- What It Takes To Be Great
- What It Takes To Be Great 2: AJATT and Malcolm McDowell’s Outliers…wait…
- What It Takes to Be Great 3: Follow-Up
- What It Takes to Be Great 4: Capablanca
- Aim to Fail
- You can have do or be ANYthing, but you can’t have do or be EVERYthing
- Why Do People Who Have All the Time in the World Get Nothing Done?
- How To Accomplish Great Things: Small Victories, Winnable Games
Howdy! Is not a word that I usually use.
By now you’ve probably heard about this already, but just in case you haven’t, let’s talk about it here. Malcolm McDowell, who once tried to destroy the galaxy so that he could re-enter an energy ribbon in space where he could experience Paradise for the r…
OK, not Malcolm McDowell. Malcolm Gladwell. Done gone written a book enbenamed Outliers: The Story of Success. About, basically, what makes the top people the top. What makes them the greatest of all times! What makes the l33t hax0rs of every field pwn so hard.
Executive summary: It isn’t talent. It’s time. 10,000 hours, to be exact. Where have you heard this before? Maybe, I dunno, a little blog by a random Kenyan boy…
“If you put together the stories of hockey players and the Beatles and Bill Joy and Bill Gates, I think we get a more complete picture of the path to success. Joy, Gates and the Beatles are all undeniably talented…that “talent”, however, was something other than an innate aptitude for music or maths. It was desire.”
“a key part of what it means to be talented is being able to practise for hours and hours — to the point where it is really hard to know where “natural ability” stops and the simple willingness to work [long and consistently] begins. “
But my favorite part is where he discusses a little boy band from northern England that was popular back when our Mums were young:
“The Beatles ended up travelling to Hamburg five times between 1960 and the end of 1962…All told, they performed for 270 nights in just over a year and a half. By the time they had their first burst of success in 1964, they had performed live an estimated 1,200 times, which is extraordinary. Most bands today don’t perform 1,200 times in their entire careers [emphasis added]…
“They were no good on stage when they went there and they were very good when they came back,” Norman says. “They learned not only stamina, they had to learn an enormous amount of numbers — cover versions of everything you can think of, not just rock’n’roll, a bit of jazz, too…when they came back they sounded like no one else. It was the making of them.”
I don’t even like the Beatles; I find their music very hard to listen to. But, I cannot help but respect them for being so diligent. From this description, it seems that their acclaim was well deserved.
What all this is showing is that the path to success, to greatness, to excellence, to ownage in any field is so straightforward, so simple, as to be almost anticlimactic. What I love about Gladwell’s book and the ideas it contains, is how we are seeing the complete removal of all the magic, the mystery, the sickening hero-envy and the even more sickening hero-worship that have, up until now, been associated with, you now, people who are l33t.
So if you want to be l33t at anything, you can. All you have to do is show up. If you want to be fluent in a language, cut off your wuss glands and just get on with being in the language. If you want to learn how to draw, get out some paper and start scribbling. If you want to know how to skate, go down to the rink and get on the ice.
And you will suck. For a long time. You will be terrible. Children will be better than you. “Mere” toddlers will talk and skate and draw circles around you. But if you just keep going, you’ll get better. You just will. It’s that simple. It really is…that. freaking. simple.
OK, fine, so, here I am saying how simple it is and “just do it”, and “cut off your wuss glands” [sounds ridiculously painful], but…if it’s so simple why are so many people still not succeeding? Why are there still so few people, you know, owning? And why does it feel so difficult?
Well, there are many reasons. One of them is the fact that that long part in the beginning where you suck, really is long and really does suck. And lots of people — especially adults — lose both hope and face there. This is why adults appear to succeed less than children: adults have the linguistic power to make elaborate excuses and the legal power to choose what to do where and when; kids don’t get that luxury. Britney Spears couldn’t tell her Mum to freck off and stop pimping her to Disney. Even if she could, she was going and that was final, young lady! Regardless of age, it’s hard to see how you’re going to one day be amazing when you clearly are so lame right now: the effort-versus-improvement ratio is just so low in the beginning. My way of coping with that feeling is this:
Forget your position, remember your velocity (at least, that’s what we’ll call it). Forget where you are. It doesn’t matter. All you need to focus on are the two components of “velocity”, in order of priority:
(1) The direction in which you are heading. In plain terms this means showing up: if you are a would-be skater, then actually get on the ice every day; if you are a would-be artist, then actually create art every day. Do something. Anything will do. No quotas, no rules, no plan, no system, no method, just do something. Skater? Don’t even have a goal to skate, just get on the ice with skates on. Want to be a drawing person? Draw a line on paper. Japanese? Turn on the TV. Don’t even try to pay attention, just turn it on. Runner? Put on your shoes, and step outside. Don’t even try to run.
(2) The speed at which you are getting there. Here, the unit of speed is the hour — the magnitude of time you spend each day. So what we effectively mean by speed is “average number of hours per day put in”. In other words, how quickly you are racking up those 10,000 hours.
And forget everything else. First, forget the past; forget it — it’s gone. Secondly, 99% of the time, you should pay no attention to how quickly you are or aren’t progressing; it’s fine — even good — to notice that you’re progressing, just ignore the rate of progress, because no matter how fast it is or isn’t, for most of us post-modern, television-raised kids, it will be longer than 23 minutes, which means it’ll be too slow and therefore too depressing = discouraging = makes you want to quit. Thirdly, more or less let go of the future: don’t worry about ETA (estimated time of arrival), i.e. when you will be good; don’t worry about POS (probability of success), i.e. whether you will ever get good — neither of these are useful pieces of information, and worrying about them won’t help you get there any quicker.
In short, what I do is just treat it like a job (clarification: on the ground, the physical actions that lead to becoming great are as simple as any menial job, but the mindset is a self-/curiosity-/interest-directed one, not one of resignation to victimhood and suffering, nor one of abdication of personal responsibility)…just punch in, punch out. Clock in, clock out. Put in the time. It’s a complete no-brainer — like flipping burgers or eating jelly beans or assembling widgets or sticking lego blocks together. Ever wonder why flight hours are often used as a measure of how good a pilot is? Because the pilot people knew this all along. If you just punch in, success, greatness, “ownage”…will all take care of themselves.
What we call “talent” is merely a phenomenon that naturally and inevitably occurs when someone has done something for a long time — so long that they can observe and manipulate patterns with a speed, accuracy and finesse that are impossible for the untrained eye/hand/mouth/foot. Don’t be intimidated — rack up those hours and you’ll be the man now dawg, too.
By the time you visibly, externally, publicly succeed, it’ll have been so inevitable for so long, so much a part of you and your daily life, so much a fait accompli, what the French call an “accomplished fact”, that only other people will be surprised. This happened to me with Japanese. I never set out to learn Japanese in a specific amount of time. At least initially. I merely said: “I’m going to act Japanese and I’m going to keep acting Japanese until it’s not acting any more”. I no longer cared how long it took, who died, whether Bush actually won the election the first time, I was just going to do it for as long as was necessary to get good.
In a sense, I succeeded because I gave up. I gave up trying to force and control the process. You see, what had happened before with, for example, my kanji study (pre-SRS), is that I would start, and then lose steam and give up for 3 to 6 months at a time. Then after several months I’d be like: “Mother of Bush! If I had been working on it all this time, even just 10 characters a day I would know like 1800 characters by now!!!” I felt worse than that guy who got shot by Dick Cheney, the Vice-President of the United States of America, in the face. I came to the point where I realized that any daily progress was better than no progress. Anything was better than zero. And it was such a low standard (“just do something“) it was such a “come on, man, just try one — it grows out of the ground, it can’t hurt you, maaan, come on, man, you’re black, I heard they do this all the time in Jamaica”, that it just naturally expanded to take over my life; I didn’t have to force it; I didn’t have to struggle.
My only goal at the daily level was to just be there (i.e. have listened to even 1 second of Japanese) — that was enough. I didn’t really compare myself to anyone or anything. At the daily level, I didn’t really wish or hope or yearn or despair; that would be as idiotically futile as trying to grow; most of the time, you don’t see kids clench their fists, close their eyes, and try to squeeze out a few inches on their leg bones…they just eat food, run around and sleep. Like a kid, I just…was. I ate my food (Japanese materials), ran around with my Japanese friends [when they weren’t too busy], played on the jungle gym (SRS), and fell asleep to a Japanese “lullaby” [the news]. Just being myself, in Japanese.
I wanted to remove that whole “if only I lived in Japan” excuse from the equation. That whole “yeah, if you really wanna learn it, you’ve got to visit the country, man” myth. Anyone who knows English teachers in Japan knows that “living in the country” doesn’t mean jack bollocks all squat. Back in the day, I did not have the money (nor the knowledge of how to make money) to go to Japan, but I had access to Japanese audio, video, text and people. Could I not do something with these? I didn’t know for sure, but I had a hunch that something would happen after a lot of repetition, so I gave it a try. Ever noticed how kids watch the same few movies over and over again? Is this coincidence? Or are they trying to figure something out — without their even knowing it? Are kids trying to teach themselves their own language, in some way?
Anyway, let’s wrap up. Remember that the pathetic-seeming things you’re doing right here and now in your vegan pizza-stained sweatpants are the very steps that make up the journey to greatness and therefore are essentially equal to success itself. They are the private victory that necessarily precedes the public victory. As Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote:
“Why all this deference to [Bill Gates] and [The Beatles] and [Tiger Woods]? Suppose they were [l33t], did they wear out [l33tness]?…As great a stake depends on your private act today as followed their public and renowned steps. [You can own, too, be-arch]”.
So keep going. Keep sucking for now. Don’t worry: it’s working…
 During the Olympics this year, I told Momoko (mi esposa), only half-jokingly, that viewers should be legally required to first watch all the thousands of hours of practice that athletes put in, before being given the privilege to watch any actual competition. Then, even Michael Phelps would just be a young man who swims a lot. No one’s performance would really be a surprise [“well of course he can swim fast, my gosh, if I swam that much I ‘d be all over that podium; all this fool ever does is swim!”, would cry the spectators], and there would be far less B.S., athlete-worship and dodgy racial theories. But then, the dodgy racial theory sports book industry might come crashing down, and all those authors might be forced to do proper research…and we wouldn’t want that.
Seriously, though, without denigrating anything the work of people like Phelps, the reason people make so much noise out about him and other athletes stems from a desire — a need — on the part of the mass media industry to manufacture stars, heroes, and people to sell sugar water. Furthermore, white people rather badly needed a homeboy to fill the gaping void Lance Armstrong left, because…damn. Hey, I understand. Like, for me, Star Wars is basically the story of how James Earl Jones led Samuel L. Jackson to his death and then double-crossed Billy Dee Williams. Also, there was a kindly little Japanese man with a skin disease, and a massive space station exploded. Two…massive space stations. Way to go, James Earl Jones.
Back on the topic of watching practices as a prerequisite for watching real performances…I’d love to sit it on the rehearsals of great performers like Michael Jackson.
 Yes, longer than the 5-minute montage. Longer than the whole movie. Longer than many movies in a row. There’s no drama and easy-to-see improvement in real life. Just punching in and out. It’s invisible to you, just like growing taller. You’re only aware of it indirectly — either other people tell you, or you look back over time.
 The same goes for Mormon missionaries — yes, a good number actually plug in, get really good and grow up to be Kent Gilbert — but plenty of them suck; they have no interest in Japan or Japanese and just wanted to get over this two year hump and back to courting girls called Emily Sorenson. Their pronunciation makes babies’ ears bleed and they are illiterate, which means that if you say anything remotely non-biblical to them, like “solar system”, they will crash faster than Windows 95. I know. I went to a Mormon university and even programmed at the Missionary Training Center. In general, a lot of Mormon missionaries aren’t so much good at languages as they are better-than-most-Americans, which is good enough for government work (NSA, CIA, TLA) but not good enough to even read a newspaper. Which is fine, I guess, because it seems that when the American intelligence community needs information about another country, they just make it up anyway (“I dunno, dude…they’re brown people, right? Just say they were planning to bomb something, I dunno…we need this NIE out today, man, come on…”). Oooo…someone’s getting his phone tapped today.
Having said that, I still love Mormons: kindest, sweetest people ever…girls called Emily Sorenson are always baking cookies…Mmm. Sugar, refined flour, Crisco.
 Ever notice how you’re often easily able to remember the chorus of a pop song word for word, but not so much the other verses? Hmm…I wonder if it has anything to do with the chorus getting repeated anything from 3 to 10 times more than any other part of the song, naturally leading to 3 to 10 times the exposure. I’m just saying, man…I’m just saying.