By Matthew Syed
Talent is not something you are born with but something that can be achieved – this is the premise of Matthew Syed’s book, Bounce.
The book was shortlisted for the William Hill Sports Book of the Year in 2010, but to classify it as a sports book would be misleading.
Syed is a table tennis champion – he was once Britain’s top-ranked player and is a two-time Olympian.
Following his sports career, he turned his hand to sports reporting and has worked as a BBC commentator and written for the Times.
But he does not go on an ego trip about his life’s achievements throughout the book – quite the opposite, in fact.
He argues that his talent is the result of many hours of practice and his social background, not some inner talent that he was born with.
Bounce opens with a description of Syed’s childhood and how he first became interested in table tennis. He uses his childhood as an example of how his circumstances made it almost inevitable that one day he would become a table tennis champion.
Having been bought a professional table tennis set at a young age, Syed also benefited from having a school teacher who was a senior figure in the English Table Tennis Association and ran a 24-hour table-tennis club close by.
Syed argues that any other child placed in the same situation would have achieved the same results.
He starts off the book with the example of his own life and then moves on to the lives of others to try to dispel the myth that child prodigies are born.
The book is split into three parts – The Talent Myth, Paradoxes of the Mind, and Deep Reflections.
Syed’s argument is compelling and, if believed, does offer some inspiration for readers that anything is possible with some hard work.
He uses the example of a Hungarian family of chess players whose father decided he would train his children from birth to be top level players of the game. Like Syed, he set out to prove that talent is not something we are born with.
Syed also uses the example of David Beckham and his trademark free kick. While it might look completely natural, says Syed, it is a deliberate technique that is the culmination of many years of practice when he was younger.
So whether you want to bend it like Beckham or be a top chess player, you have to work like crazy, regardless of your genes or background.
Towards the latter part of the book, Syed looks at how the human mind and body can be trained to achieve specific goals.
He also touches on the subject of race and how society’s generalisations about East Africans when it comes to long distance running are unfounded.
He argues that the majority of the so-called gifted runners come from one specific area in the Nandi hills of Kenya, where they train in high altitude conditions.
It is not essential to believe the basic message of the book to enjoy it. It tends to be universally accepted by most in society that talent or that magic spark that top performers and achievers have is something they are born with.
The book is an eye opener for anyone who thinks this way and it is also motivational – after all, if talent really is something to be achieved, there is nothing to stop any of us from becoming the next Roger Federer or the next Prime Minister.
Book review by Natalie Thomas