How To Be Great
When I was a little boy—around six or so—I used some markers to draw a picture of a skyscraper-lined city street with cars rushing past (posted to the right). I showed it to my parents, who I vividly recall gushed with praise and awe as only parents do. I don’t remember her exact words, but my mother left me with the impression that I’d created something far better than I should have been able at my age.
Today I’m not so sure she was right, but that small bit of praise echoed in my mind back then like a thunderclap. Here was something, I thought, I could do well. So I began drawing more, and gradually, as the quality of my drawings improved, my ambition to improve them even more grew with it. I began drawing constantly. I started buying art books, favoring the Old Masters like Rembrandt and Velazquez. I took a few painting classes, graduating quickly from acrylics to oils. I painted a portrait of my mother, dragons, heroes, landscapes, and flowers next to champagne bottles. With each successive painting I improved—yet I was never quite able to live up to my dream of painting with the skill of the Old Masters, a dream that I admitted only to myself had at some point embedded itself in my heart.
TALENT VS. PRACTICE
My father could draw, too, but by the time he showed me the drawings he’d done as a child, he’d stopped drawing entirely. Drawing simply never became important enough to him to spend the time developing his ability to do it, so his ability to do it froze.
In his new book, The Genius in All of Us, David Shenk argues that “few of us know our true limits, that the vast majority of us have not even come close to tapping what scientists call our ‘unactualized potential.'” This is true, among other reasons, because research is beginning to show that “genes are constantly activated and deactivated by environmental stimuli, nutrition, hormones, nerve impulses and other genes.” This essentially means, as Annie Murphy Paul wrote her in New York Times review of Shenk’s book, that “there can be no guaranteed genetic windfalls, or fixed genetic limits, bestowed at the moment of conception. Instead there is a continually unfolding interaction between our heredity and our world, a process that may be in some measure under our control.” Paul goes on to discuss the second body of literature that Shenk cites in his book, which portrays exceptional ability not as “a rare and mysterious gift bequeathed to a lucky few” but rather as “the product of highly concentrated effort.” Nature vs. nurture may no longer be the right paradigm when evidence exists that environmental factors can actually turn genes on and off and practice can produce abilities that at first seem beyond our power to achieve.
THE POWER OF TENACITY
Tenacity, then, seems to be the key ingredient to developing exceptional abilities and achieving great things. If we were to list the steps necessary to achieve greatness in any field of endeavor, then, they might look something like this:
- Desire greatness in your area of interest more than anything. Which almost certainly means setting aside or minimizing some areas of your life that other people don’t. Do you want to become an Olympian or just feel good about your performance in a pick-up game of basketball? If the former, you may have to make some tough decisions. There’s truly no right or wrong answer. Just what’s right or wrong for you.
- Practice the skills necessary to become great (that is, develop craftsmanship). Learn your craft however you can. Find a mentor. Master the rules so you can break them in creative and interesting ways rather than out of ignorance. Copy the great works of others (in whatever way that makes sense in your particular field) until your own style naturally emerges.
Repeat is the key. Repeat is what sets the great apart from the good. Retain enough of a sense of dissatisfaction with your work to stay motivated to continuously improve, but not so much that you can’t feel a measure of pride and satisfaction in a job well done when you do it. If you practice again and again and again, learn from your failures and don’t let them stop you from trying to get better each and every time, in a slow, step-wise fashion you will develop the ability to accomplish things that take your breath away.
Certainly, you may not care to be great at something, and that’s perfectly all right. But if you do, know that you’re far more capable of greatness than you believe. You only have to make more of an effort than you ever believed you could. Which is what I did with painting, from about the age of 9 to 19.
And then, in the summer after my freshman year in college, I painted this:
Next week: The Value Of A Good Reputation