It feels good to think we could all be great, that we’re not at the mercy of our genes.
But David Shenk also believes there’s a second reason: the dread it instills in us.
The notion that we’re now responsible for whether or not we become great can be a gnawing burden that the mind finds hard to let go.
A belief in inborn gifts and limits is much gentler on the psyche: The reason you aren’t a great opera singer is because you can’t be one. That’s simply the way you were wired. Thinking of talent as innate makes our world more manageable, more comfortable. It relieves a person of the burden of expectation. It also relieves us of distressing comparisons. If Tiger Woods is innately great, we can feel casually jealous of his genetic luck while avoiding disappointment in ourselves. If, on the other hand, each one of us truly believed ourselves capable of Tiger-like achievement, the burden of expectation and disappointment could be profound. Did I blow my chance to be a brilliant tennis player?
So after studying exceptional people and what got them there, what does Shenk recommend to those of us ambitious enough to start down that 10000 hour road and strive for expertise?
Shenk says to stop thinking about how easy greatness may have come to experts and focus on their relentless persistence.
The single greatest lesson from past ultra-achievers is not how easily things came to them, but how irrepressible and resilient they were. You have to want it, want it so bad you will never give up, so bad that you are ready to sacrifice time, money, sleep, friendships, even your reputation (people may— probably will— come to think of you as odd). You will have to adopt a particular lifestyle of ambition, not just for a few weeks or months but for years and years and years. You have to want it so bad that you are not only ready to fail, but you actually want to experience failure: revel in it, learn from it.
And after more than 10000 hours of exhausting struggle what do most geniuses regret when they die? That they didn’t do even more.
In 1995, three Cornell psychologists did an extensive study of Terman’s now-elderly participants. They titled their paper “Failing to Act: Regrets of Terman’s Geniuses.” The profound lesson was that, at the end of their lives, Terman’s group had exactly the same sorts of regrets as the rest of the elderly population. They wish they had done more: gotten more education, worked harder, persevered.
Stop thinking about blissful Eureka moments from beautiful muses. Greatness comes from hard work. Be hard on yourself and you’ll improve.
We live under the great myth of the perfect first draft. While moments of inspiration do exist, great work is, for the most part, painstaking and cannot happen without the most severe (and constructive) self-criticism.
But don’t be so hard on yourself outside of training. Failure needs to be an opportunity, not an excuse to beat yourself up. Otherwise you might end up like this…
“I wake up sometimes and say, ‘What the heck happened to me?’ It’s like a nightmare,” American runner Abel Kiviat told the Los Angeles Times in 1990 about his disappointing silver medal in the 1,500-meter Olympic run. Kiviat was ninety-one when he made this statement— his performance had occurred more than seventy years earlier! Unless they somehow fuel motivation, feelings of regret and blame dangerously distract from the task at hand, which is to focus constantly on how to improve.
Limitations show you what to focus on. They don’t determine what you can or can’t do after 10000 hours of practice.
Being better than most, by definition, means being an extreme, unreasonable person — a dreamer.
The pursuit of greatness never makes logical, “kitchen table” sense… The only way to get there is to go farther, harder, longer than almost everyone else, to push well past the point of logic or reason. If it looked easy or even attainable to most, then many more would get there. That is why ultra-achievers (of whatever age) are also dreamers. They must have part of their heads stuck in the clouds in order to imagine the unimaginable.
Push, push, push and, no, you can’t take a break yet.
In consumer culture, we are constantly conditioned to gratify our impulses immediately: buy, eat, watch, click— now. High achievers transcend these impulses. Like the Buddha who waits patiently at the gates of heaven until all others have entered before him, young Kenyans are content to run for many years before they can even dream of competing in a major international contest.
Geniuses sound like obsessive crazy people. Yes, they are.
Which is why it’s essential to understand the journey of those who came before you — that way it feels slightly less crazy when you’re busy, well, being crazy.
Heroes inspire, not just by their great work but also by their humble beginnings. Einstein worked as a patent clerk. Thomas Edison was expelled from the first grade because his teacher thought him retarded. Charles Darwin had so little to show for himself as a teenager that his father said to him, “You care for nothing but shooting, dogs, and rat-catching and you will be a disgrace to yourself and all your family.” (Just a few years later, young Darwin set out on the HMS Beagle and eventually revolutionized humanity’s view of itself.) To know the particulars of a favorite artist or athlete’s ordeal is to be continually reminded of uncharted paths and oddball ideas that only later become recognized as genius. This experience is magnified by examining rough drafts of masterpiece books, paintings, and albums.
10,000 hours makes an expert. But what makes someone insane enough to invest 10,000 hours in anything so difficult as mastery?
Great teachers do.
Any person lucky enough to have had one great teacher who inspired, advised, critiqued, and had endless faith in her student’s ability will tell you what a difference that person has made in her life. “Most students who become interested in an academic subject do so because they have met a teacher who was able to pique their interest,” write Csikszentmihályi, Rathunde, and Whalen. It is yet another great irony of the giftedness myth: in the final analysis, the true road to success lies not in a person’s molecular structure, but in his developing the most productive attitudes and identifying magnificent external resources.
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