Continuing on the theme from last week’s post from Bruce Feiler’s The Secrets of Happy Families, I also appreciated the book’s inquiry into how we attain excellence.
American families are obsessed with having their kids play organized sports, so Feiler took to investigating where great athletes come from. He turned to research by psychologist Benjamin Bloom who, in the 1980’s, analyzed the trajectories of world-class performers in six different areas, “concert pianists, Olympic swimmers, sculptors, tennis players, mathematicians, and neurologists.”
Bloom’s results, documented in Developing Talent in Young People, are surprising:
The child who ‘made it’ was not always the one who was considered to be the most ‘talented.’ Many parents said another one of their children had more ‘natural ability.’ So what distinguished the high achiever from the underachieving sibling? ‘A willingness to work and a desire to excel,’ Bloom wrote. The most common words used were persistence, determination, and eagerness.
While I’m not specifically interested in what makes star athletes, I’m hugely interested in people reaching their full potential, and Bloom’s observations ring true. Time and again, the people I meet who are exceptional are the ones who have decided that they are going to be great at something.
Recently I heard Maria Popova, the now-famous Brain Pickings blogger, describe her path from college to where she is today. Maria hated college but discovered that she loved discovery, she loved self-directed learning. And so she started exploring and writing about what she was learning and sharing it on a blog. It was hard work, it sounded pretty lonely, and it didn’t pay anything. For four full years Maria gutted things out, barely getting by, and doing her work. In just one telling illustration, Maria decided she needed to take a computer course to learn how to code for her own blog. The only problem was that she was broke. So Maria chose to eat beans and tuna for weeks to save up the money she needed for one HTML course. And that was just one step on her long journey to becoming Maria Popova. One of a thousand decisions she made to do the work she needed to do. Maria didn’t spend four lonely years waiting to get discovered, she spent four years honing her craft to become someone worth discovering.
In some ways Maria’s story is familiar: the heroic figure who toils in obscurity for years and then breaks through. But there’s a danger in this heroic narrative. It insulates us from the story, it allows us to trick ourselves into thinking that because we are not heroes, because we’re doing what we’re doing and not what they did (*gasp* because we JUST have a job) that we don’t have the potential to transform or the right to be great.
Part of the problem, I think, is that when you have a job you see all the signposts of title and official job responsibility and, yes, how much you are paid. The concreteness of those external markers supersedes the much more important personal reckoning of discovering who we are and where we are in our own development. Instead, we play by the rules of whatever system we are in, and in the process we create a numbing separation from the work we do. We make an uneven exchange of “persistence, determination and eagerness” for doing what needs to be done to get the kinds of rewards bestowed by the system we are in. And then we get frustrated because the system doesn’t give us what we really want AND we aren’t growing the way we hoped we would grow.
One way to break the cycle is to wake up to the fact that we have greatness inside of us and to find the joy in creating what we are meant to create in this world – even if today we are creating just a small part of it. The simple act of caring and making personal investment transforms the quality of everything we do, big and small. Suddenly we put ourselves into the things we create, and we create them as part of a broader undertaking of daring and learning and failing and picking ourselves up again. The ultimate power of this broader undertaking, this broader narrative, is that we begin for the first time to see that our own growth happens in long cycles. We trade in “where am I going to be 12 months from now (job, title, etc.)” for “what’s the real work I need to do now to be a transformed person in five or 7 or 10 years’ time?”
Reflecting on my own growth and development, I know that if I can make just one real, substantive change in how I work each year then I’ve had a transformational year. Think, then, of the shape of the arc that gets me from where I am today to where I need to be.
Of course it is hard to see, looking forward, that we will only become who we are going to become in the long run, and that in fact we have the time we need to get there. The easily quantified, externally-recognizable stepping stones to get from here to come at the pace they are going to come. But there’s no escaping the real work we need to do to become the person we are meant to be.
Persistence, determination, and eagerness.