The most important book I’ve read over the past six months is Matthew Syed’s “Bounce.” Teddy Roosevelt once said that “in this life we get nothing save by effort.” Syed shows how trenchant Roosevelt was.
Syed is a two-time Olympian in table tennis. His book is impressive for two reasons. First, he takes empirical evidence on the science of success seriously (and in the areas where I know the literature to some degree, his depiction is quite accurate). Second, he shows how that evidence shatters widespread myths about what leads to better performance in any complex undertaking (including, for example, chess, tennis and math).
Basically, we’ve bought into several misconceptions about excellence, which are not only wrong but affirmatively counterproductive.
Let me focus today on the core one. Too many of us believe in the “talent” myth — that top performers are born, rather than built. But Syed shows that in almost every arena in which tasks are complex, top performers excel not because of innate ability but because of dedicated practice. ...
Success in most arenas of life is thus not a reflection of innate skill but rather devoted effort. And Syed demonstrates why it is not just effort, but purposeful effort that is key — if you’re going to get better at chunking, you can’t just go through the motions and punch time on the clock. You need to put your heart into it.
Is it really too much to ask that people at the top of the pyramid in the U.S. talk to the rest of us like we are adults? Isn't it obvious that the answer to the question of what does it take to get to the top, nature or nurture, is: both?
P.S. Orszag is back in the NYT with more Gladwellian conventional wisdom, having been roughed up pretty badly by commenters the first time:
"Or to phrase it differently, it seems plausible that many more people than commonly believed (but perhaps not all people!) have sufficient innate skill to perform at world-class levels in complex fields with sufficient practice; the problem is that they do not undertake the necessary practice. Indeed, the examples we have of individuals who put in 10,000 or more hours of dedicated practice and fail to achieve stunning levels of performance is quite limited — because most people are not willing to put in that time and effort."
I guess Orszag has never heard the term "career minor leaguer." Think of Kevin Costner's character in Bull Durham.
Or how about future Hall of Fame manager Tommy Lasorda's failure to make it as major leaguer despite an excellent minor league record? Lasorda pitched only 58 innings with a terrible 6.48 ERA in the Show during a playing career lasting from 1945-1960. I guess he just didn't bleed Dodger Blue enough or he would have made it in the big leagues. His failure to make it in the big leagues couldn't have had anything to do with his lack of innate physical talent.
The trick these people play is in their term of art "dedicated practice," which is used to make their argument unfalsifiable. Sure, from age 5 to 33, Tommy Lasorda spent tens of thousands of hours practicing baseball, but, by definition, he wasn't practicing baseball the right way or he wouldn't have failed.
In summary, the point is not that Orszag shows a Malcolm Gladwell-level ability to perform reality checks on his favorite ideas. Orszag isn't particularly important in and of himself, other than that he represents roughly the political median of elite opinion in 21st Century America. He shows that there exist such systematic impediments to clear thought among elites today that somebody as smart and well connected as Orszag can make a fool of himself in his first week as a NYT columnist because he doesn't know any better.