Talent

When I was heading to the UK last year I popped into the airport bookshop to see what reading I could pickup for the flight. I quickly selected about 4 books that seemed interesting and looked forward to reading them on the long flight. As usually happens on marathon plane journeys (I assume this isn’t just me?) I ended up watching films back-to-back and drinking beer and got almost no reading done! I finally picked up one of the books last week – Matthew Syed’sBounce: the myth of talent and the power of practise.

As someone who has no natural athletic ability whatsoever, my eyebrow was firmly raised by what the subtitle was suggesting. Talent is a myth? Interested if I could apply anything learned in the book to my study of kendo (and hoping that my lack of talent wasn’t actually a handicap after all!) I dived in.

I’m pretty sure many k247 readers will have read the book, so I won’t attempt to summarize it fully here – I will focus briefly on some aspects discussed mainly in part 1 of the book. If you want an actual review of the book, please look online.

1. Practise

‘it is practice, not talent that holds the key to success.’

In order to get better at something – according to the book – you need to practise it… a lot. The book says a good 10 years, about 10,000 hours of repeated practise is required to become excellent at something. Thats quite a startling premise, and I immediately started my own calculations.

For example, yesterday I did 3 keiko sessions: in the morning (45 minutes of kihon), at work (80 minutes of kihon), and in the evening (25 minutes of kihon and 45 of jigeiko), thats a total of 195 minutes (3 hours 25 minutes). If I did this (hard) schedule 6 days a week I’d clock up 1,170 minutes/week x 52 (# of weeks in most years) = 60,840 minutes/year = about 1,014 hours. So – in order to reach the 10,000 hours marked needed for excellence – I’d basically need to continue this schedule for the required 10 years.

Holy cow. Needless to say that the above schedule isn’t easy physically (or mentally) and I don’t (can’t!) do it every day…. in fact, as much as I love kendo I’m not even sure I’d want to.

* Out of yesterdays 195 minutes of practise 150 minutes was kihon (79%) … this begs the question ‘what am I getting good at? …. kihon or jigeiko?’

Caveat – the practise must be Purposeful / deliberate

‘in most sports, its is possible to clock up endless hours without improving at all.’

‘it is only by working at what you can’t do that you turn into the expert you want to become.’

The book states that the time put into practise has to be deliberate – you must be working to improve at all times and always switched on, otherwise the time is – if its excellence you seek – wasted.

I’m pretty sure that I spend the majority of my keiko time (especially during kihon) consciously thinking about what I’m doing, but its nowhere near 100% of the time.

If, lets just say for arguments sake, 70% of yesterdays keiko time was ‘deliberate’ then 30% was wasted – meaning that the time to reach excellence would be increased by that time lost… so rather than 10 years at the 3 keiko/day-6 days/week formula, I’d actually need something between 13 and 14 years.

2. Start young

‘prodigies are made not born.’

Some of my police friends who are the same age as me (38) are already nanadan. Their kendo is nothing short of amazing, and I often find myself watching them with envy, or facing them with frustration. Like many people who began kendo at a late age (19) I have quite a strong complex when it comes to comparing myself with serious kendoka my own age, as they are exponentially better. The excuse* is always – “Well, they started when they were six after all….”

The benefits of starting kendo, or anything for that matter, at a young age is obvious. 16 year old high school students who started when they were 6 years old often have very good at kendo (even though they may not have notched up 10,000 hours they are generally well on the way). Many if not most do not have extraordinary skill, however, so its easy to say that the difference between two students like this comes down to natural talent or innate athletic ability alone. But perhaps the difference lies not so much with these factors as to their external environment, including good teachers, facilities, and – most important of all – motivation, all of which would theoretically help increase the ‘deliberateness’ of their keiko.

I’ve taken many students from 15/16 year olds with no experience to 18 year old nidan’s (training 6 days/week over 2.5 years) but, despite them achieving a pretty good kendo shape, they simply can’t compare to those that have already wracked up 10 years of deliberate experience. The best of this bunch invariably tend to have some sort of athletic background.

I spent sometime thinking about people around me that became good quickly without starting at 6 years old, and I could only think of one person: he started when he was 13 years old and, after being spotted for his ability, went to a high school specialising in kendo from the age of 15. By 20 he had 4dan and will attempt his 5dan this year (and probably pass) at the age of 24. Looking at him you may think that he has god given talent, but thats without realising he was in a tremendous environment to learn kendo from the start and – especially his high school years – went through hours of daily kendo sessions.

The book states that child prodigies to not simply appear out of thin air, they are shaped. It also says that starting as young as possible is a benefit. I would have to agree to these points with for the most part.

(*Note: I didn’t start drinking when I was 6, but being Scottish I started much earlier than my same-age Japanese nanadan friends … which has its own kendo benefits!)

3. Feedback

‘Feedback is, in effect, the rocket fuel that propels the acquisition of knowledge, and without it no amount of practise will get you there.’

Every year I get a new batch of 15/16 year olds join my kendo club. Some of them already have nidan and have been practising since they were 6, others have shodan and started at 13. What I’ve discovered is that these facts alone don’t tell me much about their actual kendo ability, as sometimes the nidan students have very bad habits and a messy style. Whats more revealing (without fail) is the environment that they learned kendo, specifically the teacher(s) or lack thereof.

Without a good teacher to tell us what to do, and to monitor our improvement (or lack of) its very hard to get (specific) feedback. Its this constant monitoring-explaining-fixing-trying-monitoring loop that increases development growth, says the book.

4. Are Blacks Superior Runners? i.e. Are Japanese people Superior Kendoka?

‘Why spend time and energy seeking to improve if success is only available to people with the right genes?’

Probably the best known 8dan brothers are the Miyazaki’s and the Eiga’s, but there are more. I can think of at least 3 sets of 8dan brothers in Osaka right of the bat. Combined with the fact that there are no non-Japanese hachidan (awarded in Japan by Japanese people of course), the Japanese teams record in the World Kendo Championships (male and female), the the numerous shiai wins by Japanese people in local competition throughout the world, you would be forgiven to thinking that there was somehow a genetic edge to things. Thats not how I see it at all.

The book itself destroys the myth that all black people are naturally gifted runners and we could easily use the same framework of thought to do the same for Japanese people and kendo. The reality is that Japans domination of the art is simply one of ‘cultural legacy.’ Kendo has been done for longer in Japan, is controlled by a Japanese organisation, and no other country can come close to Japans kendo infrastructure.

If you want your child to be good at kendo its simple: move to Japan, find a strong kendo area, and place your kid in the correct schools (as young as possible). If all things are equal, your child has about as much chance at becoming strong at kendo as any other Japanese child (assuming they are motivated). Translating that into a successful kendo career over here is a different story though… but this relates not to genetics, but to less savoury factors.

If Teramoto Shoji had been born in Kenya, there would have been little chance for him to start kendo at 6, enter into the international budo university, become an Osaka police tokuren member, or win the all-japan and world championships. He would have had a much higher chance of entering the olympics as a runner.

Summary / opinion

‘expert knowledge simply cannot be taught in the classroom over the course of a rainy afternoon’

I would definitely agree with the basic premises of the book – that improvement comes with continual and long-term repetition of deliberate practise. Starting young and practising in a good environment with a great teacher is also a no-brainer. Being in the correct situation/environment to do this from a young age is often down to opportunity, chance, and luck is again something I think is obvious. That anyone could seriously suggest that its the genetics of the Japanese rather than the infrastructure that gives them their kendo advantage is laughable.

But what of God-given, natural raw talent? Does it exist?

Theres no denying that there are many advantages to having a strong/athletic physique, and being tall is – unquestionably – the largest physical advantage a kendoka could hope for. But even people like this cannot simply become good at kendo instantly. They still need years of practise, the must do lots and lots of kirikaeshi and uchikomi: there is no shortcut.

That some adult beginners advance quicker than others is obviously, at least to me, a fact. Whether this is down to ‘talent’ or simply due to their background to date is open to debate. Personally, I think those that have some sort of sporty experience (not ‘talent’) behind them do tend to fair better kendo-wise, at least in the beginning.

What I took from the book is this: reaching excellence in something is the result of deliberate hard work and repetitive practise over years. Although some of us many never master the highly polished skills that others have (for a variety of reasons), conscientious practise can’t fail to help us improve. Although this conclusion is rather obvious, I do think its worth keeping it in mind when watching those that seem to be naturally ‘talented’ – remember that almost certainly their ability didn’t suddenly spring forth suddenly from nothing, rather it is an end product of sustained experience. If you think like this and are prepared to work hard, then any envy you may feel towards others and any limits (or excuses) you artificially set yourself will be removed. All you need to do now is get back to the dojo and practise.

Selected quotes

‘the differences between expert performers and normal adults reflect a life-long persistence of deliberate effort to improve performance.’

‘Once the opportunity for practice is in place, the prospects of high achievement take if. And if practice is denied or diminished, no amount of talent is going to get you there.’

‘Why would any individual or parent spend time and energy seeking opportunities to improve if success is ultimately about talent rather than practice? Why would we make sacrifices if the gains are, at best, uncertain?’

‘The paradox of excellence is that it is built upon the foundations of necessary failure.’

Source

Bounce. Matthew Syed. Fourth Estate. Published 2010.

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Published by

George

I’m the founder and chief editor of kenshi247.net.

Amongst other things I am a high school kendo club coach, an avid practitioner of classical swordsmanship, a history student, and a vegetarian.

8 thoughts on “Talent”

  1. Excellent article, George! The advantages of starting young are staggering compared to starting later in life. The body and brain can evolve to handle training rigors and process complex theories in a far more relaxed and supple manner than any adult beginner.

    I have met a few Japanese adult beginners over the years and I actually admire their mentality/maturity for diving in. They obviously know that they are not doing it to become competitive.

  2. Its the same for any skill, kendo is a skill, mean it has to be learnt, it has to be improved. Check this video, and just change “guitar” for “Kendo” or any other skill

  3. I have a hunch that you and I have read the same book by different authors. I read Outliers by Matthew Gladwell, and that was pretty much everything you’ve written here.
    Even our conclusions seemed similar. Multiple factors working off one another help create the whole equation; consistency, challenge, opportunity…ect. I’d actually like to delve deeper into the subject, but I’m still stuck on the fact that the two books seem identical in nature without ever having read your book. I even turned around and did the exact same calculations you’ve done, 10,000 hours is verbatim to what was stated in my book as well…I enjoyed my book for the most part…I’d recommend it to you, but I feel you’ve already read it.
    -Cheers

  4. Hi Wayne,

    Yeah, there are a bunch of books that came out that are similarly themed. For me personally the reason I wrote about it here is that most of it is pretty logical. I don’t think I accept the exact ‘10,000 hours’ thing, but as you said above – consistency, challenge, opportunity, etc .. – doing these things can’t not help you improve.

    Cheers!

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