite athletes, but we can know that they are not born superior. The goal of being "the best" may always prove to be a frustrating battle, but a better goal may be simply to keep on practicing and improving at whatever we are passionate about.

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