I recently heard David Epstein, author of The Sports Gene, speak at Idea Festival in Louisville about what differentiates elite athletes and musicians from the rest of the pack.
I first encountered Epstein when I fell down the deliberate practice rabbit hole several years ago. Epstein hates the 10,000 hours rule, instead insisting that attaining excellence in any given discipline is a complex combination of biology and skill-building.
Practice is a vital piece of the puzzle, says Epstein, but the rule ignores an important prerequisite: to excel, we first must find where we are trainable. If you weren’t born with the eyesight and quick reflexes of a major league pitcher, no amount of training will earn you elite status. If your genes didn’t grant you the wingspan of an NBA point guard, 10,000 hours of practice won’t get you much more than mediocre.
The question we must ask ourselves, says Epstein, is which of our skills are ripe for improvement?
Deliberate practice is crucial, but it must be applied in the right discipline. The only way to find the right discipline is to sample widely.
Elite athletes and musicians aren’t the ones who have been playing a single sport since they were 5 years old: early specialization is fantastic for producing the best 13-year-olds, but terrible at getting the best 20-year-olds. Elite performers are far more likely to be the ones who tried a wide variety of sports, or instruments, before they specialized.
The sampling helped them build general skills, but its most important purpose was to reveal which specific discipline was ripe for specializing. World-class performers must find—through experimentation—the discipline that rewards their specific mix of talent and biology. Specializing early aborts this process, and ensures they won’t reach their potential.
Epstein’s work focuses on sports and music, so I was surprised at how perfectly his thoughts aligned with an altogether different field.
I just finished Mary Karr’s new release The Art of Memoir. In it, Karr unpacks the key elements of great literary memoir and breaks down her own creative process. It’s not just a book for writers: of the book’s 200 pages, only 35 or so are devoted to “how-to.”
Karr is a hugely successful memoirist who is credited with sparking the current memoir explosion. But you probably don’t know her backstory: she spent years—decades, even—writing awful, unreadable crap (her words, not mine). Back then, her writing wasn’t playing to her strengths. She was talented, but she hadn’t found the right way to put that talent to use—and even hugely talented artists can’t write anything worth reading until they discover the nature of their talent.
What did Karr do in the meantime? She practiced, and she sampled widely. She wrote fiction, she wrote poetry. She tried different narrative styles, different voices.
Karr says that finding the right voice to tell the story of her hardscrabble Texas childhood “occupied some thirteen years (seventeen, if you count the requisite years in therapy getting the nerve up).” It took her nearly two decades to find the discipline that required her specific mix of talent, personal history, and biology.
But when she did, the magic happened. Or rather, it became possible for the magic to happen, because she was finally practicing to the right end.
Karr speaks of writers, Epstein of athletes and musicians, but the idea is the same, and you don’t have to be in the elite ranks to put it into practice: science can’t tell you what program, diet, or discipline will suit you best. To find that thing, you have to sample, experiment, learn by doing.
You can’t do anything, but you can do the thing you were made to do.
Have you found the discipline that plays to your strengths, that rewards YOUR specific mix of talent and biology? Do you feel like you’re finally on the right path to it? I’d love to hear your stories and all about your bumpy journeys in comments.
Books mentioned in this post: