It is only in sport that the benefits of purposeful practice are accrued by individuals at the expense of other individuals, and never by society as a whole. But this is precisely the area in which purposeful practice is pursued with a vengeance, while it is all but neglected in the areas where we all stand to benefit. . . . The talent theory of expertise is not merely flawed in theory; it is insidious in practice, robbing individuals and institutions of the motivation to change themselves and society.
Before giving that the attention it deserves there’s a bit more ground to cover.
Even when we understand all that he explains about excellence and effort up to this point, there is something else left over. After all, as he points out, there are many people who have their interest sparked and embark upon a course of practice only to give up on it well before they shine.
He looks at the work of Carol Dweck for clues (pages 114-129). He begins by describing a study in which she divides children into two groups: those who thought intelligence was genetic and those who thought it could be improved by effort. She felt these were two different mindsets. Basically, although equally able on initial testing, the first group gave up quickly as questions in a test got harder, whereas members of the other group persisted and some even solved problems that were theoretically beyond them. Syed describes her conclusion (page 117):
. . .the gap in performance was opened up by something completely different: their respective beliefs or mindsets.
If you believe talent is innate, mistakes prove you haven’t got it so you give up. If you believe talent is the result of effort, mistakes tend to spur you on. These mindsets become self-fulfilling prophecies.
Further studies introduced praise for effort rather than ‘talent’ with predictable results. In fact, feedback of many kinds is essential if we are to enhance our performance at any complex skill. He uses the expression growth mindset (page 128) to describe the attitude that is created when effort is seen as the pathway to excellence and is encouraged as such.
Before I move on to briefly consider how this maps onto spiritual growth and social change in the widest sense, I’d like to come back to his point, quoted earlier, that the talent ‘theory of expertise’ is ‘insidious in practice.’
Dweck located the reasons for Enron‘s spectacular failure in what Syed summarises as a ‘culture that exalted talent above the possibilities of personal development.’ This caused the company to promote people it viewed as talented to decision-making positions of high authority even when they had no prior experience in the area of finance of which they were put in charge. She wrote (quoted on page 132):
. . . by putting complete faith in talent, Enron did a fatal thing: it created a culture that worshipped talent, thereby forcing its employees to look and act extraordinarily talented.
Basically, it forced them into the fixed mindset. And we know a lot about that. We know that people with the fixed mindset do not admit and correct their deficiencies.
Any one who has embarked seriously on a spiritual path will relate to much of this, I think. Practice is integral to spiritual progress. The Bahá’í Faith emphasises for example the strong link between the kind of efforts we make, the beliefs we have about the results of that effort and the achievement of eventual excellence for the betterment of society, something that Syed touched upon when he wrote ‘[purposeful practice] is all but neglected in the areas where we all stand to benefit.’
That’s an example of the need to practice. What we believe also matters:
When the will and the desire are strong enough, the means will be found and the way opened . . .
(The Guardian to the National Assembly of the United States, 21 September 1957: quoted in Living the Life, page 38)
A belief in the power of Divine Assistance is also of critical importance here. It is easy to scoff at this from a materialistic point of view, but, even if there were no God it could still be important and effective to believe in His power to help. This is what makes it unwise for evangelical atheists to do a demolition job on God and why they’d do better to target the myth of talent as the idol in need of destruction.
As Syed so clearly explains, certain kinds of belief are immensely beneficial regardless of their truth value. Having referred to the health benefits of religious belief (page 148), he moves onto consider the impact of strong belief upon performance (page 158):
Why should a sportsman convince himself he will win when he knows that there is every possibility he will lose? Because to win, one must proportion one’s belief, not to the evidence, but to whatever the mind can usefully get away with. To win, one must surgically remove doubt – rational and irrational – from the mind.
‘Abdu’l-Bahá puts it most powerfully when he says: ‘As ye have faith so shall your powers and blessings be.’ (Star of the West: Vol 12, No. 16. page 250).
So that’s the effort and the belief. The how is also critical. Just to practice any old how is not enough. When the central body of the Faith, the Universal House of Justice, discussed the essence of spiritual practice they did not just tell us what to do to make it count: they also made it very clear how we were to do it. If we take a look at the first three of what they regard as the Essential Requisites for Spiritual Growth the point is obvious:
1. The recital each day of one of the Obligatory Prayers with pure-hearted devotion.
2. The regular reading of the Sacred Scriptures, specifically at least each morning and evening, with reverence, attention and thought.
3. Prayerful meditation on the Teachings, so that we may understand them more deeply, fulfil them more faithfully, and convey them more accurately to others.
What goes with the actions? ‘Pure-hearted devotion’ goes with prayer, ‘reverence, attention and thought’ goes with reading, and meditation has to be ‘prayerful.’
And this is what is required, by implication, before we will be able to achieve the fourth thing: ‘Striving every day to bring our behaviour more into accordance with the high standards that are set forth in the Teachings.’ Not a big ask then. But everything in Syed’s book, and all the evidence that stands behind it, demonstrates that such sustained effort changes us and will change the social world within which we live, if enough of us make anything like this level of effort.
And if we are to rise to the needs of the times, as Bahá’ís believe we must, and lift our civilisation to a far higher level, nothing less is required of us than efforts on this scale, as other posts on this blog have attempted to explain (links to them all can be found at the 6th paragraph of this previous post‘s link).
I am grateful to Syed for the clarity with which he has shown that practice can shift us nearer to perfection – and not just in sport but in society as a whole.