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“Being Very Good at Anything Involves Being Somewhat Addicted”: Hard Truth on the Sheer Difficulty of Making an Impact

The Chess Master and the Economist

A reader recently sent me an interesting interview with Ken Rogoff, a hotshot economics professor at Harvard.

As a young man, Rogoff was a world-class chess player. He eventually translated his ability to grad school where he studied economics with a focus, naturally enough, on game theory. What caught my attention in Rogoff’s interview was his dedication to diligence.

Even two interests, in Rogoff’s thinking, represented one too many:

[A]t graduate school he became convinced that dividing his attention meant that both his chess and his economics were suffering. He had to make a decision. [He chose economics.] “Part of my strategy of moving on was to give it up completely. I don’t play chess casually…Not unless it’s incredibly rude to decline playing.”

He elaborates:

“Being very good at anything involves being somewhat addicted.”

Bottom line: I am increasingly stricken by the yawning gap that exists between the feel-good, follow your passion, be the change you want to see-style chatter that fills the online world, and the reality of how people actually end up making a true impact.

(Image by jojoivika)


53 thoughts on ““Being Very Good at Anything Involves Being Somewhat Addicted”: Hard Truth on the Sheer Difficulty of Making an Impact”

  1. Let’s reinvent the follow-your-dreams tripe! Who’s with me?

    “With great compulsions comes great responsibility.”

    “Follow your obsession.”

    “Never doubt that a small group of articulate and borderline-manic champions can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

  2. I find it ironic that society advises us to follow our passions yet when you look at the systems we have in place for becoming truly great they often advocate Rogoff’s more focused ‘addiction’ and your ‘become so good they can’t ignore you’ approach. Take specialisation in academia and medicine for example. These disciplines certainly follow the ‘narrow and deep’ approach.

    I wonder why the unfocused ‘follow your passion’ mantra is so strong. Maybe we all expect to be instantly passionate and skilled? So, instead of persevering with something interesting but challenging and becoming skilled and passionate about it over time, we pursue the ‘next big thing’becoming a jack of all trades and master of none.

  3. “Feel good, follow your passion, be the change you want to see” is a message that sells, and has broad, even democratic, appeal. “Focus hard on one thing, make real sacrifices, exclude people and things from your life, be a bit of a maniac” has a much smaller target demographic.

  4. Hey Cal,

    I have noticed the same thing. Focusing on something is more about what you choose not to focus on.

    But how does this play with having a good life? It seems that one would not take advantage of the other parts of life (hobbies, free time to explore, etc).

    What do you think?

  5. As a former chess addict I completely understand how becoming very good takes a great deal of dedication. Since I first learned to play I set a goal of becoming a grandmaster and even though I knew it would take lots of years I still pushed through and practiced insane amounts of hours daily. But my dreams fell short when I had not reached grandmaster level last year as I had to go to college and I knew it would be impossible to get good grades and keep up my level of chess playing.

    The only problem is that I am having a hard time putting that previous passion into my major (computer science). I feel as if only I could be as interested in computer science as I was in chess it would immerse my life just the same as before.

    I’m sure everyone has felt that at one point or another, having a hobby that they wish they could do all the time as opposed to getting a job that they feel less passionate about. I guess the take away from this article is that sometimes you have to make tough decisions and force yourself to go along with the road that you feel should work out better in the end, which can only be done by putting in the work to be spectacular at it as if it was your original hobby. And if you get really good you should be able to use that to leverage the type of life you want and might be able to bring back the old hobbies one day.

  6. That mention of Rogoff translating his chess skill into economics intrigues me. How might you do that with other skills? Maybe break them down into aspects that can be applied elsewhere? How would you do that with being good at making and writing jokes, for example, to play off your usage of Steve Martin?

  7. Following a passion isn’t going to make it unnecessary to put in insane amounts of hours. But putting in insane amount of hours is going to be difficult if you’re not passionate about something. Not impossible, but more difficult than if you were being buoyed by a feeling that what you’re doing is worth doing (sample definition of being passionate about an activity).

    (If I care about football and my girlfriend, and I choose to go out with my girlfriend rather than go to a game.
    In the above case, is it a sacrifice to not go to the game if you think it was best to go on the date? I’d like to say that a choice made between mutually exclusive choices on the basis that I would have regrets in one situation and not the other isn’t a sacrifice.
    I would get the same pleasure from the date and the game. I would regret missing the date if I went to the game. I wouldn’t regret missing the game if I went on the date. In this case, I’d explain it by saying that I have a passion for my girlfriend that I don’t for football.)

    The good thing about incorporating a passion into decision making is that passion has a lot to do with what causes us to regret. If we reject something we’re passionate about, we regret it. If we regret something, it troubles us when we do everything else. If we do something in line with passion, we reduce the amount of regret, which contributes to the net happiness of the choice. But we have to know that what we’re doing isn’t just good, but correct – we have to understand that there are practical problems with maintaining careers in both chess and economics for example.

    The lesson I’m taking from Rogoff? 1) Be single-minded in what you do. 2) (via the addiction line) do things that you find essentially pleasurable.

    Or in other words, “Be intensely single-minded in doing the things you know you find pleasurable, because doing things half-assedly or doing things you hate likely won’t get you anywhere.”

  8. I don’t see why you can’t do both.
    There’s a difference between getting better at something, and making impact. I think we all agree that before making impact one should at least have tried to become the best at something. In this process I feel one should explore many things, the more things you try the better. But try to search for patterns in the meanwhile and learn from them.
    Then when you decide you want to make an impact, focus real hard on the thing you want to accomplish, and agreed, you’re probably going to have to drop a lot of the other stuff you were trying out before.
    So, just do both.

  9. Or another way to put it would be not to be a dilettante about something that is important. In fact I will often use that word to describe my knowledge or ability in a particular area if I see someone getting overly interested that I have some experience in a subject I know really very little about.

    On a more humorous note, I was able to share this with my fiber artist friends who were just talking about the addictiveness of all of us with our “stash” of yarn and fiber or material if you are a quilter. They also happen to be extremely talented and very good at what they do in their spare time. So I’m sure this will relieve them a great deal. My next question to them was, so the bigger your Stash the better you are? (tongue and cheek of course!)

  10. where does it state that economics is not his passion or that he chose economics for dire reasons? there is an observation that it was “hard to…” move from chess to economics. this seems to be his personality trait since he likes focusing completely on 1 thing. consider his example with eating before meeting Obama. passion is very important for most people.

  11. Hi Cal,

    Great post! My husband and I were joking around just yesterday about his own “addiction.” By the age of 10, he knew he wanted to be an ornithologist. Now he’s a full professor and studies, you guessed it, birds. I kiddingly tell him he has an “orn” addiction when I find him studying his field guide. But his intense focus on what he’s passionate about has allowed him to have great success in his chosen field.

    Commenter James Ashenhurst makes a great point. I say that it can be a both-and kind of thing. If someone is really serious about the former (feel good, follow your passion, be the change you want to see) and care about making a real difference, then they have to be prepared for the latter (Focus hard on one thing, make real sacrifices, exclude people and things from your life, be a bit of a maniac).

    And thanks again for joining us on the GTD Virtual Study Group call recently. The episode is getting tons of positive feedback!

    With best wishes,

  12. What’s interesting to me about this line of thought is my own case. I did what Joseph Campbell urged me to do, “Follow my bliss.” I was in the IT business before making the move solar energy (essentially construction and business management.) I had not a single day of construction or management experience, but I now have a very successful solar contracting business. I guess the difference between the attitude of “if you just follow your passion everything will work out” and my approach is that I knew there was an enormous amount of hard work ahead of me. I also have that level of addiction that drives me to get better. So I wonder, is the problem really the message of “following your passion” or is it the assumption of a majority of people that following a passion will be a cake walk?

  13. I wonder why the unfocused ‘follow your passion’ mantra is so strong.

    Honestly, I think people tend to make a small logic slip here. The real statement they believe in is, “it’s good to be passionate about what you do.” The related statement, “follow your passion,” seems equivalent at first blush, but it’s really not.

    But how does this play with having a good life? It seems that one would not take advantage of the other parts of life (hobbies, free time to explore, etc).

    Hobbies are something else altogether and more or less irrelevant, in my mind, to mastering something valuable.

    I feel as if only I could be as interested in computer science as I was in chess it would immerse my life just the same as before.

    Keep in mind that your “passion” for chess must likely grew with your mastery. It stands to follow that similar feelings for comp sci will grow as you gain more competence.

    where does it state that economics is not his passion or that he chose economics for dire reasons?

    “Passion” is a meaningless word here. What matters is that his life is remarkable because he got good at something rare and valuable. This required him to focus.

  14. “Focus hard on one thing, make real sacrifices, exclude people and things from your life, be a bit of a maniac” has a much smaller target demographic.

    Love this sentence.

  15. How do you feel about successful professionals, such as Jacob from Early Retirement Extreme, who feel that it is a waste spending their lives impressing a handful of individuals who actually appreciate their work?

    Being good at something rare and valuable is indeed remarkable, but it does not make a remarkable life. We see again and again that such intense focus results in failures in other important areas of life (Tiger Woods). Have there been studies about the quality of life of those who hone their craft for hours on end?

  16. I am coming to understand but still struggle with this concept since early in my life I embraced (and still strongly believe in) the well-rounded / Renaissance Man ideal. I could not stand to be great at one or two things and not be broadly skilled and self reliant. It’s a curse and a blessing. Though I do have issues dedicating myself enough to something to truly excel- like I crave to do.

  17. Any advice for those of us approaching middle age who have not yet discovered something rare and valuable on which to focus? I feel like I have a lot of potential but did not grow up knowing what I wanted to be!

  18. Cal, you say ‘something rare and valuable’. Since remarkable could easily be implicitly about how people react to an achievement rather than anything inherent to the achievement, do you mean a common perception of ‘valuable’?

    Is there such a thing as a rare and non-valuable skill? Is valuable best understood in personal development and success as ‘a skill you’re good enough at to be one of the best at’?

  19. Cal,

    I think hobbies are actually important to mastering your craft. It’s important in two ways. For starters, in any given day, your time/energy is limited. If you expend it on hobbies, that’s less time/energy you have for your craft. It is a zero-sum game. But this doesn’t have to be all bad because the second way hobbies are important is through providing you a break to rejuvenate or to become inspired.

  20. The funny thing is, this line of thinking is only uncommon with unremarkable people. Even elite powerlifter Matt Kroc says in one of is articles,

    “Show me one great person who achieved balance at the time of their greatness. To be in the top 10% of anything requires a selfish, fanatical drive that most people will never understand, let alone possess.Maybe there’s someone somewhere who can be great at everything, but I haven’t seen it.”

    The question now is what does it take to develop that type of obsession? Does it come naturally after starting to results or what?

  21. Cal,
    I believe that following our passion, or what we think our passion may be, is the first step in finding a purposeful and fulfilling life. I think that things we enjoy doing or things that we have some innate skill in are good places to start. A natural talent for something can open some doors but before you travel very far on any path- personal work and effort are required. Often working in one area may lead to a whole different vision in another -before unknown to you – area of work and or learning. Do not begrudge the experience of putting major effort in one area that did not turn out to be “the one” because all that we learn and experience become part of who we are and this is the self we bring into the next “adventure” be it work or school.This “new” self will see things in a different light – and may well be able to bring new eyes and insights into this new area of life work. Human life expectancy has never been as long as it is today – and this new timeline for us as individuals means we may well have several different “seasons” of life work and interests. So yes, follow your bliss,but know that your interest in an area must be overtaken by a single minded, hard working passion, if you are to achieve any kind of excellence in any field. If your passion remains through the very boring but necessary learning of the nuts and bolts of any field (like playing musical scales)you will indeed succeed – but should your passion cool – do not waste time trying to manufacture enthusiasm – lift up your head and see where following this particular road has taken you to and look for the next path. I do believe that each of us has been gifted in many different areas- do not despair if you have not yet found your “rare and valuable something” yet – it may just around the next corner!

  22. Keep in mind that your “passion” for chess must likely grew with your mastery. It stands to follow that similar feelings for comp sci will grow as you gain more competence.

    I see what you mean. Turns out that from the moment I learned chess I was already able to beat all of my friends so I was not frustrated early on and was able to enjoy working on it, so it all makes sense now.

  23. Anything you want to do well requires focus and attention. But the “how” you get there is dependent upon a number of factors – belief, brain span, spiritual conditions. You can live the life you desire, that’s the airy part, but the magic of how it happens, some parts you can determine, but others are invisible to you. #truth

  24. @Dave McLeod
    I believe being able to identify tissue papers by smell or name all the actors of a movie for most of the movies accessible today are rare & non-valuable skills. One of them is even real.

    While value is relative, there is an agreed upon amount of value from most people in a society. There will be varying degrees of value between an individual and a group (which is why people would like to charge individuals what they want to pay for a good) but for the majority of people there is an agreed upon value for that skill (price that they end up charging).

    I may find it more valuable to study & master all of the mechanics of a particular field like game theory before I go further into economics, but that’s not an agreed upon value from everyone in the field or even outside of it. What makes anything valuable though is the utility of that item. As long as mine increased & it helps influence my overall contribution, does it matter what other people perceive the value to be?

  25. I agree with Dave McLeod (comment no. 10).

    I’ve always assumed the phrase “Follow your passion” meant that you should do what you truly care about and that you’re not so fickle to flip-flop from one passion to the next.

    Although there is plenty of anecdotal evidence to support the idea that “to be truly great you must be completely focused” (The ten-thousand hour rule [] or the idea that autistic savants are brilliant because they can _only_ focus on one thing at a time), I am more interested in polymaths: Renaissance Men (and women) who are jacks of all trades and also masters of all of them.

  26. A simple “follow your passion” is an EASY task. That’s why it’s been turned into a mantra. Most people have more than one passion, passions are enjoyable, and it’s easy to dabble in more than one. You can spend your whole life dabbling but never becoming very good at any one thing.

    It may be OK to teach a kid that to follow their passion, and that they can do anything they want – but it borders on child abuse not to teach them that they can’t do EVERYTHING they want. At least, not well enough to be any good at it or support themselves with it. Adults need to be more realistic with children, and each other, about how much hard work is required to get anywhere. I followed my passion and now I live well, with a great job, but in order to get here, I spent my entire twenties going to school full-time, living under the poverty line and refusing to get involved in serious relationships. I don’t know why people are surprised to hear that.

  27. I like many others don’t agree with what Rogoff decided to pursue,as he had a potential in Chess,he should have worked on it with advancing in Economics.
    I am unaware of the pressures and committment required for studying in Ivy league schools,addiction is always harmful and Rogoff should have pushed for a balance life rather than having a one-dimensional approach.
    I study business in an average school,in my spare time i do get hooked up with table-tennis,i do know that i suck at both,in the past year my performance has delibrately improved only because of the enthusiasm in both of the field.

  28. Even if giving up chess meant you could be better in economics, I would never give up my interests for something like that. I don’t think life would be as enjoyable that way.

  29. Cal,

    How do you reconcile this example with your profiles on Steve Martin, who’s received awards for both acting and banjo playing, or Alisa Weilerstein, who majored in Russian history in college rather than cello? It doesn’t seem like they’ve ever felt compelled to pare down the way Rogoff did.

  30. Speaking of obsession…this site has become obsessed with denigrating passion. The answer is always, “it won’t help you to master something valuable.” So what? Presumably, many of the people who aren’t neglecting their families and ruining their health in order to master something have decided that becoming the greatest chess player in the world isn’t actually the most important thing in life.

    Also, what’s valuable? Even the most successful scientists will soon be forgotten, many of their discoveries superseded and overwritten. Many of the greatest artists went to the grave before gaining any recognition for their accomplishments. Only a tiny few will make any impact whatsoever in their fields, and virtually all of them will be forgotten. They, and in not too long everyone they know, will die and dissolve into the earth.

    And the vast majority of humanity is not even in the running when it comes to making an impact. Most of what most people do for a living nowadays is worthless. Even more so for the more prestigious jobs – bankers, lawyers, and consultants are probably harming our society more than they are helping it.

  31. This is a good point, but I don’t think people should be gung-ho to apply it to their life right out. Being dedicated to something is important, and focusing your efforts on a singular goal can lead you to success a lot better than being spread thin can.

    However, I don’t think you should sacrifice everything in life just to be dedicated to one thing. Component lifestyles are good, and focusing on other things that make you happy, keep you healthy, or just help you destress is important as well.

  32. It seems like a good portion of people don’t necessarily agree with his decision to drop chess in favor of his economic studies. Rogoff’s chess playing was hardly a casual, Sunday afternoon “hobby.” He was at that level of playing when even maintaining skill level requires a greater focus, let alone to keep progressing.

    I understand why he refused to play casually, since it’s inevitable he wouldn’t be able to enjoy it at the same level as when he was fully immersed into the game. I’ve had to make a choice similar to Rogoff’s in an area of my life, and I find it much more enjoyable to perform at a higher level in one thing and completely immerse myself in it.

  33. Back in the day, a single-minded obsessions wasn’t the hallmark of excellence. See, for example: Leonardo da Vinci, Gallileo, Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, et al.

  34. Try having a single-minded obsession and raise kids. Not going to happen. You have to switch your focus away from the cello, or chess, or whatever and change those diapers. There is a whole other level of discipline when you have to raise a family. Some stuff you simply must do well even without passion.

  35. People have been mentioning Renaissance people and founders and great people in the past saying that they haven’t been single-minded individuals. However, I find this odd. Jefferson spent 20 years studying law before he wrote the Declaration of Independence & politics was his entire life. Sure he had a plantation, but it wasn’t any better than another and farming was a skill you learnt like math. He was a green thumb in the garden, but that’s because it was really his only interest outside politics & it was also his reprieve from politics & law. A few other things along the way, but they all stem from his singular focus of law analysis. The secret to his ability to apply his skills to other fields was the ability to read massive quantities of books about a topic & figure out how his skill set assimilated into it.

    Galileo was helping with Astronomy, but that was a field in Physics which was in Mathematics which was in Philosophy at that time. All those fields we recognize his skills in were fields that lack the breadth that we know today and were more tightly intertwined than we know. Without him, they’d probably still be tightly intertwined, but at least day we see them separately instead of as one. If you think about it, Philosophy was the question, Mathematics was the language, Physics was the mechanics, & Astronomy was the answer. Today that’s still true, but the distance between them is vast in comparison.

    Ben Franklin & Leonardo da Vinci are the closest to being polymaths like people are indicating, but you still see periods of intense focus on certain subjects during their lives and figuring out how they relate. Franklin wasn’t even a good craftsman but his own admission. He felt he was a good mediator and a tinkerer essentially. But excluding that, if you look at when his greatest accomplishments came, they were later in his life well after he had put in decades into them. American colonies? 70 years old at the time of Declaration. Theories on Electricity started in 1750 and were published in 1767 (& he owned a printer), that’s nearly 15 years after he was seriously proposing ideas with it. (He also quit his printing business nearly a decade before he started making scientific contributions as well.)

    Okay, so Leonardo? He was a math guy. Fortunately, at his time, that meant it crossed a lot of boundaries. His paintings are exercises in perspective and ratio maths. He studied anatomy because he felt there was a perfect ratio to the human body (Vitruvian Man) and invented many things on paper (very few things, he built). According to his notebooks we know he had ideas in Optics (a math field), hydrodynamics (physics), & civil engineering (physics).

    We pretend that these great thinkers & enlightened fellows had very wide scopes & reach into the many fields they’ve influenced, but we forget that the gap between those fields was smaller so their focus could be closer together while in various fields of interest. We also forget that these people were learning at advanced levels younger in life and that they had to voraciously devour information to get there. Many of them also had no outside lives beyond their work. Franklin would binge on mistresses when visiting France, but that’s the worst of it. The rest were very private, focused individuals who specialized in a particular field and then moved from within it to other peripheral fields. Besides the original article never said you couldn’t have more than one skill. The economist is still a chess master, he just took an extreme route to get to the same level as an economist in the course of time it took him to finish grad school. That’s not a lot of time if you’re doing 10,000 hours.

  36. Simultaneously, consider:

    Mike Moffatt considers the question:
    “What real world experiences should I have to be a good academic economist?”
    He answers:
    I’d say none. Academia, by necessity, is about focusing your concentrations on very isolated and unique problems. I’ve noticed the people who succeed in graduate school tend to have fewer outside interests to distract them from their focus, not more.
    A lot of economics professors I know would agree with this answer. Indeed, I have heard similar advice given many times. But I am inclined toward a different judgment.

    It all comes down to the definition of “good academic economist.” If your goal is to maximize the probability of winning a Nobel prize, or at least to climb up as high as you can on citation rankings, then this advice is correct. Real world experiences and outside interests are a distraction. Don’t take time off from academic pursuits for a job in public policy. Don’t ever work on Wall Street or do any consulting. Don’t engage in the broader societal debate by writing op-eds or working on political campaigns. All of that takes time away from getting papers published in academic journals.

    But don’t stop there. If you have this objective, then it is best not to have hobbies, or read novels, or go to the movies. Don’t spend time teaching well or mentoring students, except the very best students who can help you with your research. Don’t get married or have friends, unless your spouse and friends are PhD economists and can coauthor papers with you. Whatever you do, don’t have children–boy, are they a time sink! And if you make the mistake of having children, make sure you spend as little time with them as you can.

    In other words, if you want to be the best academic you can be, get ready to be a miserable human being.

    Alternatively, you might decide that, at the end of your life, Saint Peter will not judge you solely by checking the Social Science Citation Index. If so, maybe you should make life choices using a broader objective function–one that encourages you to sacrifice some degree of academic success narrowly construed for a more diverse, more satisfying, and more noble life. “

  37. There’s very little attention paid here to what makes things valuable – which makes sense, because this site is about the means. But I think it’s clear that the question is hard to avoid. An underlying problem for many people is that they are not sure what is valuable, or come to doubt their own views on the matter. The only easy answer, one that often lies in the background, is – the market. What’s valuable is whatever is defined as valuable by the market.

  38. Great post Cal. I like to think of this concept as letting go of the good to get to the great. We always have stuff we are or can be good at, but we must make a choice to not focus on many good things. We must focus on the one thing (or at most a few things) that we want to be great at, becoming completely obsessed, hard-core addicted to that idea. For us to be great, we must risk everything to get there. We must give up the good to reach the great. Thanks again for the great post

  39. For everything in life we will find that there are parts to each activity that we like less than the rest. In order to get past the disdain that you may have you need that passion, addiction or obsession to get you to what you really do like. It makes total sense and explains why people like Newton and Einstein were so successful. They both had the ability to maintain concentration on a single subject for an incredibly long amount of time. That could very well be the reason their names persist through history while others have faded into obscurity.

  40. This article was short and to the point. I like it. I’ve often found that people who become really good at something have sort of a sick obsesion with it. I don’t think this is limited to one thing though. I know many people who are just obsessive people. Whatever they decide to do they go 100% into it and always end up doing it better than anyone. Obviously if these people specialized in one thing they would become even more amazing at it but they don’t necessarily do that. Some people are just obsessed with being obsessed about things. I can’t call it a bad trait because the people I know who are like this are generally pretty happy successful people. I think though the fact rings true that people who are capable of bringing their attention to something to obsessive proportions are more likely to do great at those things.

  41. I always try to set goals with the lifestyle in mind.

    Do I want to be great at this and invest hours a day into it or am I okay being good at it and investing a few hours a week? Or sometimes even, am I just doing this to have fun? Then who cares how long I invest.

  42. Wow, this really hit home for me, I remember when I was going to school for architecture and I was also trying to learn how to trade forex. I made a cold hard decision and decided that if I dont just want to get by, I want to live, and I want to live on my terms. So I followed the path of trading, the first couple of years were the hardest especially when all your loved ones really didnt agree with my vision. The road was tough to build, but I paved it, and now 7 years later I am happy I made the decision. (Getting of topic A BIT) hehe but yeah the point is, because I burned the other boat and stayed focus on one thing (trading) it allowed me to really push myself and although it was tough and at times I wanted to give up, I still stayed focus, because I saw the possibility. Commitment plays a huge role, but that is a whole other sub-topic…


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