It is almost a decade since the publication of Bounce. The book argues that we hugely overestimate the significance of talent in the construction of success. I enjoyed writing it, and have been gratified by the response.
In this blog, I look at the six questions I am often asked.
1. Are you saying genetics don’t matter at all?
No. The argument in Bounce, like Outliers, the Talent Code, and other such books, is not that talent is irrelevant but that it is vastly overrated. Indeed, Geoff Colvin calls his book: Talent is Overrated! The point is that there are other, more elusive factors that are also implicated in success. By exploring these other factors, I hoped to re-evaluate how success happens, and address many of the dangers that attach to the overestimation of talent.
As Gladwell writes near the beginning of Outliers: “We all know that successful people come from hardy seeds. But do we know enough about the sunlight that warmed them, the soil in which they put down the roots, and the rabbits and lumberjacks they were lucky enough to avoid?”
The context in which we wrote these books is not insignificant. In the 1980s and 90s, it was astonishing how often people would assert a genetic superiority when seeing one boy hitting a ball better than another, or one girl performing better at mathematics. There was scant recognition of other factors that explain such differences. The relative age effect (see Bounce and Outliers) was a good way of exploring how a focus on talent alone can create bandwagon effects.
2. Is this where growth mindset fits in?
Yes. The growth mindset is where people think of success as a journey. Something you attain through purposeful practice and dedication. The fixed mindset is where people attribute success to talent.
The fixed mindset is damaging because evidence shows that people often associate challenges and difficulties as meaning they lack talent. They are therefore more likely to give up. It can also cause people who are performing well to become complacent, assuming that they are so talented that success is assured.
The growth mindset flips this (subconscious) monologue. Failures are regarded as learning opportunities. Challenges are actively sought out as ways to learn faster. Children and adults in a growth mindset are more resilient and motivated. They are therefore more likely to reach their potential. This is a positive both for them, and for society.
3. But isn’t there a danger that people in a growth mindset will keep persevering on futile challenges? Isn’t it a good idea to give up sometimes?
This is perhaps the most puzzling critique, since I have dealt with it at such length in my writings. People in the growth mindset are, typically, better at cutting their losses. A good way to understand why is via financial trading. Traders should hold stocks that are most likely to appreciate in the future, while selling those likely to depreciate. But traders, in fact, are more likely to hold stocks that have lost money, regardless of future prospects. Why? Because they hate to crystallise a loss. To do so implies they made a mistake in buying the stock in the first place. This threatens their ego. It is why they hold losing stocks twice as long as winning stocks, desperately hoping they will rebound. This is called the disposition effect.
Traders in a growth mindset, however, are less prone to the disposition effect; less inclined to blindly persevere with a losing stock. The reason is simple. They are able to see failure without its related stigma (not as an indictment of who they are but as an opportunity to learn), and so are more capable of meaningful adaptation; whether that means quitting and trying something else, or sticking – and growing. This is referenced in Bounce and, more extensively, in Black Box Thinking.
The same finding emerges from Philip Tetlock’s masterly book Superforecasting. People who make economic and political predictions often find it difficult to revise their models, even when the data says they should. They worry that admitting to a mistake might show they have an abiding deficiency (i.e. lack talent). Forecasters in a growth mindset, on the other hand, see mistakes as learning opportunities. They are therefore able to jettison mistaken assumptions, making their models more dynamically robust. As Tetlock puts it: “To be a top-flight forecaster, a growth mindset is essential.”
Similar results have been found in multiple domains, including business (Sydney Finkelstein) and education (Dweck). A paper lead-authored by Joyce Ehrlinger of Washington State University shows that students in a growth mindset have a more clear-eyed view of their ability, and are more able to incorporate failures into their thinking about their true abilities. In short, people in a growth mindset can pivot onto new challenges, but they are more likely to do so for the right reasons.
4. Does this relate to the iceberg illusion?
Yes. This is a key concept in Bounce and Black Box Thinking. When we witness success, we tend to see the performance itself. The final product. We see Beckham curling in the ball from 30 yards. We see James Dyson’s dual cyclone vacuum cleaner. How easy to assume that their success emerged from their superior genes when the final product looks so flawless and assured!
What we don’t see, however, is the years of practice. The journey. Beckham practicing for many years, learning from every mistake. Dyson working his way through 5,126 failed prototypes, learning new things about separation efficiency and air flow dynamics with each one. In other words, when we witness success, we are often the victims of a basic perceptual illusion. This is one key reason why so many people are in the fixed mindset. It is also why people’s expectations of how good they can get with long-term, high quality practice are often way too low.
Indeed, getting people into the growth mindset is, in large part, about revealing the submerged bit of the iceberg. By sharing stories and data on and how success really happens, and the challenges people faced on route to the summit, people develop a more authentic empirical conception of how to unlock their potential. They are able to see failures and challenges in this broader context. It increases the rationality of the decisions they make about practicing and adapting.
5. How should we encourage a growth attitude?
It is vital to get the language right. If you tell a maths class of 30 students: “if you practice hard, you will become top in the class” you are lying to 29 of them. By definition, only one person can be top of the class! It is even more of a deception if you say: “with practice, you’ll win the Field’s medal!”
This is why Dweck and other academics have been systematic in how they have studied the interaction of language and mindset. This is covered in Bounce and in Black Box Thinking, and we have now run dozens of conferences with teachers and coaches on precisely this terrain. Much better to praise high quality effort to unlock personal growth and development, and to combat self-limiting beliefs with empirically grounded encouragement. There is extensive research in this area.
Self-reflection is also a very positive trait. Thinking about one’s own journey, and the beliefs that may constrain the achievement of one’s potential. We all have them! My team and I have created a diagnostic tool that measures mindset and produces a report to increase self-awareness – Mindset Advantage.
So, a growth attitude is a positive for professionals, students and sportspeople. If kids are in a growth mindset, they are likely to do significantly better in, say, maths (see Colin Hegarty of Hegarty Maths). There will still be one student who is top, and another who is bottom, although these are likely to be different people at the end of the year than at the beginning. But the crucial point is that all students will benefit from becoming more numerate. Society will benefit, too.
6. Are there some areas where genetics matter more than others?
Yes. There are some activities where genetic differences are particularly significant. Running. Lifting. Jumping. These “simple” sports are highly dependent on physiology. This point is regularly made in Bounce. People who engage in long-term practice can nevertheless make large strides (pardon the pun), as anyone who has trained for the marathon will attest.
It is the softer skills where the complex interaction with environment and opportunity mean that we have long overestimated the role of genetics. In Bounce, I focused on three areas. Pattern Recognition (arguably the key part of problem-solving, whether for humans or machines). Creativity. And IQ.
New research corroborates this position. We are learning not merely how environment affects these skills in significant ways, but how culture has influenced genetic evolution itself for tens of thousands of years. This will form a major part of my next book, due out in early 2019. I suspect we are on the verge of seeing a synthesis of the social sciences based on these findings.
See here for a superb paper on how the genetic influence on IQ has been misconceived for decades: Innovation in the Collective Brain.