Monday, January 13, 2014

Book: Bounce by Matthew Syed

Bounce is one of those modern insights books that belongs in the "self-improvement for smug psuedo-intellectuals" bracket. You know the type. We are talking about the Gladwellian readers who read books offering little more than superficial insight, and then go around pretending they know much more about how the world operates; but they haven’t actually learned very much at all from this reading (i.e. people like me...hey, at least I'm reading a book and not watching tv. Anyways, like I have to justify myself to you, spambot, what do you do with your time? You come here and and leave random comments and you don't even have the courtesy to provide a link to your dodgy web-sites anymore...apologies, I lose my way). Getting back to Bounce, even though Matthew Syed quotes Malcolm Gladwell liberally there is a major difference with his book: Syed is genuinely talking from experience and self-discovery.

Bounce certainly provides much to think about in the first half of the book, with lots of studies and discussion on the power of deliberate practice and the crucial role of opportunity, chance, and conducive environmental conditions. Syed has done a sterling job in consolidating lots of reputable studies to support his case and his message is quite spurring (it is that practice and favourable conditions trumps innate talent in many endeavours). However, I did feel that he was underplaying the importance of natural ability and characteristics as a pre-requisite for so many sports (e.g. you can't practice to be taller to play professional basketball).

Unfortunately, it felt that Syed was going off track in the last third of the book, jumping around a lot of material with little coherence, but there were still some interesting nuggets. In particular, the “Are blacks superior runners?” chapter is interesting in making the observation that many long distance runners are from East Africa while West Africa turns out many more short-distance sprinters. i.e. it is an over generalisation to say that people with black skin tend to be good runners; it's they just happen to have the same skin pigmentation. In fact, 90% of the top Kenyan runners are all from a specific, tiny part of Kenya (Eldorat). Also, the dominance of long-distance runners by geography has shifted over time, suggesting there is more at play than genetics.

Lastly, the book really could have done with a summary page, recapping the key points from each chapter.
*** ½ - superbly written, in a clear and enthusiastic style, but let down somewhat by the disparate second half and a slight over egging of the core message.

More notes and quotes to follow.

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