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The Route to Success: 10 000 hours of practice and a growth mindset

Here's something completely different and not in the least bit influenced by technology.  Nevertheless, these thoughts here are ones that are very important to me and the ideas expressed are ones that I try to bring into my everyday life.  It is the script from my recent assembly to an all female audience - hence the reference to successful women.  It can be read in conjunction with this prezi  called the Equation: the route to success

I want to talk to you today about what it takes to be successful and I am going to look at individual cases of girls around the world who have known success and just how they came to achieve this success.
Firstly, however I would like to show you a picture.  It’s a still life with a sporting theme.   

So, what do you think?  I know it seems hard to believe but I drew this picture.  Now, I want you to be honest – and I won’t be offended - but put your hands up if you think it’s really rather good.  Perhaps you would like to see the original?  OK, I’ll put you out of your misery.  Here it is:

I think you’ll agree it’s hard to tell the difference between the two, right? 
But seriously, I don’t think I’m very good at art.  In fact in the past I would always explain away perceived failings in different areas with a quick “I’m not talented at – in this case – art”.  Nevertheless the other day I said to an artist friend of mine, that I don’t believe in talent. She was quick to disagree with me.  “But”, I said, “you could teach me”.  My friend agreed that, yes, she could teach me.  However, only up to a certain point.  I would never be a Van Gogh.  The implication being that I don't have talent so there’s only so far that lessons and application can take me. 
Now, as I said, I don’t really believe in talent and neither did Laszlo Polgar, an educational psychologist from Hungary.  Although Hungarian society at the time back in the late 60s thought he was crazy, Polgar set out to prove that hard work rather than talent could transform someone if given half the chance.  
"Children have extraordinary potential and it's up to society to unlock it" Laszlo Polgar
As no one believed him he found himself a wife prepared to indulge him in his idea of producing children with world-class abilities.
On 19th April 1969 Susan Polgar was born.  22 years later she became the first female chess grandmaster and actually paved the way for women to compete in the world’s most prestigious events.
On 2 November 1974 Sofia Polgar was born. Just five years later Sofia was crowned the under-eleven Hungarian champion.  She went on to win many gold medals in chess Olympiads and championships.  Her most extraordinary achievement was when she won eight straight games in the Magistrale di Roma beating many of the greatest male grandmasters.  According to one chess expert “The odds against such an occurrence must be billions to one”
On 23 July 1976 Judit Polgar was born.  She was by far and away the most successful of the sisters.  I’m sure by now you can figure out in what domain her success lay?  Chess, of course.   Judit was the number one female chess player in the world for well over a decade beating the likes of Kasparov and Karpov along the way. She is considered the greatest female player of all time.
So how did they achieve this?  Was it talent?  Were all three girls just, simply, talented. Or was it something else? Laszlo Polgar decided to groom his children for brilliance to prove to the doubters that their ideas about excellence were all wrong.  He chose chess as his weapon (or rather, their weapon).  Chess, unlike art, is totally objective and success is based on performance so there was no room for argument.  Now, don’t think for one moment they had a miserable childhood.  Polgar thought carefully about the whole experience and ensured that the process was fun; the girls genuinely wanted to learn.  The key issue is that all three sisters had accumulated well over ten thousand hours of specialized practice by the time they were in their mid-teens which was arguably more than any other women in chess history. 
The Polgar sisters were not the only successfully produced sisters in sporting history.  Here’s some more you may have heard of.  In a similar story across the pond, Richard Williams,  father to tennis playing stars Venus and Serena, made a decision two years before Venus was born to create a tennis champion.  People often talk about the extraordinary tennis talent of the William’s sisters and yet in talking uniquely about talent people are forgetting the hours upon hours of practice the girls put in during their childhood.  The girls trained for hours on end sometimes serving with baseball bats at traffic cones until their arms ached.  Venus remembers that during school holidays they had practice sessions that started at 8am in the morning and lasted until 3.00pm.   By the time the girls were invited to a Pro Tennis School they had of course, by that point, clocked up thousands of hours of practice. 
We may believe that we have some kind of innate ability and this may motivate us to practise and to find the best teachers to help us improve.  However, as Malcolm Gladwell writes in his seminal work “The Outliers” “The people who stand before kings may look like they did it all by themselves 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”
So the point is, if you really want to be good at something – you can.  But you have to be prepared to put in the hours and hours of meaningful and purposeful practice. 
And another thing… To believe that you are innately talented at something can be divisive – after all why put in effort and practice if your success is due to the fact that you have the right genes?  Carol Dweck Stanford University psychologist believes in a growth mindset and thinks that a belief in focused effort rather than talent will lead to greater success.   
Then there is Shizuka Arakawa.  On her way to becoming Olympic figure-skating champion she fell down more than 20 000 times.  The question is why would anyone carry on skating if they kept falling over? If they kept f a i l i ng?  Surely, she should have given up and tried a different sport? Something less dangerous?  Carol Dweck tells us that Arakawa did not give up “because she didn’t interpret falling down as failure”.  Arakawa had a growth mindset, "she interpreted falling down not merely as a means of improving, but as evidence that she was improving".  Failure for Arakawa was the key to success it provided the opportunity to learn, develop and adapt.
So next time you find yourself saying “I’m not a natural linguist”, “1 + 1 is the best I can do when it comes to maths” or “I am talentless at sport” just remember that failure is a good thing – learn from it. Remember too - practice makes perfect, and then get started on your 10000 hours of practice. 

10 000 hours of f o c u s e d,  m e a n i n g f u l practice.  

Then you will know success.

Syed, M (2010) Bounce - the myth of talent and the power of practice. Fourth Estate, London


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