- 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
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! 😀