The talent myth and Matthew Syed

I have just finished reading an extraordinary book and I would like to share how it has had an impact on the way I think about my running.

The idea that natural talent is the primary factor when it comes to athletic ability cannot be new to most of the people reading this (whether or not they believe it). I am a victim of assuming that those I look up to – especially runners who I admire for their speed and endurance – must be genetically superior or somehow more gifted than me. Matthew Syed, in his book Bounce, argues that this is untrue.

When I met my coach for the first time I told him that I was sure I was too old to improve significantly or that – given my genetic limitations – I would not be able to run much faster than I already do. My coach gave me the same response as I heard from Bud Baldaro when I first met him: that I could improve with hard work, dedication and more running. It was a very straightforward message and I realise now that they were telling me that talent had very little, if anything, to do with how fast I could run a marathon. Hard work was the answer. Sadly the message didn’t sink in immediately and it has taken the beautifully crafted words of Syed to hammer the point home – we all have huge potential and all we need to tap into it is hard effort.

The thing that struck me most about Syed’s assertion that talent is a myth is the amount of evidence he is able to call upon to support his arguments. I won’t go into very much detail here (I’d encourage you to buy a copy and read it yourself) but naturally the really interesting passages for me are those where he writes about endurance sports. He explodes the myth that the dominance of long distance running by athletes from east Africa is something to do with their genetic abilities – he points out that indeed it is not east African’s who are ‘natural‘ distance runners, nor is it Kenyans in general who have the right genes for endurance and speed. In fact the majority of successful runners come from a really tiny region called Nandi District which contains only 1.8% of Kenya’s population but has produced about 90% of the top Kenyan runners (and about 50% of the world’s top-class Kalenjin athletes). The dominance of this region is down to opportunity and inspiration – this is a region where many, many children use running as the primary transport method to  get to and from school and where their local heroes are the stars of long distance running. To cut a long story and a very good book short, these factors along with the desire to work bloody hard at their chosen sport is what makes these people special.

So how does that relate to me and my running? Well I think that Syed’s book makes it clear that one of the reasons the talent myth is so widely believed and so deeply ingrained in the consciousness of the majority of people is that it offers an excuse for mediocrity. It is all too easy to look at someone who is better than oneself in any field and reach for the consolation that we could never be as good as them because genetics have dictated that they would be better no matter what (and that therefore trying is a waste of time and effort). It is a much more bitter pill to swallow to acknowledge that the reason they are better is that they practice more or they train harder.

So for me this means that I have to shrug off the mantle of inferiority. I have to face up to the fact that I can run faster – much faster – if I dedicate myself more and train harder. It becomes a question of motivation, because it now is apparent that if I get up earlier to fit in an extra run or turn down a social invitation in order to rest before a key session or race, my running will benefit and I will get quicker. Whilst running with two club mates on Sunday this was brought home with some force when, after describing how much more running I am doing now in comparison to what I did for my last road marathon (in Paris), I was told that the modest target that I have set for Florence in November is inappropriate – his point was that if I am going to put in this much effort then I should aim for and expect a much larger improvement. So I’d better finish this off now and get to the club… I’ve got the second of my two runs today to do and a new target to set for November!

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About simon

I run marathons. Everything else is a result of that.

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    [...] my last post I wrote about Matthew Syed’s book, Bounce, and the impact it has had on me. In the book Syed [...]

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    [...] The busiest day of the year was August 17th with 108 views. The most popular post that day was The talent myth and Matthew Syed. [...]

  3. | Simon FreemanSimon Freeman - November 14, 2011

    [...] Matthew Syed, Daniel Pink, Rasmus Ankersen and others say (you can read my take on that here and here) then it is only due to hard work that they will succeed, which is difficult in a comfortable [...]

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