Matthew 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 rest of the UK combined.
Why? Matthew was always being told that he had an 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”.
Weasel word – talent
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.
Talent Management is the problem
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 put in the 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 parents who doesn’t think their child is one of the ‘gifted and talented’.
Failure is the driver
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.
Courses don’t train
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.