Seeking the Story Behind GeniusOctober 8th, 2011 · 26 comments
Two High Achievers
Alisa Weilerstein is my age. She’s a cello player and she just won a MacArthur “genius” grant for her “adventurous” playing.
Adam Riess, an astronomer at Johns Hopkins University, just won a Nobel Prize for his work measuring the universe’s expansion.
It’s easy to admire such high accomplishments from a distance. For those of us with low self-esteem, we can dismissively conclude that some people are just born brilliant, and should be admired much in the way we admire natural beauty or a lush head of hair. For those of us who are more Type A, we can instead derive a hazy sense of inspiration: “That’s what I need do,” we think, “something huge!”
I find it more productive, however, to dig a little deeper.
In an interview with The New York Times, for example, Weilerstein pushes back against the idea that she was born a musical prodigy.
“Obviously there is natural talent,” she said. “But you accomplish things only by working extremely hard.”
This echoes what has been found again and again in the deliberate practice literature: the best musicians, athletes, and chess players, among other group of high accomplishers, really do out work everyone else.
For those in the Type A camp, by contrast, a recent interview with Reiss pushes back on the idea that it’s enough to simply wait for your breakthrough idea.
When talking about the inspiration that led to his Nobel, Reiss emphasized that his breakthrough was based on the fact that “I am always thinking about how to measure the universe.” It was this complete immersion in the problem — something that persisted over years and years — that laid the foundation for his innovations in parallax measurement.
The conclusion for the Type A’s: if you want to do something big, talk is cheap, it’s more important to get started down the long road to mastery.
Bottom Line: Obviously these quotes are just scratching the surface of the deeper stories lurking behind the headlines, but they emphasize my basic point: I find high achievers to be incredibly inspiring and instructive, but only when I get into the details of their stories. When admired from afar, they provide little value. I think it’s important that we keep discussing how to understand the high achievers we encounter, because becoming adept at reality-based deconstruction of these stories seems to be a key strategy in any quest to become remarkable.