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Dangerous Ideas: People Respect Hard Work, But Idolize Magic

What Impresses You?Rock Star

Study Hack readers, I assume, are ambitious. They like the idea of staking a unique route through life, preferably one that impresses others. But what constitutes impressiveness?

Having spent the past seven years writing about young people whom most would agree, reflexively, fit the definition of “impressive” (whatever it is), I felt I was in an interesting position to hypothesize on the subject. In doing so, I derived a surprising conclusion. And I want to share it with you.

The Two Types of Accomplishments

If you do something hard I will give you my respect. If you build your blog to 5000 subscribers, I will acknowledge that you accomplished something hard. I will take you seriously. Ditto if you’re an excellent guitar player. Or, grew a solid business from nothing.

You will not, however, reach rock star status. You will not have groupies. People will not be magnetically drawn to you. Indeed, you will probably be the target of a some malcontented gossip: “he got lucky,” “he’s a grind,” “he’s too ambitious.” A failure might spark some schadenfreude among the more rock-hearted of your peers.

The same would not hold true if instead you won a Pulitzer Prize for your novel. Or, had your band become an underground hit in New York.

For some reason, these latter accomplishments will hit others as more pure. More natural. People might lob the word “genius” in your direction. (Something your successful blog is unlikely to elicit.) You may have groupies. People will tolerate your eccentricities. They’ll fight to be close.

Assuming this is true: Why? What is the difference here?

I Could Do That…But I Didn’t

Here’s my theory:

The first class of achievement is knowable. Someone can simulate roughly what it takes to become great at the guitar or build a blog. They believe, in the back of their mind, that given enough time and motivation, they too could replicate the feat. You are given respect for your dedication. But dedication reeks of the mundane, so this respect falls short of idolization.

The second class of achievement, on the other hand, has an aura of magic. It fits our national obsession with natural genius. It’s difficult to simulate writing a great novel or having that mojo that makes a band hot. People do not think they could do these things, even if given a lot of time. How you did it remains mysterious — like magic.

This also makes you less of a threat. You’re not drawing attention to their lack of dedication, but, instead, merely showing off a god-given talent that people can comfortably accept they do not possess.

(In social psych, this is called the genius effect. When someone is demonstrably more talented, it serves our self-esteem best to elevate their ability to grandiose, unobtainable levels.)

The Implication

The dirty secret of this game is that when you gain expertise within a given area, it soon becomes clear that the idea of pure genius begins to crumble. Left in the rubble: work.

Here at MIT, the 25-year-old prodigy professor who has an office on my floor works significantly longer hours than anyone else.

There’s a reason no one writes a great novel before the age of 27 — it takes around a decade of hard work to polish craft to a point where such a feat becomes a possibility.

Top rock bands craft a sounds for years. Those that succeed mix hard work with being in the right place with the right sound at the right time in music history.

The point: “magic” is not that much different than hard work. Sure, there is a lot of luck mixed in and it does require some natural talent, but typically not the Good Will Hunting style insta-genius that we like to mythologize. All things being equal, therefore, you should go after magic when the opportunity presents itself. The return on investment can be staggering. Or so I hear. I’m still working on my novel…

6 thoughts on “Dangerous Ideas: People Respect Hard Work, But Idolize Magic”

  1. An excellent article, which builds on something I recently realised myself (after starting the very enlightening practise of journaling).

    I always used to put off working on my essays until the last moment, largely because I didn’t yet feel as utterly inspired as I felt I needed for an excellent essay. Naturally this resulted in less good work; as I worked hard on an essay I would frequently discover sources of inspiration, but not before.

    The nice addage of exceptional work being 1% inspiration and 99% hard work sums up the point quite well for me.

    I hope that having largely demystified the process of writing a great essay for myself I will now be able to motivate myself to work more consistently, and let the magic grow from that.

  2. @Nick

    Thanks for the comment. This is a common problem with writers. You get so caught up in the idea of writing something great that you never start writing. In reality, of course, good writing comes from draft after draft of editing (plus experience).

    There’s a famous story of a young writer who hated Tom Wolfe, as he assumed he was just a genius who poured forth brilliant writing. Then, one day, he walked into the offices of Rolling Stone and saw Tom sweating over a type writer, looking pained, and realized that, yes, even for the best it wasn’t inspiration.

  3. Brilliant post.

    Your observation of what it takes to paw one’s way to “magic” is on-point.

    Far too often, people assume that to become great, they just need to imitate those who have achieved greatness.

    However, the “magic” that some many of us get to observe and admire is normally a result of a lifetime pursuit of passion, skill-accumulation, and practiced application.

    Thanks for your insight.

  4. You`ve got it right when it comes to the two types of accomplishments, excellent article overall.
    The thing is pure genius does exist, it is rare but nonetheless exists. Take for example the Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan (there are many more like him) who was according to the sources entirely self learned, he had no formal training and yet he came up with original and highly unconventional results by himself.

    To give a strong example of his genius; By age 11, he had exhausted the mathematical knowledge of two college students who were lodgers at his home. He was later lent a book on advanced trigonometry written by S. L. Loney. He completely mastered this book by the age of 13 and discovered sophisticated theorems on his own. By 14, he was receiving merit certificates and academic awards which continued throughout his school career and also assisted the school in the logistics of assigning its 1200 students to its 35-odd teachers. He completed mathematical exams in half the allotted time, and showed a familiarity with geometry and infinite series. Ramanujan was shown how to solve cubic equations in 1902 and he went on to find his own method to solve the quartic. The following year, not knowing that the quintic could not be solved by radicals, he tried to solve the quintic. This type of magic you speak of exists, I do agree with you that people idolize that and only respect hard work but outliers do exist. I am not elevating his abilities to these grandiose heights to serve my self-esteem, it`s just that he is that awesome.

    Surely even you must acknowledge that there exists these kinds of people for which we have no explanation of their so called genius?

    • Without doubt Ramanujan was a mathematical genius. But in your description you have to note the amazing amount of work that he put into his “craft”. Being self-taught is a strong indication that he was motivated (for whatever reasons – inspiration?) to put in the prodigious amount of effort. He didn’t just wake up one morning and scribble his proofs onto the back of an envelope.


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