Gladwell Gets Tough

This post has nothing to do with law or tech or academia. Via Kottke, and in an interview at ESPN.com (of all places), Malcolm Gladwell has some very wise things to say. This is stuff that doesn’t just apply to sports:

I really love writing, in a totally uncomplicated way. When I was in high school, I ran track and in the beginning I thought of training as a kind of necessary evil on the way to racing. But then, the more I ran, the more I realized that what I loved was running, and it didn’t much matter to me whether it came in the training form or the racing form. I feel the same way about writing. I’m happy writing anywhere and under any circumstances and in fact I’m now to the point where I’m suspicious of people who don’t love what they do in the same way. I was watching golf, before Christmas, and the announcer said of Phil Mickelson that the tournament was the first time he’d picked up a golf club in five weeks. Assuming that’s true, isn’t that profoundly weird? How can you be one of the top two or three golfers of your generation and go five weeks without doing the thing you love? Did Mickelson also not have sex with his wife for five weeks? Did he give up chocolate for five weeks? Is this some weird golfer’s version of Lent that I’m unaware of? They say that Wayne Gretzky, as a 2-year-old, would cry when the Saturday night hockey game on TV was over, because it seemed to him at that age unbearably sad that something he loved so much had to come to end, and I’ve always thought that was the simplest explanation for why Gretzky was Gretzky. And surely it’s the explanation as well for why Mickelson will never be Tiger Woods. . . .

The (short) answer is that it’s really risky to work hard, because then if you fail you can no longer say that you failed because you didn’t work hard. It’s a form of self-protection. I swear that’s why Mickelson has that almost absurdly calm demeanor. If he loses, he can always say: Well, I could have practiced more, and maybe next year I will and I’ll win then. When Tiger loses, what does he tell himself? He worked as hard as he possibly could. He prepared like no one else in the game and he still lost. That has to be devastating, and dealing with that kind of conclusion takes a very special and rare kind of resilience. Most of the psychological research on this is focused on why some kids don’t study for tests — which is a much more serious version of the same problem. If you get drunk the night before an exam instead of studying and you fail, then the problem is that you got drunk. If you do study and you fail, the problem is that you’re stupid — and stupid, for a student, is a death sentence. The point is that it is far more psychologically dangerous and difficult to prepare for a task than not to prepare. People think that Tiger is tougher than Mickelson because he works harder. Wrong: Tiger is tougher than Mickelson and because of that he works harder.

To me, this is what Peyton Manning’s problem is. He has the work habits and dedication and obsessiveness of Jordan and Tiger Woods. But he can’t deal with the accompanying preparation anxiety. The Manning face is the look of someone who has just faced up to a sobering fact: I am in complete control of this offense. I prepare for games like no other quarterback in the NFL. I am in the best shape of my life. I have done everything I can to succeed — and I’m losing. Ohmigod. I’m not that good. (Under the same circumstances, Ben Roethlisberger is thinking: maybe next time I stop after five beers). I don’t know if I’ve ever felt sorrier for someone than I did for Manning at the end of that Pittsburgh playoff game.

4 thoughts on “Gladwell Gets Tough

  1. Spot on, that. Gladwell squeezes more wisdom from the obvious than anybody deserves credit for. Darned if doesn’t come off all humble about it too.

  2. I love Gladwell’s writing; both The Tipping Point and Blink were awesome (must read) books, “however I don’t agree with this everyone has to be Tiger Woods stuff.” You can love what you do and not do it for five weeks. It is probably healthy. You do not need to be manic obsessive about it.

    Even famous people say stupid shit.

  3. And I think that Gladwell writes well, but that The Tipping Point and Blink offer much less then meets the eye. I think you mis-read what he says in the interview. The point is not that everyone has to be Tiger Woods, metaphorically speaking. The point is if you’re afraid to work hard, don’t be surprised or disappointed that you’re not Tiger. Be whoever you are, but find something that you love to do, and work hard at it.

  4. Gladwell squeezes more wisdom from the obvious than anybody deserves credit for.

    The Tipping Point and Blink offer much less then meets the eye.

    True and true. Seems like both statements shouldn’t be true at the same time, however. I love Gladwell. I’ve heard him described (accurately imo) as an “extravagant contrarian.” He has the dream job/career to my mind, i.e. writing about broad range of topics and ideas (as opposed to academics who are forced into extreme specialization and writing for a small audience of similarly trained experts).

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