August 26, 2013

Matthew Syed - The Growth Mindset

The author of 'The Myth of Talent and the Power of Practice,' Matthew Syed (@matthewsyed) recently spoke on Radio 4 about 'the growth mindset' and his philosophy on how to succeed in the world.

Boiling things down, his belief is that we as a society have vastly overstated the talent-effort continuum to the point where our view is that success all comes down to talent. This has huge implications for our behaviour. On the episode, 'Original Thinkers,' on the Radio 4 series, Four Thought, Matthew Syed went into more detail and began with a probing question. He asked:
"Where does excellence come from? How do we get better at stuff?"
He responded bullishly that challenges the very basis from which we look on the world:
"I'd like to take fire at the very seductive and pervasive idea in the world today, that excellence is primarily, largely or exclusively delivered by talent. That certain people are born with gifts and altitudes or a genetic inheritance that enables them to excel. We have another group of people who lack those gifts, that genetic inheritance, and by implication are never going to excel.
I will argue that that is at best misleading. And at worst, destructive. Destructive of the people who buy into it and moreover, highly corrosive of the institutions, schools, sports clubs and businesses that construct their culture upon it.
 Matthew Syed took a step back and explained the context from which his beliefs on talent have sprung:
"Let me just take you back to the 1980s when I became England number 1 (in table tennis) for the first time. It was a wonderful feeling but when I looked around at the other young players in the UK at that time, what I found was that the majority of them didn't just come from the same town or same suburb, but from the same street.
Silverdale Road in Reading. But even back then I knew enough about science to recognise that the explanation for this concentration of success wasn't talent - there hadn't been a genetic mutation that had hit Silverdale Road and eluded surrounding street and villages.
So the talent explanation doesn't do. A richer, more complex, all encompassing explanation is required. In the case of the Silverdale Road example, the best coach in the country - Peter Charters - taught at the school on Silverdale Road.
He gave us access to the only 24 hour a day table tennis club in the south of England and we all had a set of keys. So we went before school, after school, weekends, holiday. Many years of practice transformed themselves from ordinary to extraordinary."
Having laid out the context, Matthew Syed explored the talent-hard work relationship, using child-prodigies as a case study:
"Now if I may just elaborate on the power of hard work and the mythology of talent. A couple of observations. The first is rather banal but rather significant as well. Nobody reaches a level of high performance in anything characterized by complexity (chess, business, sport, decision making) without many, many thousands of hours of practice. Nobody at all. Child prodigies who we will all be familiar with - even if they haven't got there super fast.
What they've done is to compress the minimum time necessary for expertise into the very short time between birth and adolescence. Mozart was the classic example. Wowing the European aristocracy with his piano playing skills. His most eminent biographer tells a subtler story - Mozart started playing the piano at the age of 1. His father Leopold was a world-class and pioneering world piano teacher. By the age of 6 he had practiced 3,500 hours. Which is an astronomical amount of practice. If you were to look at the development of young Mozart's piano playing - it didn't rapidly escalate. It was a slow, steady, gradual learning of excellence. Lots of baby steps. None of which would seem impossible for us, but the cumulative effect of it can take the young prodigy to levels of performance that are beyond our ordinary experience."
Matthew Syed then looked to black-cab drivers as an effective example:
 "Let me make a second observation, which is that hard work is transformative. We're all familiar with the idea of muscles growing in size when we work at the gym. The part of the body which is responsible for driving high level tasks is not set in genetic stone but also adapts like muscles - namely the brain. A classic example from common literature is black cab drivers where the part of the brain governing spatial navigation is much bigger than the rest of us. They were not born with it, it grew in direct proportion to what was done on the job.  
To go back to Mozart, the part of the brain governing finger movements in pianists is much bigger than for the rest of us and grows in direct proportion to years of practice."
Matthew Syed spells out the secret to success, which for him comes down to two variables:
"It is if you like, the plasticity of the brain and the central nervous system which explains why it is that the two variables that determine high level of performance are just the quantity and quality of practice."
He continued, explaining how our perceptions of what is needed to succeed has massive implications on the way we behave:
"What is significant is that this all has highly significant implications for the way we behave. In all sorts of different ways. One can give a group of people a questionnaire which probes their belief about where excellence comes from. All believe that talent, whether at conscious or subliminal level, you have a group of people who think it's about that and that you've either got it or you haven't. You've got a gift or don't have a gift. And then you have another group of people who think it's fundamentally about hard work.
If you put the effort in you can improve, excel and reach the top. Obviously this is a continuum, but let me talk about the two extremes. Where you sit on that spectrum predicts a whole range of behaviours."
According to Matthew Syed's if you think it's about talent you inhabit a "talent paradigm." But the problem with this is that people who think they have a gift get complacent. For them it's binary and you either have it or you don't. They think they will be buoyed to the top by their superior genetics. This is a classic problem at premier league academies.
The young people work hard to get there, get showered with praise and money, then draw the inference that they've got it and so stop training. As a result of this they don't make the transition into professional football.

The Matthew Syed spoke about the example of someone who thinks it's about talent but that they've got insufficient talent. He explained the effects of this mindset:
"In my view this is an absolutely corrosive problem in state schools. Because if you believe you lack talent and in order to get good you have to have talent, then you might as well give up. The conclusion is rational given the premise.
I would argue very strongly, that the premise if flawed. You go into state schools and you hear young people say, "I don't have a brain for mathematics," and "I'm not equipped to do languages."
This is a direct manifestation if the "fixed mindset" and it is a self-fulfilling prophesy."
The effects of the fixed mindset are disastrous:
"And it means many young people are not reaching their potential. On the other hand, the "growth mindset" means you think you have the capacity to grow with effort. And from this starting point, behaviours are totally different and fundamentally the way you approach Challenges and interpret failure is totally different. You don't see failure as a reason to give up but an opportunity to adapt and grow."
So how do we tackle this? Matthew Syed explained how we can tackle this:
"There are psychologists in the US and UK who said we can move our young people to the "growth mindset.""
Matthew Syed then used the example of his education:
"It was an eye opening experience for me at university. Just before going into a tutorial I would say to a fellow student:

"Have you done much work this week? 
And they would reply:

"No, none at all. Been in the bar the whole time."

And I would think after the tutorial, "how on earth did you write such an insightful essay on Plato, when you haven't read anything about him? And of course the reason is that often young people see hard work as an indictment. If you have to work hard, that's embarrassing, that means you lack talent."
Matthew Syed continued:
"Think of a culture constructed on that idea. Why is it that young people worship effortless performance? This is destructive, because think of the alternative culture which you see vividly in the GB rowing team or track cycling team. If they do an extra cycle ride they'll boast about it. That's something that is celebrated and admired." 
Matthew Syed concluded:
The most important thing that Peter Chartis told us was not so much technical table tennis, it was equipping us with a mindset that taught us to believe that we would get better over time if we put the work in. We as a group of young people believed in our potential for growth. And without that belief, growth itself is almost impossible."
You can also read Matthew Syed in the Times who wrote a piece entitled, 'Dare to fail and train those mental muscles.' In full here.

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