What It Takes to Be Great 4: Capablanca

This entry is part 4 of 8 in the series What It Takes to Be Great

Again in response to this post, I received the following email from a very handsome reader named santayana.

working hard in the proper direction as the one and only method to achieve success and to be hailed as a genius? sounds good, after all everyone can do it if they’re really bent to stop being lazy… but sadly, i don’t really think it’s the way things are… just look up the story of capablanca… without basically no experience in the upper echelons of tournament competition, he wiped out the best chess players of the time (all but lasker, the world champion) in san sebastian, 1911, the first important event he took part in… sure, some other top players like botvinnik had probably no real genius and could be cast in the people-who-just-worked-very-hard-and-in-the-proper-direction category… but then you think about capablanca and realize that he developed the same strenght of botvinnik by studying and playing chess one-hundredth of the latter’s time…

It raised some interesting points, and I wanted to address them here.

the one and only method to achieve success and to be hailed as a genius

I don’t know about one and only…there could be any number of exceptions and magic pills, etc. One day we may be able to directly stimulate the brain.

basically no experience in the upper echelons of tournament competition

That’s like saying “Khatzumoto’s a genius! He had no experience ever writing a Japanese novel until he wrote one!” Yeah, but by then he had read like 3000 books in Japanese, and had a Japanese blog. Capa had experience in chess…that seems like more than enough.

1911, the first important event he took part in…

According to the Pedia, Capablanca was born in 1888 and started demonstrating chess knowledge at the age of four, meaning that he probably had been observing (his father playing) chess for about 6-12 months before that. So his chess career can be said to have started in 1891. By 1911, this kid has already been playing twenty years of chess. Even his big wins as a teenager all come after 10 odd years of experience. He easily had 10,000+ hours under his belt. It doesn’t seem that magical to me at all.

Also, four year-olds and newbies of all ages tend to say some really amazing-seeming, supposedly prodigy-like things [like pointing out violations of chess rules, as Capa did] for at least four reasons that come to mind:

(1) They don’t yet have full social training in shutting up and sitting down — self-editing/self-inhibition.

(2) They tend to have a healthy, natural, carefree confidence in themselves and their own opinions — a lot of adults with the same brief chess experience might observe the violation but assume they were wrong because adults have learned to give precedence to authority over logic. Do you have the guts to stand up and tell Stephen Hawking that the numerator and denominator on his little equation are switched around? At your next Pentagon briefing, is your colonel self going to tell the four-star general that his satellite photos are upside down and of the wrong province? More likely than not, you’ll shut up and/or give him the benefit of the doubt.

(3) They (small children and newbies) tend to apply rules with a logic and uniformity that is untempered by exceptions and the aforementioned social conformity.

(4) Small children especially get treated better emotionally. Their egos are protected as a matter of social custom. In general, a small child learning an “advanced” or “complex” skill is highly likely to receive rapt attention and ecstatic praise, even for only partially correct execution. Furthermore, unless life and limb are at risk, she is unlikely to be scolded for a blatant error, because, after all, “he’s just a kid”. At the other extreme, adults and older children face mockery and derision for even the slightest error; when they do execute correctly, praise is neither readily forthcoming, nor particularly effusive. The difference in resulting confidence is like night and day; it’s the difference between becoming a pro chess player and…not becoming a pro chess player.

Speaking of untempered logic, at many points throughout my life, I have personally had the experience of pointing out blindingly simple, obvious things to experts who should (and generally do) know better. I once had an antiques expert explain to me the history of an old plate and how this very plate had been made in the 1700s and used by Napoleon’s uncle’s baby momma’s cousin or something, and then I looked at the underside of the plate and asked her “how come it says ‘1922’ on the bottom?” Does it make me an antiques genius? Am I the next karate kid of French crockery? I think it’s just common sense at work.

It sounds to me like Capablanca was just another example of a guy who just had lots of fun and thereby put in lots of time…double-digit years of time. I love his relaxed attitude to the whole thng: “[chess is] not a difficult game to learn and it is an enjoyable game to play.” No doubt there are exceptions to everything, but he doesn’t seem to be one. Nor is Mozart (to whom Capa apparently gets compared a lot), according to Gladwell:

Mozart, for example, famously started writing music at six. But, the psychologist Michael Howe writes in his book Genius Explained, by the standards of mature composers Mozart’s early works are not outstanding. The earliest pieces were all probably written down by his father, and perhaps improved in the process. Many of Wolfgang’s childhood compositions, such as the first seven of his concertos for piano and orchestra, are largely arrangements of works by other composers. Of those concertos that contain only music original to Mozart, the earliest that is now regarded as a masterwork (No9 K271) was not composed until he was 21: by that time Mozart had already been composing concertos for 10 years.

Right now seems like as good an excuse as any to share the words of Alexander “I am the best-looking Founding Father” Hamilton:

Men give me credit for some genius. All the genius I have lies in this; when I have a subject in hand, I study it profoundly. Day and night it is before me. My mind becomes pervaded with it. Then the effort that I have made is what people are pleased to call the fruit of genius. It is the fruit of labor and thought.

I don’t know, though…what do you think, everyone? Be kind and friendly! No English drama or acrimony allowed! 😀

Series Navigation<< What It Takes to Be Great 3: Follow-UpAim to Fail >>

  24 comments for “What It Takes to Be Great 4: Capablanca

  1. Hashiriya
    December 15, 2008 at 15:21

    i think that some people are going to have 10,000 hours of experience reading “about learning japanese” before they reach 10,000 hours of japanese… 😉 that needs to be addressed at some point too Khatz…

  2. khatzumoto
    December 15, 2008 at 15:27

    HAHAHA….that’ll be my fault…

  3. December 15, 2008 at 15:41

    I was thinking that too. Maybe throw in a couple Japanese sentences into every post. Somewhere in the middle, or towards the bottom even. Then we can tell ourselves we are just eating are way through the English to get down to the Japanese toy at the bottom of the box.

  4. December 15, 2008 at 16:44

    “Furthermore, unless life and limb are at risk, she is unlikely to be scolded for a blatant error, because, after all, “he’s just a kid”. ”
    :O hermaphrodites losing limbs? :O

  5. Jen
    December 15, 2008 at 16:50

    I think that hard work makes a LOT of difference, but that doesn’t mean to say that people aren’t more talented at some things than others. My sister and I used to spend equal amounts of time drawing, but she is much much better at it than I am. One of my ex housemates used to spend about the same time as me immersed in Japanese, but her spoken Japanese was still much better than mine. I sailed through high school even though I hardly ever did any of the work that I was supposed to.

    I think in some ways it depends what you are trying to do. With music, for example, there are definitely those born with more talent than others. I think in some ways, that is what makes people more likely to become very good at something, or to be called a genius. If they find that they don’t completely suck at something the first time they try it, they are much more likely to do it again and again, because they enjoy it. But it is the doing it again and again part which makes them truly great.

    With something like a language, although I believe that some people are going to be able to pick it up quicker than others (especially those who are already bilingual, I think that it must mean that your ears are already much sharper than other peoples, or that you are already used to forming a wider variety of sounds than people who can only speak their mother tongue. Everyone that I know who has been bilingual from a young age has been able to pick up speaking and listening to a new language much quicker than I would ever be able to, even if we put in the same amount of work), I think that it is definitely something that everyone should be able to do, if they just put in enough hours of work. Theres no reason why everyone shouldn’t be able to master any language, as long as they put their mind to it.

  6. Sel
    December 15, 2008 at 17:26

    I found your blog by on of those great internet coincidence and I just read the last four articles and it literally opened my eyes…just got up ; ) Amazing I thought about some of the things you mentioned before, but I could never quite put them into words…Why Do People Who Have All the Time in the World Get Nothing Done? explained some of the mysterious secrets of my highschool time, which I never really understood, but thx for pointing me to the right direction. Anyway I need to get anything done… Great read keep it up!

  7. nacest
    December 15, 2008 at 18:16

    It is my strong belief that the people who say that someone “is a genius” or “has talent” are just (subconsciously) making up an excuse for themselves. They just can’t find the motivation or the method to do the thing in question.

    Even if I were to acknowledge the existence of some mysterious innate/genetic talent, it would make for an extremely small advantage when compared to the difference it makes to “keep at it for xx thousand hours”. It’s like starting with a 10 cm advantage in a 10 km marathon.

  8. Nukemarine
    December 15, 2008 at 20:55

    Jen, that’s one of the problems. We see someone with an early start and think they have all the advantages. However, are such people sticking with it enough to get past the “good at it if an amateur sees you do it” ie everyone not Japanese and get to the “good at it if an expert sees you do it” ie every native Japanese speaker. Hell, you can’t even compare progress in school, cause for most people a school year is what, 168 days, 8 hours a day spread out among 6 to 8 subjects? Yeah, if 150 hours is the limit, you’re going to have guys stand out. But they’re not experts. Just compare the star quarterback to, umm, some NFL quarterback or the drum major to a metropolitan orchestra conductor. To put it rudely, it’s like being the smartest guy on the short bus or coming in first in the special olympics.

    I wanted to write a long reply to Khatz’s post talking about the importance of starting out on the right foot. Talking about how someone just dropped into the middle of Japan (ex pats) with as much immersion will not be as good as someone that has a guided path, with set sentences to follow early on to help in the beginning. I just kept erasing it, cause it never gets past the first 1000 hours (or 1000 games, or 100 books or 100 fights or 1000 miles of running etc.). Yeah, I think it’s important, but it’s for that head start to make things easier at the beginning. It’s still going to get tedious in time (hence the importance of fun, duh).

    Yes, these guys with “innate” talent have an early advantage, but it just won’t matter in the long run if you all do the same thing: Do it every day, push yourself everyday. Now, if you have that head start, by all means exploit. But what probably happens is people who have natural advantages don’t push it as it gets tougher (say at the 100 hour mark or 1000 hour mark). It’s the guy/gal that pushes when the going gets tough that’ll succeed to the endgame.

    Some things that give you that head start in Japanese: Heisig’s RTK (or variant). Grammar sentences (don’t memorize the rules, but use them as a head start), Vocabulary sentences, SRS. All these are tools, but they’re like the treadmill/clothes rack if they’re not used past the 10 hour, 100 hour or 1000 hour mark. These things and other advice offered on this blog and else is “The Water ™”, you’re “The Horse ™” being led to it. You are the one that decides “To Drink ™”.

    Want some motivation? Listen to a guy called Mark Rippetoe. He’s a strength coach for a Texas University. This guy offers sound advice about training functional strength that is not beauty pageant bodybuilding. In truth, he can take pretty much any guy, despite any “natural” talent and make the guy strong (the trick is to use milk, not steroids, as your muscle gainer, who knew?). And here’s his analogy: Stock Car racing – You buy a car it gives you 100mph off the lot though some are slower and some are faster give or take 10mph. With tuning, changing the wheels you can get 130mph. With removing AC, backseat, other weights you can bump it to 140mph. Lower the shocks, spoiler, other items add just a bit more. The thing is each discernible boost in speed requires more time and effort than the previous gain. Whatever advantage was there off the lot has long sense disappeared the tuning, work and test runs. But you have to put in that effort. Oh yeah, Rippetoe preaches consistency, making progress, and other things that you can apply to language learning.

    Anyway, yeah, it’s good to have items for the head start. That little analogy about going from Miami to Atlanta hit me a bit. Yeah, I think there’s a better way of approaching the beginning of Japanese than Khatzumoto lays out with respect to beginning sentences. He posted what he thought works, changed up things a bit along the way. I have too. But everything else is just doing it.

  9. Jon
    December 15, 2008 at 21:06

    nacest: what you’re missing is feedback. It may have been mentioned on this blog already, but a disproportionate number of professional hockey players in the US were born during a time when, in youth hockey programs, they’d be among the oldest (consequently: largest, strongest) in their age division.

    When you’re one of the best at doing something when compared to your immediate peer group, that feels good. It doesn’t mean you’ll necessarily try to improve; you can find examples of people who are content to stay the big fish in the small pond all over. On the other hand, if they do desire to improve, it may be years before they end up with someone in their peer group who is consistently better than them at whatever they do, and that’s years of discouragement-free study and habit-forming.

    So in that respect, I’d call it more like starting with a 10m advantage in a 10km marathon. Sure it’s a tiny fraction of the distance, but everyone else starts looking at your back, while you start looking at an empty road. Anyone who works even slightly harder than you over the entire course is going to beat you, but they have to put in the work before they start feeling like winners, while you get it from the beginning.

  10. Nathan
    December 16, 2008 at 02:04

    I agree somewhat with Jen. While consistent practice is clearly the key to greatness, some people have more of a head start than others. I think the key is to realize how little advantage this head start confers over the long haul (it may even be a disadvantage ultimately, since those with a head start will tend to rely on natural talent rather than hard work).

  11. Jen
    December 16, 2008 at 03:28

    Nathan – Exactly! As I said in my comment I hardly worked in high school (which, for me being in England was 7 years long!) but I still managed to get good grades (better than a lot of my friends who worked really hard), but I found that I was completely lost when I got to university (to study Japanese! I know khatz that you don’t really agree with studying Japanese formally, but I would have in no way had the motivation to make myself get from zero to where I am now had I been trying to do it by myself!) and realised that I would actually have to work in order to do well. I just kind of assumed that because I knew that I was reasonably intelligent and had never really had to work in the past that everything would just come naturally to me, and it was a bit of a shock to the system when it didn’t!

    I definitely agree that working hard is the way to become extremely good at something, but that you can’t deny that talent does play a part in it.

  12. nacest
    December 16, 2008 at 04:53

    I still think the significant head start you (Jen and Jon, you got me confused here) are talking about is not talent, but a simple difference in circumstances. Getting good grades at high school is very probably due to good education at home and during the previous grades. Being the best in a youth hockey team, in Jon’s example, is just because you are older than the others… that’s not talent.
    In all those “10 m advantage” situations that certainly exist, the cause is previous (silent) work or lucky/smart resource management. True talent (if it even exists) is much less significant.

    I’ve heard that child prodigies usually become more or less “average people” as they grow up. I wonder how this relates to our discussion. I dare say that even *that* is something different from talent, something acquired after being born.

  13. bod
    December 16, 2008 at 05:31

    I think the talent vs hard work debate gets distorted because people worry too much about winning. In competitive sports, for example, there can only be one winner and in these extreme circumstances hard work alone may not be the differentiating factor, although you certainly won’t get anywhere without it.

    However, this is completely irrelevant when it comes to things like language learning. You wouldn’t learn a language to be “the best”; you learn a language in order to know and use the language. It’s not about gold medals it’s all about competence. And with the time and hard work, competence is achievable.

    The same applies to sports, music, art, and pretty much everything else. People get too hung up on not being able to be “the best” due to some accident of birth and miss out on the opportunity to work hard and enjoy simply becoming good at something.

    I know with all the work I’ve been putting into Japanese, if I ever get good enough that anybody dares to suggest that I have a talent for languages, I will probably bite their head off!

  14. nacest
    December 16, 2008 at 23:15

    I agree with Bod. Especially the last sentence 😀

  15. Enki
    December 16, 2008 at 23:55

    I think Bod hit the nail right on the head here. Sometimes it seems like calling someone talented is the worst insult you could give them! “Oh, you know, you’re talented.you didn’t work hard for hours on end and you didn’t pour sweat blood and tears into something you care about and you didn’t sacrifice all your time and effort for a goal. It’s…it’s all so natural for you.”

    Wasn’t there a research that said praising kids for their hard work rather than their natural intelligence makes them do better in the long run?

  16. Mike
    December 17, 2008 at 06:56

    Wow…this reminds me of some show I saw on discovery channel about one of the child
    “prodigy” things. Basically, he was seen as amazing, having ability the only “1 in every 10,000” to point out the exact tone of each key the interviewer struck. When they interviewed the mom, she said he had been playing classical music to him since the day he came home from the hospital, some times, literally 24 hours a day.

    When he got a little older, she would find that he had gotten out of bed to go practice playing the piano…just because he wanted to. The kid had spent at the very least 10,000 hours on his music career, probably way more, yet somehow, people are amazed at how he did it all.

    It’s pretty funny though, because the narrator said “he speaks Cantonese, a Chinese dialect, said to be the most difficult language in the world [dramatic intonation]”. Well, um, maybe he could speak Cantonese because his mother was an immigrant from Hong Kong?

    There was another child “prodigy” on youtube who could speak 8 languages “fluently” (Her Japanese was the equivalent of これはリンゴです if that gives you a hint to her real level of fluency). Someone commented “every kid would be like this if they went through the work she did”. That comment was given a thumbs down by so many people that you had to click a special box to view it, as if it had said something vulgar.

  17. December 17, 2008 at 09:43

    Like what most people said here, talent without practice won’t get you far, and someone who appears talented is in fact just someone who’s been doing whatever it is he’s good at for some time.

    Another thing I think I should mention here is the importance of attention and mental rehearsal. As a personal example, I do a lot of work with people (youth activism), and I get a lot of praise how I ”get” it, how I know how to work with people etc. but there’s no secret to it: Apart from doing it every day, I spend A LOT of time every day simply THINKING about youth activism, about leadership, team work, values, motivation, planning etc. I analyze it, brainstorm, ponder… let’s simply say that I do a LOT of mental heavy lifting, since, well, I LOVE youth activism, and I’m certain this has helped me learn and improve faster than the average activist. When you love something then you really want to become better at it and you dedicate a lot of your attention to it, and I’ve read somewhere (not sure where, I think it was an article by Malcolm Gladwell, I’ll try to find the source) that mentally rehearsing something has almost 2/3 the effect of actually doing that.

    I think this can also be applied to the people we perceive as geniuses and their intelligence. I’d go so far as to say that intelligence is also sort of a skill/habit. The more you use it, the better you get at using it, which is what the geniuses have been subconsciously doing since they were kids.

    Also, in learning anything, depending on just waiting for your brain to passively figure it out from past experience is, I think, not enough (for a really good speed of improvement). However, and this is very important, the step towards attention is a SMALL one. Attention, in this case, is not the sort of “frowningly serious” attention (i.e. boooriiing) we associate with formal learning, but simply, well, paying attention 😀 I mean, you know, when you play basketball, you’re not just wildly throwing the ball at pidgeons, you’re aiming at the basket, you’re thinking about your teammates, predicting your opponents’ next move etc. That also requires attention and thought, but not the boring kind (I think we really need new words. attention vs. funtention? focus vs. funcus? :). But during all this fun time you’re also (you could say inevitably) improving your skill, because you’re also always looking for new, bigger challenges (challenge = fun).

  18. Gav
    December 18, 2008 at 08:40

    I agree with this article. I also agree with Hashiriya, my knowledge about learning Japanese is expanding at a rapid and disturbing rate.

  19. Dylan
    December 18, 2008 at 12:30

    Good post, actually one close to home for me.

    When I was younger, I played in chess tournaments and for a while I was improving so quickly (You get an official rating when you play in the tournaments so people know) even without the lessons that most other kids had, nor doing the study that they were, that some people were using words like prodigy.

    The chess scene died down in my state and I started playing less often (By now I just play in an invitational championship once a year), my progress stopped for the most part. It’s because I was just playing so often at first that I was learning so much through experience and the pattern recognition that comes with it.

    Anyway, funny to see a post about Capablanca, who I long admired, on AJATT. Small world.

  20. NDN
    December 21, 2008 at 16:18

    Wow, very nice post.

    I must say I was deeply challenged by the “genius” of Capablanca. Like, where did it come from? I would always ignore the fact that he observed his father when he was 4 and just stick with the tournament results and from them he does look like a genius.

    So, a VERY BIG thanks to Khatz, you definitely cleared that point, it was haunting me for YEARS(2-3 years, actually). Man, I don’t even remember myself learning chess moves from a book, I just didn’t have a book, I learned all of them except “en passant” from moves made by the computer when I was 5 (6?), does that make me a genius?

    I’m starting to agree with Tony Buzan when he says that the whole world is just a baby. I hope wars won’t hinder the development of this great (human) race.
    Anyway, I want to finish saying that like Dylan, I’m a chess player so it’s home for me too. 🙂

  21. Brad
    February 13, 2009 at 17:02

    If this link has been posted before, 申し訳ない!


    I just came across a 2006 article (from Tim Ferriss’s site) that invokes Capablanca to explain that “The preponderance of psychological evidence indicates that experts are made, not born.” Though, through the article’s 6 pages there is very little about Capablaca’s own history, there is a nugget that seems to be very AJATT related:

    “Ericsson argues that what matters is not experience per se but “effortful study,” which entails continually tackling challenges that lie just beyond one’s competence. That is why it is possible for enthusiasts to spend tens of thousands of hours playing chess or golf or a musical instrument without ever advancing beyond the amateur level and why a properly trained student can overtake them in a relatively short time. It is interesting to note that time spent playing chess, even in tournaments, appears to contribute less than such study to a player’s progress; the main training value of such games is to point up weaknesses for future study. “

  22. Ryder
    March 30, 2009 at 13:58

    Arguably the greatest composer of all-time (also, not coincidentally, one of the most prolific) said:

    “I worked hard. Anyone who works as hard as I did can achieve the same results.”

    In regard to Mozart, Wolfgang Amadeus was hardly the genius in the family. That honor goes to his father, who was a brilliant pedagogue. (Khatz touched on this briefly)

  23. October 27, 2011 at 09:05

    People, subscribe to AJATT+ to get more Japanese. 🙂

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