Tag: Matthew Syed

Becoming an Expert: The Elements of Success

We’re massively impressed by a concert pianist, or a wide receiver, or a truly skillful visual artist. Their abilities seem otherworldly.

But what makes these people so skillful? How did they start out like you and I and then become something so extraordinary?

Part of us wants to believe that it’s something innate and magical, so we can recuse ourself from hard work. The other part of us wants to believe that it’s something earned through blood, sweat, and tears — that we too could achieve amazing performance, if only we could devote ourselves to something. 

In reality, it’s a bit of both. 

In the book Bounce: Mozart, Federer, Picasso, Beckham, and the Science of Success, Matthew Syed takes a critical look at all the factors underpinning the success of some of the most extraordinary athletes and artists in the world. 

The obvious place to start is with the popular Outliers idea posited by Malcolm Gladwell, the idea that many successful people are a product of their environment rather than ‘gifted’.

Gladwell shows how the success of Bill Gates, the Beatles, and other outstanding performers is not so much to do with ‘what they are like’ but rather ‘where they come from.’ ‘The people who stand before kings may look like they did it all by themselves,’ Gladwell writes. ‘But in fact they are invariably the beneficiaries of hidden advantages and extraordinary opportunities and cultural legacies that allow them to learn and work hard and make sense of the world in ways others cannot.’”

We think if you study the life and work trajectory of experts, two patterns seem to emerge.

One, they have specific backgrounds or opportunities, as mentioned above. Two, they put an incredible amount of time and effort into deliberate, effortful practice.

But not everyone will have access to the same facilities or teachers (this goes back to opportunity and circumstance), and some rules/regulations will inevitably favor some and add roadblocks for others in the quest for their 10,000 hours.

A good example of the latter is eligibility cutoff dates for children’s sports teams. If you’ve ever signed up yourself or your kids in a sports league then you’ll know there is always a cut-off birth date for the different age groups.

Say your child plays on a soccer team for kids born any time in the year 2007. If your child is born in January, then they will have almost a 12 month head start on a child born in December, and a year is like a lifetime at that stage of physical development. Those physical skills manifest themselves in playing time, which further develops the child. 

Month of birth is, of course, just one of the many hidden forces shaping patterns of success and failure in this world. But what most of these forces have in common – at least when it comes to attaining excellence – is the extent to which they confer (or deny) opportunities for serious practice. Once the opportunity for practice is in place, the prospects of high achievement take off. And if practice is denied or diminished, no amount of talent is going to get you there.

Thus, if you have the time and opportunity to devote to practice, you’ve crossed the first hurdle. The second is understanding the characteristics of the type of practice which will push you ahead.

The best type of practice does two things:

  1. It helps us to acquire the skills that speed up/automate processes and feedback (see how Brazil develops its soccer players, for example.)
  2. It pushes us to the edge of our competence and forces us to focus. This is where the learning happens


Let’s explain the first point in greater detail, using an example of a specific process happening in the brains of experts.


We all do something called chunking. You probably don’t realize you’re doing it, but you do it all the time. Say I asked you to read the line below once and then, without looking back at the page, repeat the letters back to me.


The average person will find this difficult to do. Generally speaking, our mind can only keep track of about seven things at once, and I asked you to try and recall eleven. Now watch what happens when I rearrange the letters.


These are the exact same letters, but sensibly grouped in a way that your mind can understand: This is chunking.

Now, instead of trying to remember eleven letters you are remembering three words (which is still eleven letters). Even if you were able to recall the letters the way they were presented in the first example, think of how much quicker you could recall them in the second one.

This is one way that experts become so good. They learn how to chunk processes specific to their area of expertise. This helps them to use a sort of autopilot, allowing them to elevate their minds to a higher level. That’s why you’ll hear a great pianist talking about trying to use the instrument to “paint an emotion in the listeners’ minds” while you or I would struggle to eke out a few notes. 

As Janet Starkes, professor emerita of kinesiology at McMaster Univeristy, noted in Bounce,

The exploitation of advance information results in the time paradox where skilled performers seem to have all the time in the world. Recognition of familiar scenarios and the chunking of perceptual information into meaningful wholes and patterns speeds up processes.

This chunking and pattern recognition not only enables the expert to perform faster, it also helps them to make better decisions.

Unfortunately, figuring out how to best recognize, process, and use this information isn’t something that can be learned from a book or a classroom, it comes from experience. This may seem like common sense but it won’t happen just by putting in the time: You have to focus to find these patterns.

This is why (as dozens of studies have shown) length of time in many occupations is only weakly related to performance. Mere experience, if it is not matched by deep concentration, does not translate into excellence.

Put another way, someone with 20 years of experience, might be repeating one year of experience 20 times.

Let’s look at a great example from the book to illustrate this point.


Take a look at the anagrams in List A and try to solve them. Then do the same for list B.


Both lists are the same words. The only difference is that one list was more difficult to solve. When researchers asked participants to list off words like those in List A, that were easy, the participants had problems recalling them. Their recall soared when asked to list words from more difficult anagrams like those is List B.

To figure out words like those in list B it takes more time, concentration, and effort: You are engaging much more of your brain. This means that if you want to remember something or maintain your focus, make it hard.

This example, taken from the work of psychologist S. W. Tyler, neatly emphasized the power of practice when it is challenging rather than nice and easy. “When most people practice they focus on the things they can do effortlessly,’ Ericsson has said. ‘Expert practice is different. It entails considerable, specific, and sustained efforts to do something you can’t do well – or even at all. Research across domains shows that it is only by working at what you can’t do that you turn into the expert you want to become.

This isn’t to say that a certain amount of time and effort don’t go into maintaining a certain skill. But if you want to grow, you need to strain. In other words, you must eat a lot of broccoli; and since most people won’t stomach it, they will never develop a high fluency in their discipline.

…world-class performance comes by striving for a target just out of reach, but with a vivid awareness of how the gap might be breached. Over time, through constant repetition and deep concentration, the gap will disappear, only for a new target to be created, just out of reach once again.

It is worth mentioning that this type of deliberate practice can only happen if the individual has made a conscious decision to devote themselves: We can’t make these decisions for other people. We have to go “all in”; no substitute will do. 

It is only possible to clock up meaningful practice if an individual has made an independent decision to devote himself to whatever field of expertise. He has to care about what he is doing, not because a parent or a teacher says so, but for its own sake. Psychologists call this ‘internal motivation,’ and it is often lacking in children who start too young and are pushed too hard. They are, therefore, on the road not to excellence but to burnout.

In theory we can all be that wide receiver picking the ball from the air, or that musician who speaks to us through their instrument. 10,000 hours of hard, correct work is all it takes.

But as they say, “In theory, reality and theory are the same. In reality, they’re not.”

If you want to make it there, the road is bumpy. It has to be. Only a difficult road will cause you to grow and learn. And you have to personally want to travel this road, because it will be long and if you can’t motivate yourself you’ll never get where you need to be.

And as much as we shy away from reality, we can’t also forget the roles of luck and genes in making it to the absolute “top” of a profession. The recent scholarship has been extremely egalitarian, emphasizing the necessary hard work that goes into creating high level performance.

But that doesn’t mean that different folks don’t have different biology — Is there a world in which Woody Allen could have played in the NFL? — and it doesn’t mean that for every Daniel-Day Lewis, there aren’t a few hundred other actors who are extremely talented but for whom life got in the way.

Top 0.01% success is a multiplicative system: Everything’s gotta go right. The world is too competitive to allow for anything else. The magical mix of luck, genes, and correct practice probably differ widely depending on the field.

So in your quest for success, realize that you’ll have to do deep, hard work for many years, you may need the right parents (to an extent) and you’ll need a whole lot of luck.

On a lighter note, even if you just work on the first one, the only one within your control, we suspect you won’t be disappointed with the result.


Still Interested? Pick up the Bounce. It has more information on how to reach the top and how not to choke when you get there.

Why We Choke

In sports, ‘choking’ is when an athlete makes a major, unexpected blunder in a high stakes situation. Often, an expert who chokes will act like a clueless novice. Here, we examine why we choke and how to avoid it.


The book Bounce by Matthew Syed is an interesting look at the science of success, filled with stories and interviews of some of the most recognized names in sport.

While Syed focuses the majority of the book on what it takes to excel in sport or anything for that matter, there is a really interesting chapter on why we choke.

For those of you familiar with the Farnam Street mental models, you’ll recall the concept of inversion. If we want to know how to succeed, we also need to know how to avoid failure.

Why We Choke

Syed himself choked in one of the most important games of his career.

He had made it to Sydney Olympics in 2000 and it was the first time he had been a medal hopeful. He was 29 at the time and already a decorated table tennis player.

He was at the top of his game and was filled with confidence – so why did he choke?

Well to understand that let’s first look at what happened to him that day.

Franz stroked the ball into play – a light and gentle forehand topspin. It was not a difficult stroke to return, not a stroke I would normally have had any trouble pouncing upon, and yet I was strangely late on it, my feet stuck in their original position, my racket jabbing at the ball in a way that was totally unfamiliar. My return missed the table by more than two feet.

I shook out my hand, sensing that something was wrong and hoping it would rectify itself. But things got worse. Each time my opponent played a stroke, I found my body doing things that bore no relation to anything I had learned over the last twenty years of playing table tennis: my feet were sluggish, my movements alien, my touch barely existent.

I was trying as hard as I could; I yearned for victory more intensely than in any match I had ever played, and yet it was if I had regressed to the time when I was a beginner.

So why would an elite athlete suddenly play like a beginner?

It comes down to the two ways your mind functions when completing tasks; it uses explicit and implicit monitoring. A novice will use much more conscious or explicit monitoring as they are learning, trying to focus, and trying to remember. An expert has put in the time and gotten to the point where there is a switch to the unconscious or implicit mind. Syed explains:

… the prefrontal cortex is activated when a novice is learning a skill, but that control of the stroke switches over time to areas such as the basal ganglia, which is partly responsible for touch and feel.

This migration from the explicit to the implicit system of the brain has two crucial advantages. First, it enables the expert player to integrate the various parts of a complex skill into one fluent whole …, something that would be impossible at a conscious level because there are too many interconnecting variables for the conscious mind to handle. And second, it frees up attention to focus on higher-level aspects of the skill such as tactics and strategy.

This transition between brain systems can be most easily understood by thinking about what happens when you learn to drive a car. When you start out, you have to focus intently in order to move the gearshift while keeping the steering wheel in the right place, pushing on the clutch, and keeping an eye on the road. In fact, at the beginning, these tasks are so difficult to execute simultaneously that the instructor starts you off in a parking lot and helps you slowly to integrate the various elements.

After a few years of driving your car, you don’t think much at all about all the elements that are coming together to help guide you down the road. In fact, you are so comfortable with the act that you can sip coffee and sing along to the song on the radio while doing a task that, at one point, was very difficult for you to master. But what happens if something occurred to suddenly shift you from implicit back to explicit, from the unconscious back to the conscious?

This situation has been re-created by Robert Gray, a psychologist at Arizona State University. He took a group of outstanding intercollegiate baseball players and asked them to swing at a moving ball while listening for a randomly presented tone to judge whether the tone was high or low in frequency. As expected, the tone-listening task had no detrimental effect on the efficiency of their swings… Why? Because baseball hitters have automated their shot-making.

But when hitters were asked to indicate whether their bat was moving up or down at the instant the tone sounded, their performance levels plummeted. Why? Because this time the secondary task forced them to direct their attention toward the swing itself. They were consciously monitoring a stroke that was supposed to be automatic. Explicit monitoring was vying with implicit execution.

Their problem was not a lack of focus, but too much focus. Conscious monitoring had disrupted the smooth workings of the implicit system. The sequencing and timing of the different motor responses were fragmented, just as they would be with a novice. They were, effectively, beginners again.

So choking is a form of psychological reversion.

A complex task that you were able to do unconsciously suddenly comes into sharp focus and the complexity of it is really too much for your conscious brain to handle. And, now that your conscious brain is wrapped up in trying to figure out the nuance of this thing you used to know, you can forget about any higher level thinking. In an instant, your switch in focus has turned you from an expert back into a beginner.

Syed explains in more detail:

Consider what happens when executing a simple task, like keeping a cup of coffee upright under pressure – say, because you are walking across a very expensive carpet. In these circumstances, explicit attention is just what you need. By focusing on keeping the cup vertical, you are far less likely to spill the contents because of inadvertence or a lack of concentration. On simple tasks, the tendency to slow down and take conscious control confers huge advantages.

But precisely the opposite applies when executing a complex task. When an expert hits a moving table tennis ball or strikes a fade on a golf shot, any tendency to direct attention toward the mechanics of the shot is likely to be catastrophic because there are too many interconnecting variables for the conscious mind to handle (this is another example of combinatorial explosion).

Choking, then, is a kind of neural glitch that occurs when the brain switches to a system of explicit monitoring in circumstances when it ought to stick to the implicit system. It is not something the performer does intentionally; it just happens. And once the explicit system has kicked in (as anyone who has been afflicted by choking will tell you), it is damned difficult to switch out of.

So how do we overcome choking and stop the explicit system from taking over?

Considering that choking only ever occurs in highly pressurized circumstances, what better way than to convince oneself that a career-defining contest doesn’t really matter? After all, if the performer does not feel any pressure, there is no pressure – and the conscious mind will not attempt to wrestle control from the implicit system.

In the end, Syed worked with sports psychologist Mark Bawden to help him overcome his issues with choking. They came up with strategies to lessen the pressure of big matches.

I worked with Bawden for many years after the Olympic Games in Sydney to ward off choking. My method was to think about all the things that are so much more important than sport: health, family, relationships, and so on. During my prematch routine, I would spend a few minutes in a deeply relaxed state, filling my mind with these thoughts, finishing with an affirmation…: ‘It’s only table tennis!’ By the time I reached the court, my beliefs had altered: the match was no longer the be-all and end-all.

This is a good strategy for the next time you have an important meeting/interview/presentation, counter-intuitively tell yourself it’s not that big of a deal. Remind yourself of all the things that are more important and maybe even calm yourself with some stoic negative thinking. Be confident and try not to overthink.