‘Oh yeah the boy can play/Dedication, devotion/Turning all the night time into the day’
– Dire Straits ‘Walk of Life’
THE fascinating thing about us humans is that we want an explanation for everything. While that in itself isn’t such a shabby thing (science in particular and life in general would not have progressed if it weren’t so), sometimes our need for a straightforward explanation leads us to believe a bucketload of crap without reasoning if the explanation fits the facts and/or is there an alternative way to understand things. Take the case of the idea of ‘innate talent’ – careers are made or broken based on whether someone thinks they have the talent for a particular vocation, say a specific kind of sport. The talent misconception apparently elevates relatively mediocre people to the limelight and deters many others from trying. This is the surprising yet important insight I gleaned from Mathew Syed’s delightful book ‘Bounce’ which I recently read.
Syed attempts, with the help of examples and cases from sport (he has been an Olympian for Britain in Table Tennis) as well as other spheres of life, to debunk the idea that it is just so called ‘talent’ that determines success. He points out that talent is mostly a myth perpetuated to stick to our ‘explanation’ need and it is the power of practice that separates extraordinary performers from the mere mortals. The book itself has superb examples (and I highly recommend you read it) but as I started thinking about the points Syed makes a few anecdotes supporting his point of view came to mind.
I have been watching cricket for over a quarter of a century now and one of the most surprising discoveries I have made in my entire cricket viewing career is that SOurav Ganguly is not a na tural left hander. Ganguly, known as such an elegant left hand bat started batting that way only because his elder brother Snehasish used to play left handed and Sourav started practice with his brother’s kit which naturally had all the equipment for a left hand batsman. The consequence of this point is startling. Ganguly could have been a right hand batsmen! A fact which most of us would find hard to imagine or visualize after having seen Sourav’s elegance over the last decade and a half. So, success seems to be driven by factors other than just God (and subsequently parents) given genes. How much do you practice, how much do you challenge yourself at practice and how motivated are you about your chosen field are far more critical issues. Ganguly’s single mindedness to batting practice with a left hander’s equipment (which he stumbled on to pretty much by chance) led him to become one of the most elegant left handers to have played for India. As Rahul Dravid had memorably quoted – ‘On the off side, first there’s God, then there’s Sourav Ganguly’.
Speaking of Dravid, he was the second person that came to mind as I thought about the lessons from ‘Bounce’. Dravid was once shown in an ad practicing with a ball hanging off a chain. The look of concentration on his face and his sheer elegance motivated many of us to install similar ball on a chain thingamajigs on our verandahs. (Of course, we never practiced there much and didn’t go on to become Indian test batsmen either, but that’s a whole different tale). Writing in Sports Illustrated after Dravid’s retirement, Anand Vasu wrote that after retirement ‘mastering the rudiments of playing the guitar is another thing on his to-do list, but don’t put in a pre launch bid for his album on iTunes just yet, for he won’t go public with his music till he masters it like he did his cover drive. And that might take a few decades.’ If that insight tells you how much Dravid values practice (or as this kind of purposeful practice is called in academic circles, ‘deliberate practice’), the man himself provides an even more insightful quote in the same article about his approach to practice – ‘There are times when the process of practising or preparing is more enjoyable than playing in an international match…for a lot of sportsmen that is true, in that practice is better than the real thing.’ Perhaps the case is so because as Syed points out in the book that in case of true experts ‘progress is built …upon the foundations of necessary failure. That is the essential paradox of expert performance’.
We have suddenly become a generation who tend to give up too easily, but if Syed’s insights in the book and Dravid and Ganguly’s inspirational stories are anything to go by, acquiring expertise needs practice, motivation and patience. That insight was not missed by Mark Knopfler and his band ‘Dire Straits’ whose line from the song ‘Walk of Life’ I have quoted at the top of the article and evidently another favourite band of mine, AC/DC, also figured it out when they sang ‘It’s a long way to the top….’