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Two men

A young man gets up at 5.45am and eats a bowl of chopped-up apple and pine nuts, and a whey protein drink, like he does every morning. He gets changed into his training gear and leaves his home. He sets off for the training centre on the far side of the city, and he knows that if he goes quickly and catches the first train service, he can make it there in 1 hour and 12 minutes. He has made this journey every morning for the past 4 years, give or take a handful of exceptions for a national holiday or ill health.

He arrives at the training centre – a glorified leisure centre, run-down following a recent halt to Government funding – twenty minutes before the first employee usually arrives to open the centre, so that he can guarantee use of the only set of equipment for his training. He waits in the cold. He has stood outside this entrance over a thousand times, trying to focus on what he is going to work on when he gets inside. His fingers start to go numb.

The employee arrives and lets the man into the building. He work for three hours on the equipment, often repeating the same technique until he has it perfected, which can take months. Once he has isolated what he is doing wrong, he concentrates on correcting it. It is the only thing which occupies his mind day and night and he completely surrenders his body to this simple, narrow pursuit. He pushes his body to the brink of exhaustion day after day, until, after many months of training and competition, the skill is a matter of unconscious competence, a habit which he does not have to think about to achieve. What takes years for most people to master, he can now do without thinking.

His sole motivation, the daydream with which he occupies himself through all of this is the competition every four years. The level of dedication and training he has submitted himself to means that, in front of the world, he has a chance to compete with the best and show everyone what he personally can do. He has spent many years, especially the last four, saying ‘no’ to everything a man of his age usually does –traditional entertainment, normal food, drugs – to have his chance to demonstrate why he should be talked about, remarked upon, or remembered.

He travels thousands of miles to the competition, spending all the money he and his family have saved up over many years. After qualifying for the final round of the tournament, he is excited and confident of success. However, he doesn’t get anywhere near a medal-winning position in the finals as he completely fails to perform the technique he thought he had mastered when the pressure mounts. It is a glaring failure and ruins any chance of him challenging his rivals for honours.  The opposition finish far ahead of him and he finishes last, in 8th position. Then he goes home.

*

Another man gets up at 11.16am in his comfortable flat in Kentish Town, or Westbourne Grove, or wherever. He is a writer – a sports writer – and one of the benefits of this job is that he can lie-in on most working days. As a writer, he is a dignified, voice of truth and superiority, at a position which requires intelligence and insight. He is respected through to the furthest depths of his middle class clique for his scathing and pithy rejections of the poor and incompetent performers who have the insolence to compete in front of him. His famous rejections of those who do not produce immediate excellence for his pleasure are as verbose as they are scathing.

One summer, this man is paid to eat pizza, drink beer and type derogatory remarks with pretentious vocabulary into Microsoft word, just like every year – except this time he will be in a different city. It has been four years since the last prestigious sporting tournament and so he is paid to go to this city and watch those who have trained for many years and then write about them. He yawns his way through a press release for the opening rounds before the final rounds take place. The winner is as expected, the defending champion from four years ago. But look at that man in 8th position, he thinks. He’s awful! How on earth is he so bad? His incompetence compared to the others is actually quite amusing.

When the writer returns to his London office, he sends the clip of the final round to his colleagues in the writing office and shares the video on Twitter. “That’s incredible,” says the writer. “It really is embarrassing for him. His technique is all wrong, he’s completely mistimed his performance and his mindset is obviously too cautious. He needs to learn how to perform on the big stage when the pressure is on. Someone needs to tell him this because he’ll never achieve anything like that”.

And the writer and his colleague laugh and go back to their desks and starts proudly typing away.

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On Greatness

In his book Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell coined the term the ‘ten thousand hour rule’, which denotes that to achieve true mastery of any skill, you need to practice for at least ten-thousand hours. After studying masters of many different fields, from musicians to sportsmen to thinkers, “no-one has yet found a case in which true world-class expertise was accomplished in less time”.

Ten thousand hours is a long time. If you practiced something for two hours every day (no mean commitment), it would take you around 14 years to give yourself a chance of true, world-class expertise. Even then it would not be guaranteed of course – this amount of practice is merely a necessity. You would give yourself a better chance of achieving greatness by committing three, four five hours each day to a passion of yours. Five hours, every day, with no days off for Christmas or New Year, and it still takes you at least six years.

Could you commit that much time to something? You would have to cut a lot of things out of your life. Would you rather be a dilettante in many hobbies, with a light knowledge in a range of subjects, or a world expert at one thing and fairly abject at everything else? Of course the ideal scenario is to be widely educated on a variety of issues, with the additional athletic ability of, say, Eric Cantona. But this is a very rare breed. Noam Chomsky might be a specimen – one of the most widely respected and thus authoritative voices on Linguistics, Psychology and Political Philosophy in the world, while the ‘Chomsky Hierarchy’ is a key model in computer science, and the man’s work is the eighth most cited source of all time. But even he can’t lob Lionel Perez from 18 yards.

To be as multi-talented as Chomsky is quite an ambitious aim, but in general you can achieve mastery of any individual skill if you really, really want to. Notwithstanding the main restraint of physical demise , if you make something your top priority, spending nearly all of your time and money on becoming as great as you can be at it, you’ll probably get close to true mastery. You can become a world expert on Thomas Hardy if you read enough. You can become a professional darts player if you practice enough. If you are young enough and hire enough personal trainers and undergo enough coaching, you would probably start to master football. If you spend every single minute of the day reading Johann Hari articles, you are a world expert on objective morality. Probably.

While I’m sure most people would like to be a genius concert pianist or a famous playwright, there is wanting it to happen, and wanting it to happen so much that it takes the place of most other stuff in your life. Judging by the decisions of most people, true dedication is deemed too much of a compromise on the multitude of pleasures our standard of living offers us – relaxing after work, spending weekends with friends and family. You can forget about greatness and have a pizza on the couch watching TV every week, as well as going to the pub with friends, watching sport and listening to music as much as you want. The plethora of activites that are presented to you, which make you passive consumers, are so vast in quantity that it is easy to forget the pursuit of real, era-defining stand-out achievement and still have an enjoyable, easy life.

I asked a friend about the dilemma between greatness but compromise, and mediocrity but pleasurability. He argued on a personal level for the pursuit of greatness over variety because of a deep worry he has that he will be instantly forgotten once he has died and thus he might well have not existed. If he is not remembered by people he didn’t know, then he feels that he was no different to the billions before him, and his personal significance is virtually zero.

Of course, pursuing greatness is making the assessment that in the long term you’ll have more pleasure than all those times you drink alcohol/watch television/etc put together. This is of course not guaranteed – a long way down the lonesome road of practice after practice you might find that intense repetition has rendered this ‘passion’ of yours dull and boring, or you may find that you will never become as great as you want to, to receive the appropriate satisfaction and pleasure from your skill. The pursuit of mastery is a gamble, and the option of shirking it is put before you every day.

What do you choose?

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