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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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